What to Do When Genealogy Records Were Burned
Recently Sue from Elk Grove, Illinois wrote in with a question about what to do when records were lost due to fire (or war, or disasters, etc.):
“We have been trying to locate information on my great great grandparents Hugh and Mae Sullivan. I have never been able to find marriage or birth records and have realized that it was mainly due to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Interestingly, through a directory from 1866, they may have lived only blocks from the origin of the fire. I have them in 1880 with 4 sons, the first of which was born just 10 months following the fire.
“I suspect that they may have lost other children in the tragedy. I am unsure which direction to go to find more of their story and any suggestions would be helpful. Several newspapers are reported to have lists of the missing but I have either been unable to read them or to locate them. Sam Fink’s list [an index of Cook County marriages and deaths] did not provide any information. I suspect that my ancestors were among the very poor immigrants that flooded into Chicago. There were relief societies and I have wondered if records were kept of those who were rehoused.”
Here’s my response to Sue:
I think you are on the right track with newspapers. Newspapers.com (owned by Ancestry) carries the Chicago Daily from 1871. Here is a screen shot of the List of Missing from Oct. 11, 1871. It might be worth a subscription to Newspapers.com to be able to really comb through all the issues.
Here’s a tip on working with less-than-the best digital images of historical newspapers. You can “invert” the actual image (have it read white-on-black instead of black-on-white), then darken it and add a little more contrast to get the most readable copy possible. This can be done right from the Newpapers.com viewer.
Also, in Family History podcast episode #37 I discussed a book specifically on Chicago research: Finding Your Chicago Ancestors: A Beginners Guide To Family History In The City Of Chicago by Grace DuMelle. As I recall, it was a very comprehensive book and could give you good leads on where to look.
For more tips like these, read my book How to Find Your Family History in Newspapers. Inside you’ll find:
- Step-by-Step Instructions
- Worksheets and Checklists
- Tech Tools You Probably Aren’t Using But Should
- A Massive Amount of Location Specific Websites and a Case Study that Puts It Al Together