Midwives, Menus and Meteors: Using Government Reports for Genealogy
Using government reports for genealogy can add valuable social and historical context to our research.
Have you ever wondered what the weather was like the day an ancestor was born? Or what the conditions were in the orphanage where Grandma lived? Was there an epidemic that could explain your great-grandfather’s early death?
As family historians, we frequently have questions about the “why” and “how” of our ancestors’ lives. Answers to these questions and more can be found in one often overlooked source: the reports of state and local government.
Like federal agencies, state and local governments frequently were required by law to regularly report to the public on their activities. Examples of these divisions include:
- State institutions, including asylums, reform schools, institutes for the visually and hearing impaired, veterans homes, state orphanages, and sanitariums.
- Departments of state government, such as the board of health, children’s services, weather, and agriculture
- Divisions of local government, such as city councils and school districts.
If we’re lucky, we may find an ancestor’s name in the pages of such reports. However, it’s more likely we’ll be able to use these documents to add social and historical context to our family stories, as well as to learn more about legislation and regulation that could have impacted our ancestors.
Here are just a few examples of the information that could be found in these publications:
- From Illinois State Board of Health reports, I discovered the woman who attended my great-grandmother’s birth was a registered midwife. I also learned what the midwife’s training would have been like and what regulations would have governed her Chicago practice.
- The Illinois State Board of Health also reported a typhoid epidemic hit Rock Island, Illinois, in 1895…and it was caused by sewage from neighboring Moline contaminating the city’s water supply.
- The Montana state entomologist described an outbreak of grasshoppers that occurred in 1917, noting that area farmers were able to use grasshopper-catching machines to gather the insects to use for chicken feed and describing other methods used to limit the damage caused.
- The report of the Iowa Weather Service explained February 1882 was the warmest February yet on record for Iowa and noted that my ancestors in Dallas would have seen a meteor on February 11.
- The Illinois Department of Visitation of Children’s inspection report of the Woodland Children’s Home in Quincy, Illinois, explained the floor plan of the building and detailed its furnishings, in addition to noting why children were admitted, what their day’s activities were, and what they typically ate.
- Indiana’s state mine inspector provided to the state geologist coal mine inspection reports and a detailed list of those killed or injured in mine accidents during the previous year. Accidents resulting in death were investigated, and the circumstances surrounding the event were explained.
- In 1913, the state of California’s stallion registration board published lists of registered stallions, arranged by county and for each animal naming the owner, the owner’s address, and the stallion’s name and breed.
- Reports from the Indiana State Soldiers’ Home included sample menus and photographs of the facility as well as lists of who was resident in the home and why. The home housed dependent widows as well as veterans, making the report a valuable source of information about women.
- The 1910 report of the board of education for Chicago Public Schools included an architectural rendering of the new building that would become my grandmother’s high school and an explanation of its planned curriculum.
- The Massachusetts Board of State Charities report for 1879 provided a list of persons removed from the Commonwealth by the General Agent of State Charities, including the date of removal and the person’s name, destination, and associated cost of removal. These individuals generally were paupers, and some of them who were immigrants were deported to their home countries.
Many of these documents have been digitized and are freely available online via sites such as Google Books, Internet Archive, and HathiTrust. Some states also have developed digital archives that include these state publications and other resources. However, a majority of such government reports have not yet been digitized and are held at various state and local libraries, archives, and historical societies, requiring an onsite researcher to access.
Genealogists often pursue their research out of curiosity about people and the past. Including state and local government reports in our research toolbox can help us find answers to those important contextual questions.
The expert researchers at Legacy Tree Genealogists are skilled in using unusual sources to solve genealogical problems and bring ancestors to life. Contact us today for a free consultation to see how we can help tell your family story.