This is the first of a series of suggested resources that go beyond names and dates and help us discover what life was really like for our ancestors.

If you have researched your family for a while, chances are you’ve collected birth, death, marriage, land, military or immigration records. You have numerous dates, locations, forms and files but have you gotten to the heart of what life was like for your ancestors? The richest genealogies incorporate the real nitty-gritty details of life in the towns our ancestors lived in.

Recall the devastating images of the aftermath of Joplin’s tornado or of hurricane Katrina. Those events were life-altering – houses lost, history lost, lives lost. The people of New Orléans and Joplin will likely be talking about the day of those terrible storms for the rest of their lives.

Coal Creek, Tennessee Mining Accident

Coal Creek, Tennessee Mining Accident – 1902
Photo credit Gendisasters

It’s sometimes easy to forget that the generations before us faced their own disasters. Chances are most Americans haven’t a clue that a massive earthquake toppled large parts of Charleston, South Carolina in 1886, claiming between 60 and 110 lives, that in 1883 a tornado destroyed 300 houses and damaged 200 more in Rochester, Minnesota, in 1902 in Coal Creek, Tennessee, a mine explosion killed 175 men, none survived or that the entire town of Gilman’s Depot, New York burned to the ground in May 1884. Each of these disasters was a life altering event and in some cases, defining moment, for the people who had the misfortune of being in the disaster’s sphere of destruction.

Learning about devastating events like these can tell us a great deal about the lives of our ancestors. Perhaps your great, great, great-grandfather (like mine) traded his farm and moved from Money Creek, Minnesota to Centralia, Washington, not because he hoped to enter into the forestry or coal mining business, but because in a period of six months his crops were destroyed by locusts, his children became sick with diphtheria and his house burned down. Or perhaps you had family that lived in Johnstown, Pennsylvania during one of the greatest floods in American history. Or maybe a distant cousin even survived the Great Boston Molasses Flood of 1919. Events like these brought families together, split them apart, caused some to take root and rebuild their lives and towns, others to flee and resettle – irrevocably changing the existence of those who were there, and by extension, all their descendants.

Johnstown, Pennsylvania flood – 1889
Photo credit Gendisasters

One of the greatest resources I have found for genealogy research is Gendisasters, a website dedicated to educating people about “the events that touched our ancestor’s lives”. The site allows you to search by state, type of event (tornadoes, train wrecks, floods, fires, earthquakes, you name it) or keyword so it is an incredibly fast and easy way to find information on the towns your ancestors lived in. In minutes I located newspaper articles about the Fredonia School fire that killed one adult and six young female students, including one of my ancestors, the 1887 tornado in Mount Carmel, Illinois that destroyed most of the town and likely left a lasting impression on my great, great-grandmother who was a child at the time, and the great Seattle fire that was blazing the night my family arrived after their long journey from Missouri, forcing them to take refuge in the home of a stranger for the night.

One aspect of tragedies like these, which creates a boon for genealogists, is that they generate a massive paper trail with clues for you to find out more about your ancestors. Often these stories would be picked up in papers across the country and each one might have a slightly different variation and new information. For instance, a newspaper article in the town where the event occurred might not mention a particular individual but the neighboring town or the next large city might include an interview of a relative or detail the losses of that person. You can use the dates and locations of disasters to search other resources such as www.newspaperarchive.com or www.chroniclingamerica.loc.gov, an impressive collection of digital newspaper images held by the Library of Congress.

Tornado – Rochester, Minnesotta 1883
Photo credit Gendisasters

Genealogy should be more than just learning names and dates. Fortunately, with the amazing information resources we have at our finger tips, we can piece together a virtually complete picture of what our ancestor’s did, thought, and experienced as they went through their day-to-day lives.