20 March 2017

Why Did They Die?

In your family tree, you probably have people who died for reasons unknown to you. They weren't old, and you have no reason to think they were sickly. If you can't get a copy of their death certificate to learn the cause of death, you may want to turn to history.

A good place to start if your ancestor died in the U.S. is the List of disasters in the United States by death toll on Wikipedia. The page lists many notable disasters and may be sorted by year, type and location. It also provides links to articles explaining each disaster in detail.

As I browsed the list I found the location of Connellsville, Pennsylvania and an article about the 1903 Connellsville train wreck.

Can historic events tell you what became of your ancestor?
Can historic events tell you what became of your ancestor?

I know that many people from one of my ancestral Italian hometowns worked for the railroad in Connellsville, and it is quite possible that my great grandfather Francesco Iamarino worked there at that time. At the bottom of the Wikipedia article I followed a source link, and there was a list of the dead.

While carrying out my obsessively exhaustive documentation of every vital record from my grandfather Leone's hometown of Baselice between 1809 and 1860, I noticed that some years the death toll was much higher than others. For example, in this town of roughly 2,000 people, about 100 would die each year. But some years that number spiked above 200. This makes me wonder about epidemics and earthquakes.

On the BBC website I found an article titled History of deadly earthquakes. It lists earthquakes worldwide from 1906 through 2016. Using Wikipedia again I found a List of earthquakes in Italy. Long ago an Italian historian sent me a list of 41 people who died in my grandfather Iamarino's town of Colle Sannita. The list was dated 26 July 1805. On the Wikipedia page I see that there was an earthquake in Molise on 26 July 1805. On the 1805 Molise earthquake page is a list of towns, and it says that 44 people died in Colle Sannita.

Try to use local resources to learn about disasters. A transcription of a local Connellsville, Pennsylvania newspaper provided the names of the victims of the 1903 train wreck. And it was local records that produced the names of the Colle Sannita residents killed in the 1805 earthquake. For my own family, it took a trip to the New York City Municipal Archives to see the death certificate and cause of death for many of my relatives.

Given enough time, more and more things will be digitized. Given enough genealogical networking, more and more things will be shared to the benefit of us all. Be sure to investigate what natural or man-made disasters happened where your ancestors lived.

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