Friday, February 15, 2013

Early Departures and Missing Documents

While Flora Shields Montague may have lived to see nearly ninety years of life—despite early newspaper reports seeming to indicate the contrary—some of her family members didn’t fare so well. Perhaps that is another wake up call to face reality in the early 1900s in rural America.

Flora’s sister Ella Shields Bean lived to squeak past the eighty year mark. Another Shields sister, Lillian Taylor, did likewise—though she did suffer the loss of a child at an early age.

But it’s those others that remind me of the harsh life that we no longer experience first hand.

Oldest Shields child, Alice Newell, lost her life before the youngest of her three daughters became a teenager—a loss of memories for a child growing up.

The Shields’ family’s second-born, son Adolphus, made it past the seventy year mark, but lost his own wife—or at least she disappeared from the records—before the 1920 census was taken.

And like her sister Alice, younger Josephine, wife of Wright Henry Spencer, passed away before her youngest child was even five years of age, if indications from the 1910 census prove to be correct.

The tricky part for the researcher is that these life events fell during a span of time in which documentation is not readily available online. With no sign of a death record to be found online, how can I be sure, then, that these departures weren’t disappearances owing to another cause? While divorce was not as common during those times, it is a possibility. However, the California Divorce Index on doesn’t begin its records until the year 1966—hardly helpful for someone trying to find missing wives prior to 1920.

Another option—that of searching for obituaries in local newspapers—is also impeded by lack of online resources for those specific dates.

It is as if that specific period of time has entered a Black Hole—or, if you prefer, a “Cone of Silence.” The frustrating lack of resources for the time period being sought—in the face of an apparent abundance of other digitized genealogical material—may seem just as inept as Get Smart Agent 86’s insistence on repeatedly going back to the same source of faulty coverage.

Sometimes, the only answer is to just get in the car and drive to the city where the real resources are kept.  


  1. I feel your pain. I've always been convinced that all my questions could be answered if I had that darned 1890 census. If only we could get OTHER people on the stick to digitize all the documents we need. I'd be glad to provide a list.

    1. Yeah! What about those OTHER people?! ;)

      I'd be most willing to give up my grudges about the loss of that 1890 census, Wendy, if I could just get my fingers on some of those missing digitized newspapers!

  2. Have a good trip..I am sure you will turn up something. Childbirth was a cause of death sometimes..Diphtheria.. Typhoid..and the various plagues and flu..some place there must be a list of the years when all those diseases were prevalent. I will poke around a bit:)

  3. 1900 to 1904 Bubonic Plague in California..another outbreak in 1908.
    Influenza 1850 to 1851
    Worldwide Flu 1889 to 1890.
    1918 to 1920 Flu Pandemic
    1878 Yellow Fever
    1837 and again in 1906 Typhus
    Cholera 1834 to 1839
    1920's and 1940's Diphtheria
    1916 Polio epidemic then again in 1952.

    1. Hmmm...nothing appearing for 1897 though. Although the flu is an ever present threat, even if not in an epidemic year...

      Thanks so much for finding that information, Far Side. Something to tuck away for future reference!

  4. That's quite a metaphor, a "Cone of Silence." With both obituaries and divorce records unavailable. Is it certain that the real resources will be somewhere? I've also been shocked by the short life spans of my family, especially in the rice plantations and in Barbados, in both the 1600s and 1700s. Supposedly, it was an "unhealthy climate."

    In South Carolina, no BD dates are recorded before 1915, and no M dates before 1910. There are no records, even if you drive to the city. I can really relate to the idea of a "Cone of Silence." It makes you grateful for every single record you find!

    1. Mariann, that's what makes me even more grateful for those churches that were dedicated to keeping such careful records. Sometimes, that is the only recourse for some researchers before the advent of civil records, by the time of the early 1900s, of births and deaths.

      Of course, in many cases--like this family I'm researching here--there was no church affiliation, so once again I'm left out in the cold, with no recourse for reconstructing that information...unless it was listed as an announcement in some small town newspaper.

      I imagine the climate in Barbados would be rather unhealthy, especially for workers under the harsh conditions in the fields, out in the sun. However, lifespans in the 1600s would be limited in most cases, field work or not, wouldn't they be?


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