The Weather Bureau and Genealogy

As the National Capital region continues to dig out from two feet (or thereabouts) of snow, it’s a good time to reflect on the genealogical uses of Record Group 27, Records of the Weather Bureau.

Our farm family ancestors kept close watch of the weather and it certainly affected their economic well-being much more than it does us city dwellers. Today, only 2% of the U.S. population are farm families; in 1790, they comprised at least 90%.

While the Weather Bureau was not established until 1890, the federal government’s interest in collecting weather information dates back to the 1810s, when army hospital, post, and regimental surgeons were directed to keep diaries of the weather. These duties were transferred in 1870 to officers reporting to the Chief Signal Officer. Meanwhile, from 1847 to 1870, the Smithsonian Institution also collected data from voluntary observers throughout the country. All of these observations are available on National Archives Microfilm Publication T907, Climatological Records of the Weather Bureau, 1819-1892 (562 rolls), which is not online.

This can be useful background information that puts flesh on the bones of those ancestors. What was the weather like on the day your ancestor was born? Married? Died? Or at some other point his or her life? You may not find an answer for your precise location, but a nearby one might be close enough. One of my grandfathers was born in November 1888, but his birth was not recorded until the spring of 1889. One suspects weather had something to do with it – even though the winter of 1888-89 was not as epic as that of January-March 1888.

My retired colleagues, Constance Potter and Kenneth Heger, used to jointly give a lecture called “Stormy Weather” that was all about the genealogical uses of weather information from federal records. Connie presents some of that information in De Smet, Dakota Territory, Little Town in the National Archives, Part 2.

The year 1816 was known as “1800 and Froze to Death” (as well as “The Year without any Summer” and other appellations). It was a year when there was frost or snow in nearly every month, and farmers planted crops two and three times only to see them die. Many farm families from the northern United States moved west in 1817 in hopes of a better future.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands from New Orleans, Louisiana, with many never to return.

Weather matters.

In addition to T907, other useful federal records include:

Nonfederal sources of information include articles in newspapers in the area where your ancestors lived. For example, the Columbus, Ohio, Statesman of 15 February 1842 reprinted a news item from the Cleveland Herald that described a “Terrible Tornado” in Mayfield, Cuyahoga County, Ohio, and Kirtland, Lake County, Ohio, that caused considerable damage. More than 30 people are mentioned, along with their losses (“house unroofed,” “barn unroofed,” “barn demolished,” etc.).

Image: Flooding from Hurricane Katrina, 13 September 2005. NAID 7961819, from Record Group 48, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

War Labor Policies Board, 1918-1919

It seemed fitting to start the “Anti-Obscurant” series at the beginning….

Record Group 1, Records of the War Labor Policies Board, 1918-19, is about as obscure as one can get. This temporary World War I agency has the distinction of being Record Group 1 because its records were the first records received by the National Archives in the mid-1930s. The records measure a mere 12 cubic feet, and there are only 7 record series.

The Board was established by the Secretary of Labor on 13 May 1918. It was composed of representatives of the Labor, War, Navy, and Agriculture Departments; the War Industries Board; the U.S. Shipping Board; the Emergency Fleet Corporation; the Railroad, Food, and Fuel Administrations; and the Committee on Public Information. It was abolished in March 1919.

The Board formulated uniform policies for war labor administration, and promoted better housing conditions for war workers. After the Armistice, it considered proposals for canceling government contracts and for demobilization, and made studies of domestic and foreign wartime labor conditions and of labor policies relating to immediate postwar conditions in the United States.

After reading through the descriptions of the agency’s record series, it’s fairly clear that the Board’s records would most interest labor historians, World War I historians, and persons researching Chairman Felix Frankfurter, Executive Secretary George L. Bell, business adviser Herbert F. Perkins, economic expert Walton H. Hamilton, and staff member Helen Bary, who created two of the series.

Record Group 1 is clearly not a useful record group for genealogists—unless your ancestor was involved with the Board, in which case you may learn more than you wanted about the Board’s concerns during its 10-month existence.

This link will take you to description of the records in NARA’s online catalog.

Obscure people and records

Barbara Vines Little, editor of the Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, introduces the current issue (Vol. 53, No. 4, November 2015) with her message, “On the Trail of the Obscure.” She says that “Readers will find this issue replete with the types of records best suited to following the tracks of people who often leave little trace of their presence in a given area.” For researchers seeking hard-to-locate individuals from the late 1700s, the various rent rolls, store ledgers, personal property tax lists, and military clothing accounts published therein may indeed provide vital clues and links.

Obscurity works both ways. Not only do the records contain obscure individuals, the records themselves are obscure–records that the average genealogist with Virginia roots is unlikely to know about. The Virginia Genealogical Society serves the genealogical community well in making unusual records more accessible through its publications.

“Not well known” is one of several definitions of “obscure.” A related word is “obscurant.” As a noun, it’s a person who strives to prevent the increase and spread of knowledge, or, a person who obscures. As an adjective, it means tending to make obscure.

There are so many obscure records in the National Archives that are worthy of greater attention by researchers. Thus, I am launching a periodic series of Anti-Obscurant posts to shed light on some of the many obscure Federal records held by the National Archives and Records Administration. It should be educational for us all.