52 Ancestors Week 9: Disaster

+13 votes

Time for the next 52 Ancestors challenge!

52 Photos and 52 Ancestors sharing bacgesPlease share with us a profile of an ancestor or relative who matches this week's theme:


From Amy Johnson Crow: Our ancestors faced any number of disasters — natural, personal, financial. Perhaps you've had a disaster in your research. How did they (or you) overcome it? (Or maybe they didn't?)

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You don't need to share every week to participate, but those who do will earn badges. If this is your first time participating and you don't have the participation badge, or if you pass a milestone (13 shared profiles in 13 weeks, 26 in 26, or 52 in 52) let us know here. For more about the challenge, click here.

in The Tree House by Eowyn Langholf G2G Astronaut (1.5m points)
edited by Eowyn Langholf

54 Answers

+19 votes

As a child my grandmother Pearl McCleery Lovelace, who had several tragic things happen in her life, would often talk about the two times her home had burned to the ground. The main one she would talk about as a disaster in her life was Thanksgiving of 1901. She was 14, and her family ran from their burning home. They lost everything they had, and her mother died that next winter. This is a photo of her holding her cat that was taken about 1899.

by Alexis Nelson G2G6 Pilot (166k points)
Beautiful home.   I'll bet many people didn't have insurance in that era.   Thanks for posting.
Peggy, thank you for your sweet comment. Yes, I guess most farm people lost everything in fires. There was insurance, but probably mainly people in cities had it. They rebuilt a much smaller house that I have photos of, but it was not anything like this house. She, her father, and two younger brothers moved to a small farm house in Morris, Oklahoma in 1906.
What a awesome house Alexis how very sad it burns down.

I can imagine how terrible it is to loose your home and things.

What a sad story
Susan, you always have such understanding comments. My grandmother was afraid of fires after this, and she would turn off the gas heat at night, so she and I would sleep together under heavy blankets.
+15 votes
Wars, pestilence, famine, and ill fate.  My ancestors (and yours) have been through it all.  The ancestor I want to highlight is Nancy Clark, of Ballymoney Antrim Ireland.    (Clark-25812)

She lived through one of the greatest disasters of the last two centuries.  The Irish potato famine.  All around her, people were starving, ill, dying, leaving Ireland forever, and leaving many of the neighborhoods as ghost towns.  She was a single mother with one daughter and no visible means of support during this crisis. How could she keep them both alive?  Like Sophie's Choice, she had to make a decision, knowing anything she did would be heartbreaking.  She sent her daughter to Canada at age 11, hoping the child would do better there.

The child survived and was my GGGM. She never saw her Irish family again, but she did get some letters and knew what happened to Nancy.

Several years after sacrificing her oldest daughter, Nancy married a man who kept a shop in Ballymoney (Whiskey Hill?).  They never owned property.  She had three or four more children with Parkhill.  Her husband and one daughter died in an epidemic. Nancy's name can be found on the Outdoor Relief rolls.  This is like welfare, and not quite as bad as the poor house.  it was the Irish government keeping people alive.  One of her younger daughters worked in the mill, had at least one illegitimate child, which died very young, and she herself died in the poorhouse.  One child, a son, survived.  There appears to have been another daughter, as Nancy's death certificate shows a granddaughter as an informant who is not the child of the son.  

So, Nancy survived all the poverty, illness, and sadness to make a life for herself, and gave her children the chance to survive.  It was not an easy life, but she lived to be 85, had descendants in Ireland and in North America, and remains my most recent brick wall.  I hope I can learn more of her Clark ancestry.  She is a heroine in my book. .
by Carolyn Adams G2G6 Mach 3 (30.9k points)
edited by Carolyn Adams
It's fortunate you found so much detail of Nancy's life already.  Best of luck with this brickwall.    To me, documenting stories like one is the best part of WikiTree and genenalogy.
+16 votes
I was just a teen when disaster struck. This occurred during the first week of June in 1969. An announcement on the high school's loud speaker about 1 pm said we were released to go home.

