1. Follow up on family lore.
2. Identify the disaster.
3. Work the web.
4. Look for news clues.
Catastrophic events always make headlines, so be sure to scour old newspapers for accounts of disasters and possible connections to your ancestors. You’ll find papers on microfilm at libraries and archives as well as online—both on free websites and on subscription services such as Ancestry.com , GenealogyBank and World Vital Records.
5. Revisit records.
Town and local histories, available at libraries, also may mention disasters and those who died. You may find that a town has a memorial tied to a disaster; for example, the Gloucester Fisherman’s Memorial in Gloucester, Mass., memorializes those lost at sea. Union or company records also may provide information. For instance, the AFL-CIO website lists memorials dedicated to workers; visit <www.aflcio.org/issues/safety/memorial/wmd_mem.cfm>.
1832 Cholera epidemics hit New York City and New Orleans, killing thousands
1853 First major US rail disaster kills 46 at Norwalk, Conn., in May
1878 20,000 die from yellow fever in Mississippi Valley
1869 108 miners die in a coal mine disaster in Avondale, Pa.
1871 Hundreds die in the Great Chicago Fire and fires that rage across Peshtigo, Wisc., and much of Michigan
1876 A train disaster near Ashtabula, Ohio, claims 83 lives
1881 A hurricane hits Georgia and the Carolinas, killing 700
1884 Several tornadoes on Feb. 19 kill hundreds in Southeastern states
1888 A blizzard strikes the Northeastern US in March, resulting in some 400 deaths
1889 Massive flooding destroys Johnstown, Pa.; more than 2,000 lose their lives
1898 On Palm Sunday, an avalanche near Sheep Camp, Alaska, becomes the deadliest event of the Klondike gold rush
1900 Hurricane in Galveston, Texas, kills more than 6,0000
1906 Earthquake rocks San Francisco and kills hundreds
1916 America’s worst polio epidemic results in more than 6,000 deaths
1918 Spanish influenza kills more than 600,000 in the US and millions worldwide
1919 Great Boston Molasses Flood kills 21 and injures 150
1925 Tornado kills nearly 700 in Illinois, Indiana and Missouri
1937 The Hindenburg explodes and crashes at Lakehurst, N.J.; 36 die
1944 In Hartford, Conn., 168 people die in a circus fire
From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine