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It’s HOT! Our Ancestors and the Weather

HeatWave

A frequent topic of conversation this summer is the weather. England is experiencing record-breaking temperatures. Heat-related fires are active in Europe. The temperature is in the three digits where I live, and you can believe me when I say I'm extremely thankful to live in a home with air conditioning.

The summer heat has me thinking about our ancestors who didn't have modern-day comforts. My paternal grandparents moved from Los Angeles County, California to a desert city near Palm Springs in the 1950s and didn't have air conditioning. My grandfather worked for the railroad. The railroad company, realizing the difficulty their employees would have getting any sleep in the heat, made available special sleeping containers dubbed "submarines." These were "a one-room dwelling made for sleeping. Wooden frame structures were covered with sheets of galvanized iron and then overlaid with burlap. Water was piped to the roof where it trickled onto the burlap and flowed down the sides, cooling the metal and cooling the interior by 15 to 20 degrees." [1]

How did the weather affect your ancestor? Did they work in extreme weather? Did they move because of their health and the impact of the weather?

Weather, hot or cold, in some cases, led to tragedies for our ancestors. Illness such as frostbite or heat stroke. Hurricanes or tornadoes could destroy your ancestor's homes or precipitate a move. 

Have you considered how the weather impacted your ancestral family? Historical weather information might be found in:

  • Local Histories
  • General Histories
  • Weather websites
  • Newspapers

Searching for information about the United States, the National Oceanic, and Atmospheric Administration hosts historical weather maps on their Central Library website that dates back to 1871. Maps may be downloaded as PDFs. The website says:

The U.S. Signal Office began publishing weather maps as the War Department Maps on 1 January 1871. When the meteorological activities of the Signal Corps were transferred to the newly-created Weather Bureau in 1891, the title of the weather map changed to the Department of Agriculture Weather Map. In 1913, the title became simply Daily Weather Map. In 1969, the Weather Bureau began publishing a weekly compilation of daily maps with the title Daily Weather Maps (Weekly series).

The earliest weather maps featured only a map of the continental U.S. with the day's air temperature, barometric pressure, wind velocity, and direction, and a general indication of the weather for various cities around the country plotted directly on the map.[2]

If you are researching a county outside of the United States, search the Internet for the name of the country and the phrase "weather map."

Googling the name of the state, province, or country you're researching with the word "weather" or "historical weather" may help you find websites and books. For example, the book The Pennsylvania Weather Book by Ben Gelber (Rutgers University Press, 2002) includes historical information on great storms and weather extremes for the state and individual cities. A more familiar book, The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin (Harper Perennial, 2005) traces five families who experienced a blizzard that killed 500 hundred people along the prairie.

Consult digitized books websites and periodical indexes for books and articles. Consider:

Everyday life and all that it brings negatively or positively impacted our ancestors' lives. The weather affected where they lived, worked, and their health. Look for weather data and reports in online resources and books to get an idea about your ancestor's everyday life.

[1] "History of the Coachella Valley," California State University, San Bernardino (https://www.csusb.edu/sites/default/files/Unit_3.3_History_of_CV_Curriculum_Guide.pdf: accessed 19 July 2022). Pg 80.

[2] "U.S. Daily Weather Maps," NOAA (https://library.noaa.gov/Collections/Digital-Collections/US-Daily-Weather-Maps: accessed 19 July 2022).

 

Gena Philibert-Ortega is an author, instructor, and researcher. She blogs at Gena's Genealogy and Food.Family.Ephemera. You can find her presentations on the Legacy Family Tree Webinars website.

Comments

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My father-in-law lost his mother at an early age and stayed for a time with a man who "lost his family in a flood." Doing some genealogy, I found his wife and son died in 1913 in Columbus, Ohio. It was the Great Flood of 1913 and impacted much of Ohio just after Easter. It destroyed their Franklinton home with a wall of water when a levee broke. Then I read a comment about a great great aunt on my side of the family in western Iowa who was impacted by the Easter tornado of Easter 1913 that especially hit Omaha. In researching it, I found it was the same storm system. Modern weather prediction tools were used with data from 1913 to back-cast the event.

My paternal grandparents met in NE Texas, an area known for heat and humidity (even if it wasn’t as humid as Kentucky, where my grandfather was born). They married in Denton County and almost immediately headed for Yuma Territory in 1902. Grandpa got a job for Kester and Kerr, a track repair company for the Southern Pacific Railroad. My grandmother, by now 16, cooked for the track crew in their traveling ‘house’ – a boxcar. I can’t even imagine living in a wooden boxcar, cooking on a wood-burning stove where it could easily have been 120 degrees with both doors wide open! But our weather story get better (??). My grandmother got pregnant, and they were still working for Kester and Kerr when she delivered my aunt (their oldest child) in that same boxcar!
I start to sweat just thinking about it!!

My paternal great great grandfather, Charles Ford, came to the US from County Leitrim, Ireland in 1865 with his wife and children. I found a New York Herald clip of August 23 1869 stating "SUDDEN DEATHS.-Charles Ford, of No. 180 Schole street, Eastern District, died suddenly of excessive heat on Saturday evening..." There was an inquest which determined that he "came to death by congestion of Brain". He had only been here 4 years.

My father was a weather forecaster for the government both in WWII and afterwards. As children, my siblings and I always relied on "Daddy's Forecast" over anything we heard or saw on radio or TV. He was faster with a slide rule (accurately!) than I am with a calculator. Often invited into classrooms as a guest speaker, he enjoyed explaining weather to students. The family archives contain the slide rule and the thesis he wrote on hurricane prediction when obtaining his master's degree from Texas A&M University in 1976 (complete with all those complicated weather maps!).

Thank you for sharing this information. I have some ancestors who were farmers and some who worked for the railroad

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