The one thing I often overlook when it comes to researching an ancestor’s story is the weather. And it shouldn’t be: climate patterns and weather phenomenon guided both our ancestors’ day-to-day decisions and their long-term migration patterns, just as they guide our own. Rainstorms were essential to keeping crops alive, but snowstorms may have kept our ancestors inside for days or weeks on end. Wildfires, droughts, dust storms or tornadoes often forced our ancestors inland–or toward the coast, as the case may be–in search of safety and security. But I rarely think to look through old farmer’s almanacs or reports on the weather in local newspaper archives–until now. Because a brief mention of a cyclone in 1834 has led me to more information on the Nelson family than I could’ve dreamed of, and I’ll never overlook the weather again.
It all starts with Cephas Nelson; he was born on August 25, 1783 in Hebron, New York to John Nelson and Molly Hare, and he was the older brother of my 6th great-grandfather, Silas Nelson. He married Eunice Lyman–the daughter of Major Isaac Lyman, a Revolutionary War veteran and one of the founders of Potter County, Pennsylvania–on December 5, 1805, and they had six children: Horatio (b. 1806), Henry (b. 1808), Charlotte (b. 1811), Lyman (b. 1812), James (b. 1814) and Almeron (b. 1817). In March of 1820, the Nelson family loaded all of their belongings into a two-horse sleigh and traveled 340 miles to Lymansville, Pennsylvania to start anew. Cephas and Eunice purchased a farm and two working steers, cleared and seeded the land and harvested enough crops for a year’s supply of food. It was a success.
When the Nelson family arrived in Lymansville, there were only 21 families living in the entirety of Potter County. The families were scattered on small clearings of farmland, surrounded by dense forests and so far apart as hardly to be neighborly. The roads were few–mere pathways cut through the forest–and were obstructed by stumps, roots and stones. Travelers were forced to wade or pass around the land’s creeks, swamps and sloughs, and stores, mills and markets were dozens of miles away. These first pioneers–including Cephas and his family–were tough-as-nails, and they apparently had one more thing to contend with: hurricanes. The Hazards Register of Pennsylvania mentions a cyclone that swept through Potter County in 1834–right across the Nelson family farm.
The most serious hurricane which was ever witnessed in this section of the country took place at Lymansville, Potter County, the particulars of which, as related by John Earle, Jr., who was an eyewitness to the sad catastrophe, are briefly as follows:
It commenced on the point of the hill, south of the Tillage, and taking a northerly direction, it leveled the timber in its course, till it came to the Saw Mill, which it entirely demolished. Next the Pail Factory, in which there were four persons, who were blown several rods, and two of them slightly injured, was blown down.
Next the house formerly occupied by Major Lyman, taking the upper story off, and making a complete wreck of the lower; also the shed and wagon house were literally torn to pieces. Next the house occupied by William Crosby was blown down, with Mr. Crosby, his wife, and three children; but fortunately none were injured.
Next a large house formerly occupied by Harry Lyman was un-roofed, and the body very much injured; also on the opposite side of the street, one large barn and forty foot shed were leveled to the ground. Next three log buildings—a school house, dwelling house, and blacksmith shop–were un-roofed.
Next the dwelling house of Cephas Nelson was un-roofed. Next a barn belonging to Almond Woodcock was also blown down, in which there were two span of horses and three boys. One of the horses was killed and the others slightly injured; the boys were blown about twelve rods, and one of them (a son of Mr. Woodcock) had his thigh broken.
Next two houses and a barn belonging to Mr. Bellis; the barn was blown down and the houses un-roofed. Next a house and barn of Almond Woodcock; the house was un-roofed and the barn blown down. Continuing its course in a northern direction the hurricane terminated its destructive effects about a mile north of the village.
All the timber in its range was entirely swept to the ground, and fences and orchards completely destroyed. The whole village presents a general miss of ruins. The fields are completely covered with boards, timber and shingles, which were blown from the buildings. Every building in the village was either destroyed or very materially injured; and what is more remarkable, no lives were lost! The loss must no doubt be seriously felt by many. The hail were measured for curiosity, and several measured five inches in circumference.
The Nelson family’s home was significantly damaged in the hurricane, but the barn withstood the wind and only suffered the loss of the roof. Cephas eventually purchased more land, built a new homestead for his family and extended the barn, making it a 36 by 40 foot structure with hewed timbers. By 1946, the barn was the oldest building in Potter County–118 years old, to be exact–and had somehow survived the storms of over a century. It had been passed down from Cephas to his son, Almeron, and to his son, Almeron Taggart, until it was razed in 1946 and used in the construction of a new house. But I have a photo of the burning barn–and that’s more than I could’ve dreamed of.
I’ll never overlook the weather again; a brief note about a cyclone in Almeron Nelson’s 1834 notes led me to the Nelson family’s journey from New York to Pennsylvania, a detailed list of the hurricane’s path of destruction and a photo of the old–albeit burning–barn. Weather reports and notes in the margins can tell us how difficult the harvest was from season to season; they can tell us why our ancestors moved from place to place; and they can even give us clues as to the time period a photo was taken. But sometimes, they can connect us to even more sources and stories, and it’s worth checking in on the weather every now and again.