But -- I couldn't get home! Police, sheriff, and civilian defense personnel had put up roadblocks on the 3 routes where I tried to go west to reach home. At each blockage, I explained I lived farther west, but the men wouldn't let me go through.

Angry, anxious, and now worried about my family, I decided I should go to the grocery store where my mother worked, so I headed east.

It was a typical hot, humid Midwestern summer day. After I'd walked five blocks, I thought I could get something cold to drink at my aunt's and uncle's home. It was sometime after 2 when I reached their house and knocked on the screen door. My younger brother and sister burst into tears when they saw me standing there. Aunt Mary Neill hugged me. She explained that her neighbor had picked them up from the parochial school. "Radio reports say houses are exploding in your neighborhood."

I used their phone to call the grocery store. "Mary Lou isn't here. She got called home awhile ago." I shared this news with my aunt, then called home. No answer! I kept trying to phone home.

"When your Uncle Jimmy get here, I'm sure he'll get you safely home." She looked at the clock. "He'll be here by 4."

While we waited for him, I kept calling our house, letting the phone ring 20 times. No one answered. If my mom had been called home, why didn't she answer?!!

When my uncle arrived, he drove us home. Though the streets were still barricaded they let us through. Both of my parents were seated on the front porch being interviewed when we arrived. Neither had heard our phone ring.

Inside our house was a ghastly mess. Smoke and water damage streaked every wall of the main floor. An explosion had tossed the kitchen's built-in range vent into the middle of the room. Our kitchen wall phone receiver had melted and stretched it until it was over 2-feet long. It still gave a slight tinkling sound when the phone rang.

I found out my dad was being interviewed because he'd saved an elderly neighbor's life. The man was walking toward his house, and my dad pulled him away as he touched the doorknob. His home exploded! He only suffered minor injuries from the explosion thanks to my dad's heroics. I was thankful to learn that all family members were safe.

Many homes in our neighborhood exploded, and some, like ours, only caught fire. The newspapers reported our area looked like a WWII bomb zone.

This disaster was caused by a NIPSCO (Northern Indiana Public Service Company) employee who had turned the gas valve the wrong way.
by Diane Hildebrandt G2G6 Mach 5 (53.6k points)
Well written account and suspenseful too;  glad your parents weren't injured.  Thanks for sharing.
Thanks, Peggy. My dad always said that the only reason our house didn't explode was because he had installed vents in our attic the month before.
+9 votes

My disasters are of the military type. Dave Cyphert was a submariner in the 1930's. Stationed at Groton he would have personally seen some of the subs that sank and knew how dangerous they were.

My dad Tom Grawrock, was a naval aviator. With over a thousand hours in the RA-3B, he flew that type the most. I have his flight log books and they detail each flight and each individual airplane. Of the 28 individual planes he flew in 15 crashed or were shot down. That's coming a bit too close to personal disaster. The RA-3B had no ejection seats and hence in all 15 losses, all three crewman perished.

by David Grawrock G2G6 Mach 1 (14.9k points)

As a career submariner, I can certainly understand what your father must have seen. Modern submarines are far safer than those he served on. However, the loss of the Thresher in 1963 and the Scorpion in 1968 have haunted all subsequent submariners, down to this day. Taking a metal tube, filling it with men, equipment, and explosives, not to mention a nuclear reactor, then submerging it in oceans that are, on average, deeper than any possible rescue depth, is fraught with danger. All submariners today owe a debt of gratitude to our forerunners, including your father, for going in harm's way and paving the path toward safer operations. Hat's off to your father.

Gary Christopher, MMC (SS), USN (ret.)
+10 votes
Many of my Mumma ancestors lived in the Antietam / Sharpsburg area during the Civil War.

They had a large farm there.  It was announced that there was to be a North / South battle coming to the area and all should evacuate.  Being the largest farmer, all the neighbors brought their valuables to their home.  The stuff was all hidden in the basement.

