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San Diego in 1872-73… and more

Along with everyone else on every side of the country these days, The Legal Genealogist has been keeping an eye on the weather.

With Harvey having hammered the Gulf Coast, and Irma threatening the east, and wildfires raging throughout the west, the Pacific Northwest and California, weather is very much on all of our minds.

From the images on our television sets and computer screens to the words of weather commentators on our radios and even to broadcasts we get on our smartphones and smart watches, we are all constantly up-to-date with the weather.

I for one am preparing to head out to San Diego for this weekend’s Fall seminar of the San Diego Genealogical Society (and tomorrow is the last day to register online… just sayin’…) and I can simply click through and see that the forecast is for sunny skies.

Colleagues and friends of mine who are headed towards conferences and meetings, or who live, in parts of Florida are doing the same thing as they watch Hurricane Irma on approach.

We can even see what things look like from orbit

And it’s impossible to even imagine how much that kind of information would have meant to our ancestors… who didn’t live in cities… didn’t have computers… and who generally found out what the weather was going to be by sticking their heads out the window and looking at the skies…

For us as genealogists, knowing what the weather was for our ancestors helps us understand what their lives were like. The storms they faced. The crop losses that forced them off the land. The balmy days and weeks that made life a joy.

So… how do we get historic weather information?

In some cases, we get it handed to us on a silver platter.

If your folks were in San Diego, California, from the first day of March 1872 through the 28th of February 1873, you can find out exactly what the temperature was at 7 a.m., 2 p.m. and 9 p.m., each and every day, by consulting a single reference work.

It was published by the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and printed by the San Diego Daily Union, in 1874 under the lovely title Information Relative to the City of San Diego, California, Illustrated with Twenty-Two Photographic Views, Containing, Also, A Business Directory of the City.1 And it’s digitized, available free online, on Google Books.

It’s really kind of neat to be able to see, for example, that the high temperature for the year was 86 degrees at 2 p.m. on the afternoon of August 26, 1872, and the low was 41 degrees at 7 a.m. on the morning of December 14, 1872. (The photos and other info are pretty neat too.)

And if you’re looking for more than that one year? Oh, there are a lot of possibilities.

A website called Calclim, the California Climate Data Archive, can serve as a portal to a lot of different data sets. Looking, for example, at the NWS Coop links on the CalClim Station Map, you can drill down to individual weather reporting stations throughout California.

Data was recorded in Bonita, for example, and is available from 1915 through 1970. Clicking through to that station and then choosing Monthly Precipitation, you can see that January 1916 was a really rainy month: a record 10.29 inches of rain.

And both Bonita and Chula Vista reported high rain levels in general in February.

The NWS, of course, is the National Weather Service, now part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). You can get a history of the National Weather Service at its website. Although the website tends to be really slow these days, there’s still a ton of good information there. Want to know what the average temperature was in San Diego in August 1900, for example? Try the Monthly Summaries map of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).

For the kinds of weather information we might want to add to our family histories, we might want to look at the official records of the government. By far, the bulk of the National Weather Service and Weather Bureau records are at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. More than 90% of all the records held by NARA at there, with the National Archives branch in Seattle, Washington, coming in a very distant second. These include:

• Meteorological Records of the Surgeon General’s Office 1819-1916
• Records of the Smithsonian Meteorological Project 1848-91
• Records of Signal Corps Meteorological Work 1859-97
• Records of the Weather Bureau 1792-1965
• Records of Field Operations 1735-1979
• Textual Records (General) 1876-1972
• Cartographic Records (General) 1873-1960
• Motion Pictures (General)
• Still Pictures (General) 1880-19502

Some additional newer records are in the NOAA collection, record group 370.3

Beyond the government sources, check out websites like Weather Base — it has some 30 years of weather records for San Diego and at least some data for more than 41,997 other cities worldwide. WeatherForYou has a daily bit of weather history (for today, those of you coping with the fires in the west can know your ancestors did the same: in 1881, “Forest fires in Michigan and Ontario resulted in ‘Yellow Day’ in the northeastern U.S. Twenty villages in Michigan burned, and a total of 500 persons were killed”). Even the Old Farmer’s Almanac has some free historical weather data by states or by zip code.

Weather it is… or weather it isn’t… weather is key to understanding our ancestors.


  1. Information Relative to the City of San Diego, California, Illustrated with Twenty-Two Photographic Views, Containing, Also, A Business Directory of the City (San Diego: San Diego Daily Union, printer, 1874); digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 5 Sep 2017).
  2. See generally “Records of the Weather Bureau (Record Group 27),” Guide to Federal Records, National Archives ( : accessed 5 Sep 2017).
  3. See ibid., “Records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (Record Group 370).”
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