Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Natural Disasters and Family Misfortunes 8: Volcanoes

When I gave a presentation on natural phenomena and family history last year, I was asked about whether and when we might experience a major volcanic eruption in Yellowstone. I said I did not expect such a thing for thousands of years yet and that we should not worry too much about it.

Coincidentally, shortly afterward National Geographic magazine featured the region in its May 2016 issue. The magazine had previously reported on the volcanic eruptions there in August 2009 (When Yellowstone Explodes). In that issue was a map showing what areas had been impacted by major eruptions during the last 18 million years. Great outpourings of lava have occurred at intervals of about 2.2 million years. The deposits are spread along a line extending 430 miles from northern Nevada to northwest Wyoming which resulted as the North American plate moved across a hot spot in the Earth’s mantle. The last eruption occurred about 640 thousand years ago suggesting it will be a very long time before we have to worry about another event.
Map of volcanic fields resulting from major eruptions of the Yellowstone supervolcano over the past 18 million years published by National Geographic in August 2009
Eruptions of this supervolcano have never affected human populations but the fear remains. Occasionally articles will appear in magazines and scientific reports about the NEXT BIG ONE and whether it will happen much sooner that what the timing of previous episodes may indicate. A story appeared on the National Geographic website last week by Victoria Jaggard titled Yellowstone Supervolcano May Rumble to Life Faster Than Thought.

I remain convinced that we do not have to be concerned about being wiped out by a Yellowstone eruption, at least within the next several hundred generations. But eventually it will happen.

With our lifetimes we have witnessed the effects of volcanoes spreading death and destruction in many part of the world. The most affected regions are those on the edges of tectonic plates such as the Ring of Fire around the Pacific Ocean.

Historically there are many examples of ash and lava spreading over areas inhabited by humans. Most resulted in the deaths of scores of people and, for that reason, are worth reviewing in any family history study. Researchers may find that some of their ancestors were affected by the spread of volcanic ash and gas: sickness of themselves or their livestock; damage to environment and its impact on agriculture; and even death.

The devastation in Pompeii certainly would have ended many family lines when the mountain exploded in AD 79. We know communities nearby volcanoes can be quickly buried by lava and ash and their residents killed or forced to evacuate. Deleterious effects of ash and poisonous gases thrown into the atmosphere can be measured around the globe for many years after a major eruption.

Among the many that resulted in major death tolls are:
Death Toll
Mount Tambora
Mount Pelée
Nevado del Ruiz
Mount Unzen

Laki, Iceland

A major eruption in Iceland in June of 1793 resulted in millions of tons of ash and gas being ejected into the lower troposphere. Over several months it spread across Europe and into the Middle East. It has been estimated that over 23,000 people perished as a result of the toxic plume.


The last major eruption in Tambora in April 1815, its early explosions heard over 800 miles away. More than 90,000 people died in Indonesia alone. Over 24 cubic miles of gas and particulate were pushed into the stratosphere which then, within weeks, spread around the world. The Earth was blanketed by a shadowy, poisonous veil which caused havoc with climatic conditions: sunlight was reflected back into space; temperatures at the surface were cooled, and weather patterns were completely disrupted. The year following the Tambora eruption has been called the Year Without Summer because in most parts of the world in 1815, conditions were wet, cold and just plain miserable!


The paroxysmal eruption of Krakatau in Indonesia in August 1883 also spread dust and gas around the world. The initial blast was heard more than 2,000 miles away in Australia. A tsunami, almost 150 feet in places rolled over coastlines around the Pacific Ocean. Similar climatic disruption occurred as was caused by the Tambora event. In this case, reports were transmitted around the world almost simultaneously due to the improvements in broadcast technologies. Due to its proximity in time to today, this event has been more studied than any other volcanic event and provides a significant example of what can – and probably did – happen when such natural phenomena occur.
Lithograph: The eruption of Krakatoa, and subsequent phenomena. Report of the Krakatoa Committee of the Royal Society (London, Trubner & Co., 1888)
Mount Pelée

More recently the top of Mount Pelée was blasted apart in May 1902. A resulting pyroclastic avalanche rolled down over the city of Saint Pierre killing virtually everyone in its path. Residents failed to heed the warnings of the eruption which began three weeks before the major event, assuming that only lava would be produced as had been the case previously. Many even stayed to observe the beginnings of the eruption, much as they do around other volcanoes around the world such as in Hawaii. In the end people failed to take seriously the power of a volcano and paid with their lives.

In terms of family history studies, volcanic events may have played an important role in changing the lives of many families in the past, in ways similar to that of the four outlined here. Such life-altering effects may have resulted from eruptions which occurred on the other side of world; a knowledge of natural history might be useful.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Canadian Thanksgiving

For those of you reading this who do not live in Canada, this past Monday was Thanksgiving in Canada. To my Canadian readers, Happy Thanksgiving!

