Over one hundred years ago people around the world were suffering through a global pandemic of Spanish Influenza.
Millions were infected and sickened. Millions died.
People wore masks out in public. Schools and businesses closed.
We are going through a global pandemic presenting us with challenges most of us have never experienced before.
But, we have connections to those who faced similar challenges. The fact that we are here indicates our family tree consists of survivors.
Did the Spanish Flu affect our families? Most certainly.
Did they talk about it? Probably not.
How can we learn from those who went before us, who faced similar hardships, even if they are not here to advise us?
My grandmother, Betty, was 18 years old in 1918 during World War I when the Spanish Flu killed many young soldiers and people throughout the world. October 1918 is the deadliest month in United States history with 195,000 deaths due to the Spanish Flu. In her home state of Virginia, over 11,000 soldiers contracted Spanish influenza at Fort Lee in October 1918 alone!
Betty lived through that crisis and carried on to raise a family during the Great Depression, another challenging time in our country’s history. Yet, my grandmother never mentioned the Spanish Flu epidemic to me.
I’ve been searching online newspaper archives from the year 1918 to discover what was going on in my ancestors’ world. You can try searching online newspaper archives from the states or towns where your grandparents or great-grandparents lived in October 1918. I’ll recommend some websites for online newspapers at the end of this article.
You probably don’t even need to use the keyword “influenza” to find stories about the devastating impact of the Spanish flu epidemic.
But, don’t just look at the flu-related stories. Browse the newspapers for stories and advertisements to get a taste of how people lived. You might learn something new about your ancestors.
My grandmother’s father, John Henry Davis, was a Presbyterian minister who moved frequently to different churches during his career, making it hard to pin down where he and his family lived throughout his life.
One newspaper search result made me feel like my great-grandfather was waving and shouting “Hey, here I am!”
In this short mention in the Southern Presbyterian newspaper published October 1918, he writes “I am delighted with my new home in Florida” and his new role as a high school principal. I’m guessing he sent in his report well before the publication date. By the time October rolls around the picture is not so rosy, with Florida newspapers reporting schools, churches, and theaters closing due to the influenza epidemic. So as a school principal and church minister my great-grandfather was dealt a double whammy of challenges.
A 1919 article from a Florida newspaper mentions Betty’s older sister, Margaret, giving a talk about her experiences in Cuba to a Women’s Missionary Society meeting during a visit home to Eustis, Florida.
That article led me to look for her passport application. If she’d been in Cuba, she had to have a passport. I discovered her 1917 passport, with her destination: Cuba. In 1917, Margaret left her home in Virginia to become a Presbyterian missionary in Cuba. Quite an adventure for a 26-year-old single woman!
Another newspaper article I found from 1919 announced Margaret, her mother, and brother would be spending the summer in North Carolina.
Because the family moved so often, their mountain cottage, called Davista, became their true home, a place where the family would gather every summer for generations. I would visit Davista as a child fifty years later. My Aunt Margaret would be there to welcome me then.
The photo below, possibly from 1919, shows my grandmother with her father, siblings, and cousins, most likely resting on a mountain in North Carolina. I imagine it was respite from the season of pandemic they endured in 1918.
All the tidbits from these articles helped me paint a picture of my ancestors’ lives during the time of a global pandemic.
Living through our time of uncertainty is stressful. As a family historian, finding evidence of how my family carried on and persevered through similar hardships gives me perspective and a bit of comfort. As I searched through archival newspapers I read sad stories, but also stories of tenacious efforts to maintain hope and purpose.
I encourage you to search for stories and images from your ancestors’ world during the 1918 pandemic. It’s not all bad news.
If you enjoyed this story about seeking out and sharing your family history, I invite you to read a story I wrote on Medium.com. Just click the image.
I found the newspaper articles mentioned in this post at these online archives:
Chronicling America. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/newspapers
I recommend using the Advanced Search option. (FREE)
Digital Public Library of America. http://dp.la (FREE)
One of my favorite places for finding family history. A portal to thousands of archival and library connections in the United States.
Be sure to check through their holdings to see if they have newspapers in the states where your family lived.
Take a trip back into your family history! I invite you to learn how with my free eBook: “No Pictures? No Problem! 7 Great Sites for Finding Photos From Your Ancestors’ World.” Click here or on the image below.
(ca. 1918) Precautions taken in Seattle, Wash., during the Spanish Influenza Epidemic would not permit anyone to ride on the street cars without wearing a mask. 260,000 of these were made by the Seattle Chapter of the Red Cross which consisted of 120 workers, in three days. Seattle. United States Washington State seattle washington, ca. 1918. [or 1919] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017668638/.
Photographer unknown. Betty Davis, age 17. 1917. Collection of Margaret Eves.
“United States Passport Applications, 1795–1925,” database with images, FamilySearch citing NARA microfilm publications M1490 and M1372 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.)
The Presbyterian of the South : [combining the] Southwestern Presbyterian, Central Presbyterian, Southern Presbyterian. [volume] (Atlanta, Ga.), 09 Oct. 1918. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/10021978/1918-10-09/ed-1/seq-9/>
Photographer unknown. Davis and McNutt cousins circa 1918. Collection of Margaret Eves.
Eves, Margaret. Box of old photos. 2019.