Fire, Flood or Earthquake? 5 Tips for Researching Disasters in Your Family History

We have five strategies for researching disasters for family history. They come in response to a listener email about her own “disaster-prone family.” Use these tips to learn about natural or man-made disasters, epidemics, travel accidents, and more that affected your ancestors, and very possibly more about your ancestors role in these events.

View of Eastland taken from Fire Tug in river, showing the hull resting on it’s side on the river bottom. Wikimedia Commons image; click to view with full citation.

It might seem a little sad to search out disasters, epidemics, and accidents in the lives of your ancestors, but it certainly helps us see things in a different light. Genealogy Gems Editor Sunny Morton has shared recently how enthralling it has been for her to dig deeper into her ancestor’s experience of living through the Johnstown Flood. She used many of the tools I write about extensively in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox (Google Books, Google Earth Pro, and even YouTube) to add an amazing amount of meat to the bones of the story.

I also recently received an inspiring letter from Natalie, a Genealogy Gems Premium Member about how researching disasters in her family history turned her into a passionate genealogist. Here’s what she said:

“Dear Lisa and Company,

I just subscribed to your Premium podcast and must say that listening to Premium Podcast episode 143 affirmed that I made an excellent decision!

I also had family members who were in the Johnstown Flood, since that’s where my family initially immigrated. My parents and I were born there and [I] have heard of stories of the Great Flood of 1889 since I can remember. There was a long-standing family story about my 2nd great-aunt, Julia Pfeiffer Rohr, being pulled out of the floodwaters by her hair.

Ironically or not, my ancestors relocated to Chicago a few years after the Johnstown Flood, only to have my maternal grandmother’s sister (who was a few months away from her 19th birthday) killed while aboard the Eastland [steamship in 1915]. Not sure why some families are ‘disaster prone’ through the generations, but ours seems to be one of those.

I learned about the Eastland Disaster as an adult when my mother’s half-sister in Chicago wrote and shared a family history with me. As a Twin Cities journalist, I published an article (click here and go to page 5) in one of the community newspapers about the disaster.

Still, at the time, I found next to nothing on the Eastland, which was both frustrating and puzzling. [Since then,] I’ve done a ton of research on the event and have written larger pieces, including a to-be published book. I didn’t intend to become an expert on a shipping disaster, but that’s what happened. Also, this marked my entrance into the amazing world of family history.”

5 Tips for Researching Disasters in Family History

Learn more about the disasters your own family experienced with these 5 tips that I shared with Natalie in the Genealogy Gems Premium Podcast episode 145. Although these tips are for researching the Eastland disaster specifically, you can absolutely put them to work for you!

1. Start with Google. The world’s leading search engine, Google.com can lead to rich resources you may never find in a local library or archive. In the case of the Eastland disaster, a Google search immediately brought up a website dedicated to the event. The casualty list had everyone’s name, age, gender, marital status, ethnicity, and the cemetery in which they were buried.

2. Next, we go to Google Books, where Google takes you deeper and more specifically into historical books. Using the Eastland disaster as our criteria, the first result was a published final report by the American Red Cross’ disaster relief committee on what happened, and how the affected families were helped. Several published histories of the disaster were also listed there. These can be purchased, or you can find copies of them through inter-library loan at your local library. If you just want to see which books in the search results can be read for free, click the Tools button under the search box, and a new menu bar will pop up. Click Any books, then choose Free Google eBooks, like so:

Watch my free video tutorial on finding free e-books on Google. This video is one in a series of tech tip videos available for free at my YouTube channel. Click the Subscribe button while you’re there and you will be notified each time a new genealogy video is published.

3. Keep checking back! New things come online every moment of every day. In 2015, historical video footage about the Eastland disaster was discovered and identified in an online archive (see my blog post about that). But of course it’s impossible to rerun the same searches every day looking for new and updated material. The answer: set up a Google Alert for your search query. That way Google will do the searching for you, and you will receive an email only when Google finds new and updated items that match your search terms. Read my article on How to Set-up Google Alerts for step by step instructions on how to set up your own Google Alerts. Then read How to get the Most out of your Google Alerts for Genealogy.

