Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, January 18, 2016

Disasters and Genealogy

Johnstown Flood
In this post, I am concentrating on disasters of the natural or man-made variety. I will refrain from addressing family trees and records that are a disasters for other reasons.

All in all, I see very few references to natural disasters (or man-made ones for that matter) in the genealogical writings. In the few references that exist, the writers (even me) are usually bemoaning the loss of "important historical and genealogical records" rather than the loss of our ancestors themselves. Disasters, natural or otherwise, can explain the sudden disappearance of an ancestor or our inability to find a death record. It is true that some disasters destroy quantities of valuable records, but a disaster may have a huge impact on a family and not be recorded at all. It would be impractical to begin listing all the disasters that have occurred, but the lack of mention by genealogists point out the sad lack of general history knowledge among genealogists as a whole. This lack of historical awareness merely reflects the lack of such knowledge among those in the general population.

For example, one of my ancestral families left Ireland between 1833 and 1836. You might immediately attribute their emigration to the Irish Potato Famine (the Great Famine or an Gorta Mór). But the dates for the Great Famine are from 1845 to 1852.  However, from reading a little more history, you may discover that the situation in Ireland from 1801 when the Acts of Union were enacted until 1845 were described by 114 commissions and 61 special committees as follows and as quoted in the following book.

Woodham Smith, Cecil. The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

The book states that:
"without exception their findings prophesied disaster; Ireland was on the verge of starvation, her population rapidly increasing, three-quarters of her labourers unemployed, housing conditions appalling and the standard of living unbelievably low."
Is it any wonder that my ancestors left Ireland for Canada when they did?

Many of us are likely vaguely aware of such disasters as the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 or the Chicago Fire of 1871, but how many other disasters may have impacted your ancestors? For example, the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900 killed between 6,000 and 12,000 people. Genealogists are probably even less aware of disasters that occurred outside of the country where they live. Even a disaster with far fewer fatalities than the Galveston Hurricane could have killed your ancestor or relative.

The cure for this situation is fairly simple. Genealogists need to become adequate historians. They need to be aware of the major events that influenced their ancestors. Here is a list of books to get you started.

Barnard, Bryn. Dangerous Planet: Natural Disasters That Changed History. New York: Crown Publishers, 2003.
Biel, Steven. American Disasters. New York: New York University Press, 2001.
Forty, Sandra. Disasters. Hoo: Grange, 2005.
Garrison, Webb B. Disasters That Made History. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1973.
Genzmer, Herbert, Sybille Kershner, and Christian Schütz. Great Disasters in History. Bath; New York: Parragon, 2007.
History Channel (Television network), New Video Group, and Arts and Entertainment Network. Engineering Disasters. New York: A & E Television Networks : Distributed by New Video, 2008.
King, Jonathan. Great Disasters in Australian History. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013.
Kozák, Jan, and Vladimír Čermák. The Illustrated History of Natural Disasters. Dordrecht; London: Springer, 2010.
Major Disasters. Mankato, Minn.: Creative Education, 1997.
Svensen, Henrik. The end is nigh: a history of natural disasters. London: Reaktion, 2009.


  1. Great advice, James. In addition to "natural" disasters such as floods and blizzards, the history of epidemic diseases should be explored (e.g., scores of thousands of Civil War soldiers contracted malaria during their service, which was a lifelong affliction).

    A common misconception is about the Johnstown Flood of 1889. To be sure, a burst dam resulted in destruction of the town and much loss of life, but this was the result of a huge storm that flooded most of the west half of Pennsylvania. Many useful records, such as much of those of Lycoming County, were destroyed or badly damaged by this flooding.

  2. I love your second sentence! and totally agree!