Did Your Ancestor Live to 100? Centenarians in the Newspaper

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena writes about ancestors who lived to be 100—and how newspaper articles about them can help your family history research.

How old was your oldest ancestor? A 2011 Huffington Post article reported that the “Number of Centenarians Is Booming in U.S.” It went on to comment that the number of people who celebrate a triple digit birthday has doubled in the last 20 years and today numbers approximately 72,000 people. It is predicted that in the future the number of centenarians will likely at least double again.*

It’s no wonder that the number of people reaching 100 years of age is increasing; decreases in infant mortality, combined with better medical and preventative health care, have enhanced life expectancy. While there’s a greater chance of someone today knowing or being related to a centenarian, in an earlier time—lacking these modern improvements—living to be 100 years of age would have been something short of a miracle.

When one of our ancestors did reach the age of 100 it was a newsworthy event, most likely reported in the local newspaper. Searching through an online newspaper collection like GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives is a good way to find these centenarian articles—and they can be very helpful with your family history research.

Newspaper articles reporting these birthday milestones largely concentrated on the birthday celebration, often interviewing the honoree about historical events witnessed and their recommendations for longevity. Along with being interesting news stories, the added benefit to these articles is that they often include genealogically relevant information—including the date and place where the centenarian was born, their parents’ names, and other family information.

100 Years of History

One of the benefits of living a long life is the history that you witness. I like this article about Jabez Chapman, whose life was written up during his 99th year in 1895. This interview has him reminiscing about the War of 1812, the death of President George Washington, and his interactions with James Fenimore Cooper, the author of the classic novel Last of the Mohicans.

Near the 100 Mark: Jabez Chapman Ninety-nine Years Old, Idaho Register newspaper article 20 December 1895

Idaho Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho), 20 December 1895, page 3

If you want to know more about Chapman’s life, check out the timeline following him through federal and state censuses in the blog post titled Point of View: State Censuses Fill the Gaps, by Jean Chapman Snow. So you may be wondering: did Chapman make it to his 100th birthday? After finding his death certificate, Snow confirms that Jabez Chapman died at 100 years, 3 months and 16 days.

The Oldest Living Spinster

While some newspaper articles about those who are 100+ center around what history they’ve lived through or what famous people they met, in some cases it’s what the centenarians can still accomplish that is the biggest news. Consider this article from a 1905 Nebraska newspaper about Miss Eliza Williams. The article points out that she is in such good shape for her age that she is the first person up in the household and is able to dress herself. Once ready for the day she reads a hymn and a chapter from the Bible. The article gives the impression that she would do much more including sewing (which she gave up at 98 years of age), but her family persuaded her to “save her strength.”

Oldest Old Maid [Eliza Williams]: She Is Over 100 Years Old and Not Ashamed of It, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 23 August 1905

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 23 August 1905, page 7

Of course no discussion of those who have reached such a momentous milestone would be complete without getting some advice about what the centenarian’s secret is. Miss Eliza Williams replies to this question: “obedience to her parents, and not meddling with other people’s business when it could do her no good.”

What’s a Birthday without a Stiff Drink?

The great thing about being older is the ability to say what you want and not worry what people will think. That’s also what makes reading these articles about 100th birthdays so much fun. Consider this short but sweet newspaper article, including a photo, of the birthday “boy” John H. Whitmore, a former prison warden. Unfortunately, due to prohibition, he didn’t get the alcoholic beverage he would have preferred to celebrate with—but instead tried his first ice cream soda. Judging from his comments, ice cream sodas are not the preferred beverage of 100-year-old men.

First Soda on 100th Birthday, Miami District Daily News newspaper article 12 August 1919

Miami District Daily News (Miami, Oklahoma), 12 August 1919, page 5

Check Your Family Tree

Do you have someone in your family tree that lived to be 100 years old? It wasn’t too long ago that such a feat was rewarded with recognition in the newspaper. Just as we should research newspapers for milestone celebrations such as a 50th wedding anniversary, don’t forget to search for mentions of an ancestor who lived a long life or celebrated a milestone birthday.

Be sure to read our related Blog article: Find the Oldest People to Ever Live, as Reported in Newspapers and please share the names and ages of your centenarian ancestors in the comments.

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* Number of Centenarians Is Booming in U.S. by Matt Sedensky. April 26, 2011. Accessed 29 December 2013.

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Written by Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide.

Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly, FGS Forum, APG Quarterly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together, Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) and From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012).

Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists, board member of the Utah Genealogical Association and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance.

Her current research interests include social history, community, social history, community cookbooks, signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

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4 thoughts on “Did Your Ancestor Live to 100? Centenarians in the Newspaper

  1. I really enjoyed reading your post on Centenarians. I found my 4X great grandmother Sallie Hafford (Sally/Sarah) who lived to 116 (one newspaper lists her age as 124).

  2. Bernita,

    Wow! 116 years old. That’s remarkable to have lived that long in a time where one did not have the health care available to us now. I would imagine there must be several newspaper articles about her longevity that were published in the years after she turned 100.

    Thanks so much for sharing your story and for reading the post.
    –Gena

  3. I was adopted in 1952 as a 3 year old. I found my birth family in 1970. now at 65 years old after 12 years of research, I have completed my family tree back to the mid 1500′a, including my husbands and the adoptive side. My adoptive grandmother’s life began in western Kansas, in a dug out, then built a sod home from the earth, before moving to Topeka to a regular home. She lived to be just shy of 100 years old in 1983 (born in 1883) . Thanks to those who shared the interesting posts. -Nancy

    • Nancy, thanks for taking the time to read the article and comment. It sounds like you’ve been busy uncovering your ancestor’s stories. It’s always nice to find someone in our family tree who lived a long life (which may lead to additional records).

      Gena

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