After the famous Battle of Antietam was over, they returned to their farm.  To their dismay ... there was a disaster.  The home, barns and crops had been totally destroyed.   and all the hidden valuables were gone.

The land later became a part of the Antietam National Park.  The Mumma Cemetery is still fenced off within the Park.

Also, interesting is that a few years later a letter was written to the Mumma family from a Confederate Officer.  He felt real bad about burning down the home.  However, his commander order it so the Union could not use it for a staging area for their forces.
by Bill Sims G2G6 Mach 5 (59.5k points)

My Grandpap Strite, Strite-45, lived on the farm bordering the south edge of Bloody Lane right before my father got married.  It was at the 100 year anniversary of the battle and there was scheduled to be a reenactment of that battle.  They told Grandpap they would reimburse him for all the crops that were trampled or damaged. Grandpap, being a Mennonite and not wanting to have any part of it, just moved to another farm. 

+11 votes

GG Uncle Waldo was 5 years old and, while playing with matches one April afternoon in 1896, accidentally started a fire that burned down not only the house his family was renting, but the adjoining house, and damaged four additional neighboring houses. The woman who rescued little Waldo was burned on her hand, arm, and on one side of her face.  Despite the severe loss of property, no deaths were reported.

by Dorothy O'Hare G2G6 Mach 1 (15.2k points)
+9 votes
Amazingly, I have found no “disasters”, plenty of tragedies, but no disasters. The closest I can come to something disasterous involves a confession. 
My father Eneth Stuart Driver was a medic with the 105th Evacuation Hospital in WWII. He was one of a group who were sent to Bergen-Belsen to assist after the British liberated the camp and discovered 60,000 starving people and 13,000 bodies. Now the confession. When I was 7 or 8, I found the photos he took there. Those photographs haunted me as a child. When I was 14, I gathered up all those photos from the box of his family pictures, took them to the incinerator in the backyard, and dumped them in. Now it is the guilt for my action that haunts me. 
by Lyn Sara Gulbransen G2G6 Mach 2 (26.1k points)
Plenty of other people took photographs so very little unique information was lost. And it's understandable that you would :"defend" yourself. I hope you've made peace with it over the years.
+10 votes
The only disaster i could find so far. was the 1933 long beach earthquake. My grandma was living in wilmington at the time ans told up that she stood on the back step and watched the chimnies falling down, from the earthquake.
by Jennifer Robins G2G6 Mach 3 (33.8k points)
My parents had a Chili and Tamale stand in Long Beach just before the earthquake. They moved before the quake to Whittier, and were so grateful they were not involved in it. I have pictures of them with their stand. A lot of sailors would  stop and eat at their stand.
+11 votes

My great uncle Robert Colville owned a threshing company with his brother-in-law Robert Brown. https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Brown-75315   While they were working on my great uncles farm a stream engine boiler exploded and his partner and brother-in-law along with another worker was killed. 

by Joelle Colville-Hanson G2G6 Mach 7 (76.3k points)
Thanks for the best answer  :)
+12 votes

When I think of genealogical disasters the big ones seem to relate to the Irish. There is such a large diaspora of Irish descendants across the globe keen on researching their family history and so many gaps in the records.
One reason for the research difficulties was the fire that destroyed the Public Records Office in Dublin but the biggest disaster of all was the Great Famine and the impact it had on the population. So many whole families just disappeared without trace.
I had a blunt reminder of this when visiting the grave of one of my wife's relatives Irvine Ingram at the Parish Church of Magheraculmoney in Ardress, Co. Fermanagh. Behind the church and its modern graves is a large Famine Pit 14 feet wide and 120 feet long. There is no record of who was buried there during the Great Famine.
by Ray Hawkes G2G6 Mach 4 (43.1k points)
+13 votes

When I think of disasters, I am drawn to the stories I heard about my GGM Lela Jane Warner. I never knew my mother's father's family, but just last year found out that my Great Aunt Sally, the much younger daughter of my maternal Grandfather lived in Denver by me! So as a good genealogist I went to talk to her about her family and the things she remembered about growing up.

