Family Tree Friday: Historical Events Reflected in the Records

Did you know that you can find references to important historical events in our records? You’ve probably already seen some of what I’m talking about. Sometimes it’s obvious, as in the case of the Carpathia arriving in New York City on April 18, 1912 with the survivors from the Titanic. Sometimes, however, you can stumble across something without knowing what it is.

The 1860 mortality schedule for Frederick County, VA, is a good example of this. We initially looked at this census page and saw Sallie Cater, who died at the age of 40. Her entry stood out because she was a slave, and this was likely the only reference to her death. But when we looked more closely at this page, we found another entry that is connected to an important event.

Haywood Shepherd was a baggage handler by trade. Forty-six years old, he was married. He died in October 1859, after an illness of 11 hours. The cause of death? “Shot by John Brown’s Company at Harpers Ferry.”

1860 Frederick County, VA  Mortality Schedule
1860 Frederick County, VA Mortality Schedule

Shepherd was the first man shot when abolitionist John Brown and his company attempted to start an armed slave revolt by seizing the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Ultimately John Brown and his company failed, but not before several men had been killed.

So the next time you’re doing research, take a closer look at the records – you never know what you’ll find. It might not be your ancestors, but you might find something really neat.

Have you found anything unexpected when researching?

The mortality schedules are available on microfilm and online at

2 thoughts on “Family Tree Friday: Historical Events Reflected in the Records

  1. I found a relative in a Chicago directory under the category of settlement houses. Then another listing caught my eye – Hull House with head resident Jane Addams.

    1. Hi Deborra,

      This is exactly the kind of thing I was talking about. I may be a big history geek, and this may be a cliche, but seeing something like that makes history come alive. I think part of the fun is that these finds are unexpected – you’re looking for an ancestor, and then you just sort of stumble upon something like this.

      – Katherine

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