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

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Did your ancestor die of the Spanish Flu?

Soldiers from Fort Riley, Kansas, ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward at Camp Funston
I began reading a book entitled, "Pale rider: the spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world" by Laura Spinney and published in 2018. One statement made in the book caught my attention. The author pointed out that if you were to ask someone today about the most serious catastrophe of the 20th Century, you would probably get a response about World War I or World War II. The Spanish Flu pandemic of 1917-1918 has generally passed from our collective knowledge. But the reality is that the Spanish Flu pandemic infected an estimated 500 million people, about one-third of the population of the entire world and killed 20 to 30 million people, more than the two world wars combined. It also killed about 675,000 Americans, more than the entire Civil War.

It would be unusual that the Spanish Flu pandemic did not affect your ancestral family no matter where they lived in the world. For example, I did a search on for records of people who died in 1918 with my surname. I found 217,637 entries. Of course, I could not tell how many of these people died from the flu. So I went to and did the same type of search. Once again, I got a huge number, this time over 1,196,000 entries. I got even more entries with a search on So, we know a lot of people died, but finding out if they died of Spanish Flu can be quite a challenge.

The main reason for this challenge is that the medical community did not know, in many cases, the exact cause of death and in many other cases, the cause of death is not reported. What is known is that when people disappear from the records in about 1918, there is likely a connection with the pandemic. This is particularly true when you see multiple deaths in the same family in this same time period. These types of events, wars, pandemics, natural disasters, etc., cause discontinuities in family records and in the records of entire communities.

As I have written recently, a lack of historical perspective about the times and places our ancestors lived is a serious impediment to our accuracy and completeness in doing genealogical research. Maybe it is time to take a few history classes or read some books about the history of the places and time where and when your family lived.


  1. Not a direct ancestor, but a great-uncle, yes. A few years ago my mother and I had a project of going through as many pertinent, searchable, digitized newspaper collections as we could find. One of us ran across this:

    “Two Young Cousins Dead of Influenza.” The Ogden Standard [Ogden, Utah] 1 Jan. 1919:10.

    “Mount Pleasant, Dec. 31 - The entire community is today grieving over the death of two cousins, Usher Morgan Winters and Grant Seely, both of whom died from pneumonia following a week’s illness from Spanish Influenza.

    “Usher Morgan Winters, aged 25 was the only child of Morgan and Lydia Tebbo Winters. He was born in Mount Pleasant, where he received his education, being graduated from the Wasatch academy in 1913 and from the University of Utah in 1914. He taught school for a year or two, but lately had been an employee of the J.C. Penney company. He was married four years ago to Miss Vern Seely, the youngest daughter of former State Senator and Mrs. John H. Seely and she, with a little son and daughter, and his parents, survive him. His widow and his mother are at present very ill with the same malady.

    “Grant Seely, 21 years old, was the son of Mr. and Mrs Joseph N. Seely, formerly of Chester, Idaho, and the family had recently come here to live, their childhood home. He is survived by a young widow, his parents, one sister and three brothers.

    “The two young men were cousins and were both nephews of City Physician Dr. W. P. Winters, who had exercised heroic efforts and all medical skill in order to stop the ravages of the dread disease.”

    This project turned up some amazing information and made me realize what a treasure trove newspapers, in particular small town newspapers that reported absolutely everything, are. The front page gives all the historical context one could want and the inner local stories let you know that “Mr. C. C. Collett and Albert Anderton has [sic] been putting up ice this week for their summer ice.” (The Roosevelt Standard [Roosevelt, Utah] 8 Feb. 1922:5.) (That was the complete article.)

    With the advent of collections of indexed obituaries, my advice to anyone would be that when people find an indexed death death date from one of these collections, don’t stop there. Try to find a digitized copy of the entire newspaper and read every page.

  2. I guess it depends on your metric for determining what is meant by "greatest catastrophe". Number of lives lost might not be the sole metric that should be used to determine that.

    World War I might be the greatest catastrophe because it, among other things, directly led to World War II and Hitler, caused the collapse of several empires and the rise of the USSR, which led to Stalin and his pogroms. And the instability set in motion by that war is still be felt even now.

    By contrast, the ripples in the pond caused by the pandemic "rock" seem to have largely dissipated.

  3. I have a ggg-grandfather who almost certainly died of the 1918 Pandemic. He was James John Potter, aged 71 years old.