Our holiday lands on the second Monday of October each year, in contrast to that in the United States which is the fourth Thursday in November. Like the one in the US, it is a celebration of the end of harvest and a time when families get together. In some areas there may be parades.

It has been a national holiday here since 1879 when the Canadian Parliament designated the celebration with legislation. The date was not fixed at the time, though. The current date of the second Monday was established only in 1957. It has been marked by Canadians wherever they may have been around the world for a century and a half.
Members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force celebrate Thanksgiving in the bombed out Cambrai Cathedral in France in October 1918
Our traditional menu is similar to that in the US, other than in localities where different produce may be grown. Normally there is roast turkey (we had ham this year) with stuffing and cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy (ours was cheesy potatoes for a change), sweet potatoes (my favourite) and autumn vegetables (there were carrots and peas on our table). Dessert, brought by our nephew’s wife was apple pie (a traditional fall fruit) and ice cream (good anytime).

It was the United Empire Loyalists, coming from the US after the American Revolution who brought us delights like the turkey and often consumed pumpkin pie. And probably those great sweet potatoes as well! Thank you!

Historically, apparently the first celebration in our part of the world (North America) was by Sir Martin Frobisher in 1578 during his search for the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Islands. In later centuries French and English settlers organized feasts of thanks in the early autumn, sometimes sharing them with their indigenous neighbours. Surviving Pilgrim settlers at Plymouth Colony, in what is now Massachusetts, held their first harvest feast in October 1621.

The event in both Canada and the US now feature football games although we do not think that any of the original participants of the festivals played the North American variety. Children may well have played with balls, perhaps even kicked one around as their parents and ancestors had done for centuries before.

Thanksgiving is for families. Whether they are small or large, include several generations of just immediate family members, it is a day set aside to celebrate just being together.

I hope yours was a Happy Thanksgiving, too, this year...or will be in a few weeks.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

If all the Devon baptisms were on FMP!

Recently on the Rootsweb list there was discussion about the availability of Devon, England parish registers online. Several people offered suggestions about where information might be found. Some lamented on the fact that there was no one site where they could go to see all the records. All the comments about and leading up to this subject can be found in the DEVON-L Archives for September.

By the way, these kinds of lists are great for continuing discussions on various subjects, in particular specific families and research techniques. I know many people are moving to social media outlets such as Facebook but I find the Rootsweb and other similar discussion forums valuable because each message is delivered right to my inbox. And I can choose which area, subject or even names I want to connect with on different lists.

Of particular note, though, was the response from Terry Leaman, the Chairman of the Devon Family History Society (DFHS), who commented about what was available on the Society’s website for members and the great work that has been done by volunteers over many decades to make data accessible for researchers.

I thought Terry’s comments were worth reproducing here. I have benefited from having information transcribed by DFHS members. I have also done a lot of transcribing of parish registers and censuses in the Devon region and know about the time it takes to go through the hundreds of pages of records and decipher hard-to-read entries.

Because I do not live anywhere near Devon, I really appreciate the work that DFHS members have done over the years, especially the locals some of whom I know have spent countless hours in the archives offices. Membership in the DFHS is one I find of great value and will definitely keep.

Terry’s comments:

What people need to understand is that, whilst it is a legal requirement for parish registers to be housed in a suitable storage facility, it is not a requirement to put them online. Many of the indexes/transcriptions on FindMyPast (FMP) that are not linked to images came from the Devon Family History Society and are the work of volunteers over a forty year period.

Family History Societies were some of the first organisations to start indexing registers that were not permitted to be filmed by the LDS. Most of the IGI for Devon at that time was the result of filming published books by the likes of the Devon & Cornwall Record Society.

The DFHS continues to index data not available online at this time. This includes the 52 parishes for which the images are in the members' only area of the Society website. The LDS were refused permission to film these but Devon FHS were allowed to. There are two parishes where permission has been totally refused to digitise the registers.

DFHS volunteers are also working on the Methodist registers in both North Devon and Exeter record offices, as well as a number of civil cemeteries- Torquay & Ford Park Cemeteries are already on FMP thanks to DFHS volunteers.

It is a major concern that Family History Societies are losing members because of online resources, Family History Societies (out of public view) constantly liaise with Record Offices or in the case of Devon and Somerset with the South West Heritage Trust, to ensure that family history is not forgotten,   BUT if they don't survive who will step forward to fill the gap? Who will continue indexing those obscure records that would not otherwise be done- see the Devon Social records on FMP.

As to transcription errors, if you could see some of the atrocious writing that is encountered you would understand why errors happen. One register we've encountered recently looks like the writing is upside down and back to front- IT IS honestly that bad. It is easy IF you are looking for a specific name in a parish. It's a lot easier to read something if you know what it should say.

Terry was describing the efforts and trials of the Devon society but his comments probably equally apply to every other family history society.

If you are using and getting a lot out of transcriptions perhaps you might think about volunteering to do some of that work. You do not have to live close to where the societies are to help.