Her mother Lela was the mother of 16 children, all of whom grew to adulthood. My grandfather, Howard was her 3rd child, and he was born in New Mexico, when the entire rest of the family (both before and after him) were born in Hardin County, Iowa. 

Lela, her husband and her first two sons moved to New Mexico with her husband's brothers and mother looking for riches promoted by the railroads and the New Mexico state agricultural division. They were promised good land and ample opportunity, and were likely subsidised to start up a farm. However, what they really found was inhospitable land, frequent storms and flooding and hardship. In reference to this question of disaster, I asked why the family moved back to Iowa after Howard was born and G-Aunt Sally told me that Lela and the family were tired of rebuilding the walls of their sod house after floods washed the sod away several times. I cannot image a worse disaster than having a home literally washed away because it's made of dirt, and not once but multiple times. She has to have been a strong woman! In this picture she is standing with her husband, his brother and wife, along with their first 6 sons. My grandfather is front row, third from the left.

by Saphyre Rogers-Berry G2G6 Mach 1 (14.8k points)
+10 votes

As mentioned by others, there are various ways to define 'disaster," famine, war, market crashes, etc. This week, I am selecting my 4x GGM, Dolle Green-28028. Dolle was living in isolation in a log cabin with four daughters ranging in ages 5 to 15 years during the year (1778-1779) that her husband, Josiah Baldwin, served during the Revolution at Fishkill, New York. 

Dolle also had four brothers, who all fought in the Revolution. All signed up at Cambridge. All four were Minutemen. By 1778, Dolle had lost three of her four brothers in the war. James and Lucas died following the battle of Bunker Hill. Lucas, the youngest at 18-years-old died in his brother, Zeeb's, arms. Her brother Nathan died during the Battle of Trenton. Her sole surviving brother, Zeeb, continued to fight with the patriot army until 1780. 

I believe that with the deaths of three of her four younger brothers in battle, and potential death of her husband during his year of service while she cared for the 4 young daughters while living in this uncertainty is a profound disaster of the heart, health, family and home.

by Carol Baldwin G2G6 Pilot (193k points)
+10 votes

My family's disasters have also been individual tragedies. As far as I have found so far, no one has been the victim of or lived through major disasters. The first person who came to my mind was Anthony Gallagher, who isn't directly related at all, the husband of a great aunt. He suffered a broken spine in a mining accident in late 1917 and died 14 months later of sepsis. A lot of the men on my maternal grandfather's side were coal miners in Pennsylvania, and I find it difficult even to conceive of the dangerous, exhausting, health-destroying conditions they worked in. From my comfortable point of view just living that way would be disaster enough, even if nothing horrible happened. I'm sure I never could have done what they did.

by Richard Heritage G2G6 Mach 2 (26.9k points)
+10 votes
My 3rd Great-Grandfather, James Foss, was a grocer in Cornwall.  One October day in 1873 he was building a fence, and needed additional rocks to complete the project.  He and his second son, William John, who was 18 at the time, took a cart and began picking rocks from the neighborhood.  Eventually, they decided to scavenge rocks from a nearby abandoned mine entrance that had recently been partially sealed off.  Things might have been all right if they had left with only rocks, but once they had removed enough to expose the mine entrance, they decided to remove other useful items, such as iron hinges and timbers - the timbers that had been used to stabilize the area.  An elderly neighbor tried to warn them that this was a bad idea, but they did not heed that warning.  The resulting collapse sent both men tumbling down the mine, killing them instantly.  William John's body was recovered not too far from the surface within a day or two of the accident.  It was 9 months before they recovered the body of his father, who had been carried deep into the shaft and submerged in water.  

