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The Daily Genealogist: Disasters & Our Ancestors

(A Note from the Editor) Permanent link
Betlock Lynn

Lynn Betlock

Last week’s article about how disasters may have affected our ancestors prompted a number of reader emails. Below is a selection:

John D. Tew of Purcellville, Virginia: Even before the frequent mention this past week of the infamous hurricane of September 1938, I knew about that storm from family stories. Like Sandy, that hurricane occurred during a full moon and a higher tide than usual because of the autumnal equinox. The storm roared up Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay, wreaking havoc and taking lives as it went. The Bay caused a funneling effect and the surge rose to sixteen feet above normal tides, and more than thirteen feet of water was left in some parts of downtown Providence. More than 600 people were killed. When I was a pre-teen I often looked at my grandmother's special edition photo magazine that showed the utter destruction that occurred in Providence, elsewhere in Rhode Island, other parts of New England, and Long Island. My father was sixteen at the time and his parents were out of town when the storm arrived. He came home from school and when he couldn’t find his younger brother he went out into gale force winds to find him. He had the foresight to put on a football helmet before he left and it gave some protection from flying debris. He finally found his brother at a friend's home playing in the cellar, completely oblivious to the danger raging outside. My father grabbed his brother and, without wasting time for explanation, almost dragged him home.

LaBeth Hayden Pondish of Prescott Valley, Arizona: As a native of Texas City, I have been aware of the 1947 explosion from my early childhood. I was three and a half years old and living two miles from the explosion when it occurred, and the concussion of the explosion and the black smoke filling the skies are my earliest childhood memories. My father, L. M. Hayden, who passed away last year at the age of 96, had vivid memories of helping to pick up bodies and body parts after the explosion. His story is published in the memorial volume, We Were There: A Collection of the Personal Stories of Survivors of the 1947 Ship Explosions in Texas City, Texas. When I was growing up, most people who had survived the explosion spoke about it very little. When I attended the fiftieth anniversary observation in 1997, I found it gratifying to find that these people became celebrated eyewitnesses who were given a chance to tell their stories to an appreciative audience.

DeAnna B. Jernigan of Alabama: I am surprised you didn't mention "the year with no summer" (1816) which prompted many in New England to leave for the Northwest Territory and other places west. My own Chase ancestors left Maine for Ohio after that disaster.

Grant Hayter-Menzies of Sidney, British Columbia: The only family disaster story that comes to my mind is that of my great-great-grand uncle Peter Walker. Described as a gambler by the more severe members of his Scottish family, he was the first of my Scottish relatives to come to California, to invest in oil wells. He happened to be in San Francisco, sleeping in his hotel room, when the 1906 earthquake struck. He later remembered coming to on the street — the hotel was a shambles — and just began walking, he didn't know where, surrounded by fire and smoke and mayhem. It was then he realized that exactly half his clothes had been torn off. I wish we knew more about his adventures.

Mary Gilchrist of Solon, Iowa: Your survey about ancestral experiences with natural disasters caused me to check most of the boxes. I have actively sought natural disasters and astrophysical phenomena to add color to thumbnail sketches of ancestors. One of my ancestors lived through the infamous hurricane in Galveston in 1900 by having the entire family lean on the door while the water washed through the crack underneath. Another moved to Tennessee from South Carolina in 1833, "the year the meteorites fell," and that knowledge inspired me to learn that the November Leonid meteor showers were spectacular in 1833, 1866, and 1900. Although meteor showers were not disasters, the populace was afraid that the world was coming to an end because it was so light and there were so many flashes and fireballs. And some of my ancestors’ relatives were killed in tornados with some pretty extraordinary stories. I also have speculated about the experiences ancestors must have had living in places and times where I know disasters occurred. These include Iowa County, Iowa, where a huge meteorite struck in the 1870s and southwestern Ohio in 1812, at the time of the New Madrid earthquake. I urge other genealogists to examine locations and dates to find out what disasters their ancestors might have experienced. I speculate that my ancestors had resilience because of their trials and tribulations.


Posted by Jean Powers at 11/09/2012 10:19:29 AM | 

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