4. Search YouTube separately. YouTube has several video clips of the Eastland disaster. The Chicago Tribune has wrapped that historical video clip into a short video documentary that includes additional photos their researchers discovered. You’ll also find an animation from the Eastland Disaster Historical Society that recreates what happened and how. Read chapter 14 in my book The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition which is devoted to using YouTube for your genealogy research.

5. Explore Gendisasters.com. This site compiles information on all kinds of tragedies from the past: tornadoes, fires, floods, and buggy-related disasters are just a small sampling of what they cover. You can search by type of disaster, but if you’re not quite sure how it might be filed (like was it a drowning or a ship disaster?), then search by year or place. I looked for Eastland disaster first under ship disasters, and I saw that events are listed alphabetically by place, specifically by city in most cases. There isn’t a way to jump easily to “Chicago,” so I had to scroll through several pages, but I did find it under Chicago, IL Steamer Eastland Disaster, July 1915. Since I already knew the city and date, I could have gotten to it faster by searching under those tabs, but I sure saw just how many events are cataloged at Gendisasters.com. It’s amazing!

Avoid Disaster with the Right Tools

Google Drive and other tipsLastly, some of the disasters you are researching may have a website dedicated to it. The Eastland disaster webpage has several interesting pictures of the ship and the disaster itself. There’s a nice long narrative about the tragedy and some transcribed newspaper articles, as well.

Researching disasters for family history can be exciting and enjoyable. The world wide web is truly like a time machine. See what other ways you can use Google for genealogy in my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox. Effective Google searches, Google Earth, Google Alerts, and Google Translate are just the tip of the iceberg! You will become a Google guru in no time.

Can Google Help Me Search Digitized Newspaper Pages?

my ancestor in the newspaper newsCan Google help you search digitized newspapers you find online? Recently I heard from Garth in Ontario, Canada with a question like that. Here’s what he asked and here’s what I told him:

“A friend found a digitized newspaper article by clicking on this link and going through various years–very time consuming! I’m thinking there has to be a better way with Google, but no luck. I think I have used most of your techniques from Genealogy Gems. Would appreciate any hints.”

genealogy gems podcast mailboxFirst of all, thanks to Garth for alerting us to an online local archive of Canadian newspapers, The Clarington Local Newspapers collection. I like making people aware of collections like this. Here’s what I told him:

If the website had text transcriptions of articles then Google would have easily been able to grab the phrase “Arthur Levi Brunt” off any page. The search would be “Arthur Levi Brunt”  or, even better, would be a site search, which would be formatted like this: site:http://vitacollections.ca/claringtonnews “Arthur Levi Brunt.” In Google site searches, you start with the word “site” with a colon, followed by the home page in which to search, followed by the exact phrase you want to search in quotes.

However, the Clarington Digital News website relies on its own built-in Optical Character Recognition (OCR) to spot and retrieve search terms on the digitized newspaper images. Google doesn’t have access to their OCR, and can’t apply OCR itself to images on the web (the pages on this site are images, not pdfs). So in this case, Google would not be able to locate the same article.

I did notice in looking at the Clarington News site that there is a search box, so your friend didn’t need to browse through the years looking for article on Arthur. Simply entering his name in site’s search box instantly brought up the relevant list in seconds. Here’s a link to that search, so you can see for yourself. Perhaps a few of the other newspaper articles found in that search will be of interest to your friend as well!

Genealogists Google Toolbox 2nd edition coverLearn more about Google search strategies (Google site search is just one!) in my newly-revised, hot off the press 2nd edition of The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, Second Edition. So many genealogy gems like these news articles are buried online: you just need to know how to harness the power of Google’s FREE tools to find them!

