If a blizzard like the one we suffered last week has any value, probably that value lies in reminding us genealogists that weather disrupts people’s lives.
In other words, perhaps our ancestors sometimes did what they did because terrible wintry weather pushed them into it.
I’m not talking just about inconveniences or discomfort. I’m talking about meteorological conditions of cold and snow that destroy crops, ignite wars, bring poverty, cause deaths or send whole populations on the move.
As I’ve said many times before, a genealogist must also read history, particularly the history involving his or her ancestors in their home lands. When you do, you have a better chance of seeing why an ancestor left the farm, fought in a war or emigrated to America.
Here’s an example. From the 16th through the 19th centuries Europe was visited by a cooling trend that, according to Michael Mann in a study at the University of Virginia, had significant impact on the population.
Wrote Mann, “There are widespread reports of famine, disease and increased child mortality in Europe during the 17th-19th century that are probably related, at least in part, to colder temperatures and altered weather conditions.”
Note that this is an era of immigration from Europe to America.
History gives us additional examples of lowered temperature bringing change. One is the contraction of the Vikings’ settlements in the North Atlantic during that period, when northern countries became less habitable and their agriculture flagged.
Wars change boundaries, and sometimes those wars are themselves changed by bad weather. The most famous example is the beginning of the end of the French empire when Napoleon Bonaparte’s army was caught in and destroyed by the severe Russian winter of late 1812. Borders that had already been shifted ended up getting shifted again.
Closer to home, Northeastern Pennsylvania was part of a wide swath of cooling temperatures in 1816, known as “the year without a summer.” Much of the northern hemisphere endured crop-strangling temperatures that we now know were caused by the eruption of the Pinatubo volcano in Indonesia the year before. Sunlight was blocked by solid matter in the atmosphere, resulting in cold and even snow during the normally warm months.
How do you unlock the mysteries of historical weather?
Weather prediction barely existed in times past, and weather records can be sketchy. So a genealogist’s best bet is to read good history books about the times and places when and where ancestors lived. Historians who focus on the “why” of events can be a genealogist’s best friends.
Genealogical Society News: The Northeast Pennsylvania Genealogical Society Research Library is scheduled to be open the last two Thursdays of March, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. In case of inclement weather, check for closings at www.nepgs.com or go to the group’s Facebook page.
News Notes: Check out the Facebook page of the Genealogical Research Society of Northeastern Pennsylvania. They’ve got a fund-raiser coming up this week, and their spring flea market is not far off.
The Luzerne County Historical Society has scheduled a talk entitled “Stories of the Million Dollar Mile: Anecdotes Concerning the People and Architecture of River and Franklin Streets for the Past 250 Years.” Presenter is Matthew Schooley, president of the Forty Fort Cemetery Association. It’s set for 6:30 p.m. at the society’s museum, in back of the Osterhout Free Library, South Franklin Street in Wilkes-Barre. The talk is free for members, and $5 for non-members.
Tom Mooney is a Times Leader genealogy columnist. Reach him at [email protected]comments powered by Disqus