Did it rain on Grandma’s wedding? : Using Historic Weather Data in Your Genealogy Research

I have not heard much talk about using historic weather data in genealogy research. It’s an under-utilized tool that can help paint a picture of special dates and times of our ancestors lives. Weather data can illuminate a variety of historical scenarios:

  • What was the weather like on the day Great-Grandmother gave birth to her first child? (Was it negative ten degrees and in the middle of a freak snowstorm?)
  • Was rain plentiful, or was there a drought the year the family established the farm?
  • Did Great-Grandfather really have to walk to school up hill, both ways, in two feet of snow?

Answers to these questions may be found online, for free, courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center. Among the information provided are annual and even daily weather summaries dating as far back as the 1700s.

So, the stories were true! Vassar saw thirteen inches of snow in one day in February 1898.
Maybe the stories were true. Vassar, Michigan saw thirteen inches of snow in one day on 21 February 1898.

The site may be a bit confusing at first, so I’ve put together quick tutorial on how to access weather data that’s useful for the genealogist and historical researcher. But first, here are a few quick links to some of the good stuff for the Saginaw Valley:

Bay County, Michigan: Daily Summaries

Flint (Michigan) Bishop International Airport: Annual Summaries

Genesee County, Michigan: Daily Summaries

Midland County, Michigan: Daily Summaries

Saginaw County, Michigan: Daily Summaries

Saginaw (Michigan) MBS International Airport: Annual Summaries

Tuscola County, Michigan: Daily Summaries

  • What was the weather as your immigrant ancestors stood on the deck of their ship as it pulled into New York harbor?

Here’s a link to the weather observation station in New York’s Central Park, with data back to 1876:

New York, New York Central Park Belvedere Tower: Daily Summaries

Climate Data Online: A Quick Tutorial

Begin by accessing the Climate Data Online: Search Tool.

Make a selection from “Select Weather Observation Type/Dataset” drop-down menu. Genealogists will likely find the annual and daily summaries to be the most useful.

National Climatic Data Center: Online Search Tool screen.
National Climatic Data Center: Online Search Tool screen.

Leave the default in “Select Date Range” menu. You will still get all the station results for your selected area.

In the “Search For” drop down menu, I find the “Counties” option to be the most efficient. Searching by county will show all the available station data for the entire county across a range of dates.

Next, type the name of your county in the “Location Name, etc.” box and click the “Search” button.

A menu displaying possible location choices matching your criteria will appear along the left-hand side. Select your correct location of interest.

Click on the name of your selected search result.
Click on the name of your selected search result.

Your data set location details will appear. In my case, I chose “Daily Summaries.” To see all the station daily summary data sets available for your county, click on “see station list below” next to the number of included stations or scroll to the bottom of the screen and click on “Station List.”

Click on "see list of stations."
Click on “see station list below.”

The “Location Station List & Summarized Data Inventory” will appear. Select your station of interest.

Click on your selected station.
Click on your selected station.

The “Daily Summaries Station Details” will appear. It will display a map and also provide location coordinates for the station. Scroll down to select the year and month of interest from the drop down menus.

Select the year and month you wish to view from the drop-down menus.

Your “Record of Climatological Observations” displays.  Data may include maximum and minimum temperatures and rainfall and snow amounts.

Your results display.