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 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.
Information about weather 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
Our retired colleagues, Constance Potter and Kenneth Heger, used to 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.
In addition to T907, other useful federal records are:
- National Archives Microfilm Publication M1379, Selected Documents from the Records of the Weather Bureau Relating to New Orleans, 1870-1912 (8 rolls)
- Weather Bureau Photographs
- U.S. Government publications in the U.S. Serial Set, which is available as a free database on public access computers at NARA facilities nationwide. In addition, many libraries may also have it available in an online database. Click here for more information about government documents.
- U.S. Government publications found online at
- U.S. Government publications in RG 287, Publications of the U.S. Government
- Records of other federal agencies with an interest in weather phenomena:
- Records of the Office of the Secretary of Agriculture, RG 16
- Records of the Hydrographic Office, RG 37
- Records of the U.S. Naval Observatory, RG 78
- Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, RG 111
- Records of the Office of the Surgeon General (Army), RG 112
- Records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, RG 370
- and others
Nonfederal sources of information include articles in newspapers in the area where your ancestors lived. For example, the Columbus, Ohio, Statesman of February 15, 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 with their losses ("house unroofed," "barn unroofed," "barn demolished," etc.) are mentioned. Local newspapers may be available on microfilm at local public libraries, or in online databases such as GenealogyBank.com and Newspapers.com.
May the sun always shine on your genealogical research!