Two Mysterious Deaths in the Family! Time to Use Google for Genealogy

The mysterious deaths of a father and son present a perfect opportunity for using Google for genealogy.my ancestor in the newspaper news

Recently I heard from Lydia, who has just started listening to my podcasts. She asked a great question that Google can help answer:

“I have two relatives, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather, who died under conditions where an inquest was conducted. I wrote to the county clerk’s office in Joplin, MO. They were only able to send me the “bill” for both inquests, stating they had no other information. What I want to know, what they didn’t answer, was are they the ones to ask for the inquest report? If it still exists who would have it?”

She shared their names (both Esterline) and details about their deaths and I just couldn’t help myself: I had to Google them myself. There’s nothing like a couple of mysterious deaths–two generations in a row!–to pique my curiosity.

Here’s the path I took and take-home tips to offer anyone looking for genealogical records:

1) A Google search for: coroner’s inquest 1928 Missouri delivered the Coroner’s Inquest database at the Missouri Digital Heritage archive. From there, you discover that you can request copies of records by emailing the citation for the record you want to the Missouri State Archives at archref@sos.mo.gov. According to the instructions, “The record will be located, the number of pages counted, and you will be notified by email of the cost of the copies. Upon receipt of a check, the copies will be made and mailed to you. There may also be additional notations in the record about other locations where the files can be accessed.” Interestingly, when I searched for her two relatives, I didn’t find them, but there was a file for a woman with the same surname: Esterline. It’s worth seeing if she’s related somehow.

2) I was suspicious about no other Esterlines coming up in the database, so I tried a search in the Archives on Joplin and Jasper to see if other cases from that town or county come up in the results, and they don’t. Further digging reveals: “The Coroner’s Inquest Database project is ongoing; additional counties will be added to the database as completed.” However, it would be very worthwhile to contact them by email and inquire as to where this county is in the queue and where the physical files are now. Another result in that same Google search reveals which counties the Archive currently does have: includes Andrew, Cape Girardeau, Clinton, Cole, Greene, Pemiscot, Perry, St. Charles, St. Francois, St. Louis, and Stoddard (coverage varies by county).

3) After searching a single database on a website like Missouri Digital Heritage, I always look for a global search page, where I can search all databases on the site at once. Missouri Digital Heritage has one here. A search on Esterline brings up not only death certificates (which you probably already have) but city directory entries, newspapers and more.

4) I always recommend that genealogists get to know their record sources. Again, through my Google search I discovered The Laws of Missouri Relating to Inquests and Coroners (1945). This may provide some further insight. And the FamilySearch Wiki is always invaluable. Here’s the page on Missouri Vital Records and it states that “original records are available on microfilm at the Missouri State Archives.”

5) I pretty much always do a quick search specifically at Google Books since they have over 25 million books. I searched Ben Esterline and the first result was a listing in the Annual Report of the Bureau of the Mines (1932) (the year he died!): “FATAL ACCIDENTS— LEAD AND ZINC MINES Ben Esterline, prospector.” The book is not fully digitized in Google Books, but click “Libraries that have it” and you’ll be taken to the card catalog listing in WorldCat which will show you where you can obtain it.

Genealogists Google Toolbox 2nd edition coverI’m telling you, Google is the most powerful, flexible, furthest-reaching free genealogy search engine out there—and it’s right at our fingertips! But you do need to learn how to use it effectively, or you could find yourself wading through 87,400 results for an ancestor like “Ben Esterline.” Instead, learn the strategies I teach in The Google’s Genealogist Toolbox. This second edition–new in 2015–is fully updated and loaded with  techniques and examples on search strategies and tools that help you use Google for genealogy (and everything else in your life!). Click here to order your copy and you’ll start Google searching much smarter, much sooner.

More Gems on Google for Genealogy

7 Free Search Strategies Every Genealogist Should Use

Google Keyword Search Tips

How to Make Google Cache Pay Off in Your Genealogy Research

 

Ancestral Landmark Discovery Using Google Earth for Family History

google earth for family hsitory and genealogy landmark findThom learned how to use Google Earth for family history after watching my free Google Earth for Genealogy video, and then made a landmark discovery: his ancestors’ pond, business and a photo of his family at work.