James left behind a wife and nine surviving children - the oldest was a married daughter of 22 and the youngest, a baby under one year.  My great-great-grandfather was the oldest son at 20, and undoubtedly took on many of the household duties after the death of his father.  He named his firstborn son (my great-grandfather) William John in honor of his brother.
by Roxanna McGinnis G2G2 (2.3k points)
+9 votes

I was having a hard time with this topic.  So far, no real "disasters" that jump out to me.  But, I'm new to gathering the stories, so it's possible I'll come across something eventually.  I think it's been said before, but tragedy is no stranger to any of us...

I liked another comment related to "genealogical disasters."  Coming into a project like this, it's hard to learn that a disaster; whether nature or man-created, has led to the destruction of some much data.

There are several branches that have road blocks and brick walls because of fires, wars, etc.  For example, I can't get anywhere past Casper, my great great grandfather.  

by C. Verworn G2G6 (6.2k points)
edited by C. Verworn
+9 votes
The upper Midwest was swept by hot, dry winds in early October 1871.  Everyone remembers the Chicago fire, but few remember the Peshtigo fire in Wisconsin, October 8th.  A spark caused a firestorm that destroyed whole towns, Peshtigo bearing the worst. In nearby Manitowoc County, my great-great grandmother Wilhelmine Rosenau Koerth https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Rosenau-41 began plowing and plowing, in order to create a firebreak and to have a trench deep enough for the family to lie in.  The family history does not record how close the fire came, but all the family survived.

I am also looking at coal mining disasters.  One of the profiles I manage--not a relative--is Robert James Wenborn https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Wenborn-10 . He was one of the few survivors of the Nanaimo Esplanade no. 1 coal mining disaster in British Columbia, May 3, 1887.  This was mentioned in an obituary.  I would like to know the full story but have found no source.
by Margaret Summitt G2G6 Mach 8 (84.1k points)
+9 votes


My 3rd great grandmother, Harriet (Hawley) Chapman died in the tornado disaster that hit Rochester, Olmsted, Minnesota on July 21, 1883 - most of the small city was destroyed.

Having realized there was a storm coming, she and her husband, Rufus Chapman, were seeking a safe place in their basement when the tornado hit.  According to her granddaughter's memoirs, she was struck in the head by a large wood beam and died the following August 27.


by Cheryl Skordahl G2G6 Pilot (187k points)
+9 votes

Jack Cochrane (Cochrane-1540) is one of the enigma of my family history. I know only that he was the first husband of Frances Greggain (Greggain-13 ) . He died via drowning during his honeymoon with his new bride Frances to Callandar, Ontario to witness the spectacle of the Dionne Quints. I have not yet been unable to confirm anything details about Jack life and death. 


by Jennifer Turner G2G6 (6.3k points)
+9 votes
It's ironic that this topic came up because just this past week I added my grandfather's profile to Wikitree.  In 1978 his house caught fire and my grandfather lost his wife and a son who was only 29 years old. Prior to the fire he had a son who died at 8 months old from meningitis and another son who died at the age of 12 from an automobile accident. Later shortly before his own death he had another son who died at the age of 37 from another automobile accident. He endured much sorrow in his life.  He was a strong man.  I don't know how he survived.   He was a World War II veteran and I am sure all the horrors from that experience and the losses of friends he had with the war didn't compare to losing his own children.
by John Williams G2G6 Mach 1 (17.3k points)
+8 votes

I haven't thought of any disasters in our known family tree, but I'll share a story of a prevented disaster. When my father was stationed in Seattle, WWII, he was friends with some of the longshoremen. One of them had to repair a leak in a ship, and he asked my dad to go with him. They were standing in nearly waist deep water when they located the leak. The longshoreman was just about ready to light his torch and repair it when my dad put his hand in the water, smelled it and shouted Stop. The leak was not water. It was diesel fuel. I asked him why they didn't smell it sooner, but he said all the ships stank of diesel fuel all the time.

by Shirley Davis G2G6 Mach 3 (32.7k points)

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