Historical reports for genealogy
Every couple of years, The Legal Genealogist faces a day like today.
Where the snow is lightly falling and the forecast is for…
Maybe a dusting.
And maybe a blizzard. Something they’re calling a bomb cyclone even.1
A little further track to the east, and there may not be much. A little further to the west, and wham! In between, the consensus of 6-11″ of snow.
And this should serve to remind us all, as genealogists, that we’re hardly the first to face and be confounded by the weather. Far more than ours do today, our forebears’ lives revolved around the weather. Which means we should consider adding gathering as much information as we can about the weather they lived through to our research plans.
So… where do we go to get historical data about the weather?
A wonderful resource for folks in New Jersey is the Office of the New Jersey State Climatologist. That site has historical snowfall information recorded for more than 50 different locations as far back as the 1890s in some cases. The numbers used come from 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.
And NOAA itself has some cool reports. Check out its reports of things like the 1899 arctic blast that paralyzed the eastern United States and carried ice down to the Gulf of Mexico. And the Historical section of the National Centers for Environmental Information has some definitely way-cool options for weather geeks.
The National Weather Service has some historic data online for its forecasting stations. First, head over to the map at https://www.weather.gov/ and find the weather station you’re interested in. On the specific page for that weather station, click on the tab for Climate and Past Weather. Much of the data is only back 20-30 years, but sometimes you’ll get lucky and it’ll go back farther.
By the way, you can even help preserve historical information about weather and make it more accessible by joining the Old Weather transcription team — the website is designed to explore, mark, and transcribe historic ship’s logs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The end result NOAA is working towards is called the Time Machine — again very geeky — and very cool.
And there are a whole host of alternatives to these official sources:
• The Weather Base has some 91 years of weather records for Boston — which is expecting a big hit from this storm — and at least some data for more than 41,997 other cities worldwide.
• WeatherForYou has a daily bit of weather history (for today, you can discover that on this day in 1922, a snowstorm hit Washington D.C. with 28 inches of snow in 32 hours; it’s called the “Knickerbocker” storm because the snow collapsed the ceiling of the Knickerbocker movie theater, killing 96 people.).
• There’s still an Old Farmer’s Almanac, with historical weather data by state or by zip code, accessing weather archives for more than 1,300 stations across United States and Canada, going back to 1945, but more detailed customized access to historical weather info requires a subscription.
• Try WolframAlpha for weather information too. You can enter, say, “weather January 28, 1975 New York City” as a search term and get an amazingly detailed weather report. The data doesn’t go back all that far — but as far as it goes, it’s dynamite.
Even the commercial online site WeatherUnderground has a history section, or you can reach it from a tab on its pages for any weather reporting station, and some stations (like Boston) report back into the middle of the 20th century. Data for Boston’s Logan Airport station, for example, says there wasn’t any snow there on 28 January 1944 — in fact, the high that day was 41 degrees.
You can find out all kinds of information about weather disasters on GenDisasters — the website setting out “Events That Touched Our Ancestors’ Lives.” These include:
For the kinds of weather information we might want to add to our family histories, we’ll also want to look at the official records of the government — sigh — at least when we can, after this blasted pandemic… 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
And, don’t forget, the weather has always been a hot topic (you’ll forgive the reference to heat here in the midst of the snows of late January) in the pages of our local newspapers.
Now excuse me, please, I’m going to go back to charging some more electronics… just in case…
Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “Weathering the storms,” The Legal Genealogist (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : posted 28 Jan 2022).
- Len Melisurgo, “N.J. weather: 4 reasons why this nor’easter snowstorm is so tricky for forecasters to predict,” NJ.com, posted 27 Jan 2022 (https://www.nj.com/ : accessed 28 Jan 2022). ↩
- See generally “Records of the Weather Bureau (Record Group 27),” Guide to Federal Records, National Archives (https://www.archives.gov : accessed 28 Jan 2022). ↩
- See ibid., “Records of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (Record Group 370).” ↩