This Using Google Earth for Family History success story was recently sent in by Thom, a young genealogist who blogs at The Millennial Genealogist. Be sure to click on the picture that goes with his story–it’s really neat.

Thom’s Google Earth Story

“I am writing to share with you a TOTAL (and entirely unexpected) success in using Google tools for my research.

By way of introduction, I am a young genealogist (age 21) from Massachusetts. I recently discovered your podcast and have been working through the archived episodes on my daily 1.5 hour commute.

I watched your Google Earth presentation last weekend, and had some time to try your tips out after work today.

My family has strong roots in North Attleboro, Bristol County, Massachusetts. So I decided that my first task would be to find a good historical map to overlay. A quick Google search yielded a 1943 USGS map of the greater Attleboro area on the University of New Hampshire website. Some quick adjustments left me with this great result:

attleboro map overlay google earth for family history

My curiosity having been piqued, I began exploring the map. I know that two sets of my second-great-grandparents, Bert Barrett and Grace Freeman, and James Adams and Elizabeth Todd, all lived near Oldtown Church (presently the First Congregational Church). I zoomed in:

Attleboro topo map google earth for family hsitory

Looking at Google’s current street names, Oldtown Church is right by the intersection of Mt. Hope and Old Post (you’ll note the small cross). Now keep following Mt. Hope Street – do you see what I see? Todd’s Pond! I just knew this couldn’t be a coincidence. So I went straight to Google again:

attleboro google search
And the very first result, a page within a Google Book on the history of North Attleboro, was astonishing:

“In the days before electric refrigeration, North Attleborough’s homes and stores relied upon ice harvested from either Whiting’s Pond or Todd’s Pond (depicted here).

By the time this 1906 photograph was taken, farmers George, Henry, James, and William Todd found selling ice more profitable than farming and founded the Oldham Ice Co.

Todd’s Pond was located on the westerly side of Old Post Road near the corner of Allen Avenue. The Oldtown Church is visible in the background.”

From North Attleborough by Bob Lanpher, Dorothea Donnelly and George Cunningham (Images of America series, Arcadia; click here to see the picture that goes with this photo, along with other pictures he found with a follow-up visit to the area.)”

Mentioned by name are great-great-grandmother Elizabeth’s four brothers, George, Henry, James, and William Todd. What a spectacular find!

I plan to reach out to the local museum that prepared the book to see if they can provide a better copy, and even additional media should I be so fortunate.

In short, I wanted to take a moment to say THANK YOU so very much! Had I not been exploring Google Earth at your suggestion, I’m not sure if I ever would have ever noticed “Todd’s Pond.”

The Power of Google Used for Genealogy

I hope you are using Google Earth for family history! Paired with Google Books and the rest of rest of Google’s genealogy tool box, it can help you unearth fascinating facts about your family history.

Here’s an image I found (using Google Images) that shows the process of harvesting ice, a profession long gone with the age of modern refrigeration.

The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the "uptown trade" to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper's Weekly, 30 August 1884. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.

The ice trade around New York; from top: ice houses on the Hudson River; ice barges being towed to New York; barges being unloaded; ocean steamship being supplied; ice being weighed; small customers being sold ice; the “uptown trade” to wealthier customers; an ice cellar being filled; by F. Ray, Harper’s Weekly, 30 August 1884. Public domain image, Wikimedia Commons. Click to view.

Resources for Using Google Earth for Family History

In my book, The Genealogist’s Google Toolbox, I’ll teach you how to use Google Earth for family history, along with Google Books, Google Images and more. 

My Google Earth for Genealogy video tutorial series will then round out your education.

Both are packed with step-by-step instructions and examples from my own family history research to inspire you. Google and all its powerful tools are FREE. Why not invest some time in learning to harness its power?

More Google Earth for Family History Success Stories

Click below to read more Genealogy Gems articles on how you can use Google Earth for your family history research:

Alvie Discovers His Unknown Childhood Home: 4 Steps for Using Google Earth for Genealogy

Was This My Ancestor’s Neighborhood?

Have you had success using any of these techniques? Please leave a comment below. 

 

Pin It on Pinterest

MENU