30 December 2012

Where Were They? Turn of the Century Mark

Where Were They graphic

With 2012 quickly coming to a close, I thought this would be an appropriate entry in my Where Were They? series.

My initial thought on this topic, the turn of the century – as in 1899 to 1900 – was this: did they have their own Y2K?  Remember that? Remember how the world was “going to end” when we hit 2000?

What was going on in 1899 that would have made folks fear or anticipate the new century?

The United States National Museum Building,
now the Arts and Industries Building,
pictured at the turn of the century.
(Source: http://siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/century/usnm.htm)

Reviewing a few websites was absolutely necessary, and although what I found was interesting, it was not earth shattering.
  • America is a world power. The west has been settled, the Spanish-American War of 1898 – less than 100 days of it – was a success, both on the battlefield and with the populous.
  • Our native people had been shuffled onto reservations. Buffalo were essentially gone. Automobiles, or “the horseless carriage” and telephones were household words and tools. Frank Lloyd Wright was starting his career in Chicago, John D. Rockefeller had started the Standard Oil Trust company. Andrew Carnegie had constructed the world’s largest steel mill in Pittsburgh.
  • The transcontinental link had been completed in 1869, and by 1900 the nation had “193,00 miles of track, with five railroad systems spanning the continent.” (Source: America at the Turn of the Century: A Look at the Historical Context)

Although still mostly rural than urban, America had become the stand out in world success. Industry, politics, innovation and technology, war. There were many poor, there were many that were overworked in factories; but President McKinley still ran on a platform of prosperity for his re-election in 1900, which he won. (Source: Macrohistory and World Report, The United States to 1910)

Life was not easy. Can you imagine, though, seeing all of that come to be reality? Would it have changed your view of the world, your daily routine? Picture yourself as a young adult, having been born and raised in a rural setting, then walking down the city sidewalks to see the evening sky lit with electric lights for the first time.

Getting Personal

The big question in this series is this: how did this event affect the lives of my ancestors (or yours)?
As always, I will start with the family of Oscar Brown, because, well, his life fascinates me, and there are lots of questions there still.
homestead, Nebraska, genealogy, family history, Colfax County, Oscar F. Brown, Civil War, veteranIn 1899-1900, Oscar, his wife Frances, and two of their five children were living in Central City, Merrick County, Nebraska. By this time, Oscar had given up on his homestead and moved into a “city”, living primarily off of his Civil War pension. In April of 1901, his pension file includes a notation that he had suffered from small pox for the last six months.  No occupation is listed for either Oscar of Frances in the 1900 U.S. Federal Census. By the time of his death in October of 1906, his household goods had been assessed at a mere $10.00.

Living in rural Nebraska, would they have ridden in an automobile yet? Perhaps there was one or two in Central City. I have to assume the railroad advancements during the past ten years had affected them in some way, even if it was just to get mail faster.

For a man who had served in the Civil War, was a regional Deputy Sheriff in Missouri, then went on to become a State Senator for Nebraska, these last few years of his life, living in essential poverty, must have been difficult. His pension file, and again in Frances’ widow’s pension, states that his health declined quickly, beginning around 1900.  He could not work, could not support his wife and children, and likely, with adult children in the area, they were helping to support him. Would he even have cared that city streets were gaining cable cars?

Eilert Heerten. Another man whose life remains a bit of a mystery. He is my maternal 2nd great grandfather, and arrived in America from Germany in 1869. He, too, would have lived through this transition period in our country, and just as with Oscar, he lived in a rural area.

Heerten, Anna & Eilert headstone (2)
His family has settled on land in Keya Paha County, Nebraska. In 1900, he is farming with two adult sons, and has three other children in the household, along with his wife, Amke, or “Annie”. Financially, he appears to be doing better than Oscar, but he’s also 15 years younger. Perhaps he was more interested in the developments across the country, more attuned to what was happening “out in the world.” However, Keya Paha County is more remote, farther from the main rail lines, and therefore, farther from the news.

Did this New Year’s Eve 113 years ago have any affect on these families? Did they celebrate “bigger'”? Did they ignore the entire event, because they still had to get up and take care of the farm the next morning, just as with any other day?

Questions such as this may never be answered, but they are still worth asking.

Where were your ancestors when 1899 became 1900?


  1. Wow. I loved this post. I'm going to spend some time trying to figure out who in my family would have seen the 1899-1900 celebration. Great idea!

    1. Thanks so much! It was a fun way to explore the question at hand, and good timing! Enjoy your search, and happy 2013! ~ Jen

  2. Great post, Jen. It makes me want to dig out my family to see where they were in 1912. :)

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! I thought about doing 1912, but 1899 has been pulling at me for a while. Happy 2013!

  3. Great post Jen! Like Stephanie, I now want to see where my ancestors were in 1912.

    1. Thank you, Jana! Let us know what you find! Happy 2013! ~ Jen

  4. Thank you so much for this reminder of our ancestors as very real everyday people as they observed the world around them and the events taking place. I feel like I gained a different perspective! Happy New Year everyone!

    1. Thank you, Barb! I really enjoy the "Where Were They" series I've been doing sporadically, it adds a great deal of depth to my ancestor's daily lives, in my opinion. Thank you for reading, for commenting, and happy 2013! ~Jen

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  6. I love this idea. I'm definitely going to think about how the turn of the century affected my ancestors. I hope I can create a post half as interesting and thought-provoking as yours.


Please comment! I would love to hear your thoughts!