Helga Estby’s Sad, Forgotten Walk across America

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena searches old newspapers to uncover the remarkable story of Helga Estby’s walk across America with her daughter in 1896—a story that was almost forgotten.

Do you ever read a book that quickly becomes a favorite because of the incredible story it tells? When this happens for me, it goes beyond just being an enjoyable read to something I want to do more research about to learn the events behind the story. I’ve had a few books affect me that way, and one of them is the story of Helga Estby as told in the book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America by Linda Lawrence Hunt.

photo of Helga Estby (seated) and her daughter Clara

Photo: Helga Estby (seated) and her daughter Clara. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant residing in the state of Washington, lived during a time when women were doing all kinds of things that pushed the prevailing gender stereotypes. Women were climbing Pikes Peak (Victorian Women Hike to the Summit of Pikes Peak!), biking across the world, and taking on the challenge of traveling around the world in fewer than 80 days.

In many cases, women were doing these things to simply prove they could. In other cases there was a financial reward for meeting the challenge. In 1896, when Helga read in the newspaper about a challenge that would award $10,000 to any woman who walked across the United States, she decided this was the answer to her family’s financial problems.

Enter Last Name

Walking the Walk

In an effort to save her family’s home and gain the money they needed to pay their mortgage and taxes, Helga and her teenage daughter Clara set off from Spokane County, Washington, to walk across the United States. They hoped to arrive in New York City safe—and leave much richer. They commenced their adventure on 5 May 1896 with little to help them except a revolver (for protection) and a plan. As part of the deal they were required to walk the entire way across the U.S. (3,500 miles) and they were to earn money for their expenses along the route. As the women traveled they took on various jobs, including selling photos of themselves, in order to earn money. Their story and progress was printed in newspapers across the country.

This update from the Denver Post reports that the mother-daughter team expected to reach New York City in a little over two months’ time. At that point in September 1896 they had been walking almost four months.

Walking to New York (Helga and Clara Estby), Denver Post newspaper article 4 September 1896

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 4 September 1896, page 2

They Did It!

The two women faced all kinds of problems as they walked across America, including injury. Today, most of us would consider a drive across the United States to be quite an undertaking—but just imagine walking the whole way, with no instant communications! Despite the hardships, the women completed the entire walk, arriving in New York City in December 1896.

Newspapers heralded the women’s completion of their 3,500 mile (in some newspaper reports it’s erroneously listed as 4,600 mile) pedestrian journey. This front page article from the Cleveland Leader proclaims that the women arrived in New York at 1:30 p.m. on 23 December 1896.

A Successful Feat on Foot (Helga and Clara Estby), Cleveland Leader newspaper article 24 December 1896

Cleveland Leader (Cleveland, Ohio), 24 December 1896, page 1

No Prize at the End of the Road

Their remarkable feat should have been celebrated and rewarded—but just the opposite happened. The challenge had been to walk across America in less than seven months. By leaving on May 5 and arriving on December 23, Helga and her daughter missed the deadline by 19 days. The sponsor of the challenge refused to pay the promised award for the remarkable journey.

Despite their determination and persistence, and all the privations the two women had suffered, the long journey was all done for nothing. Not only had the women walked all that way for no reward, they also did not have the money to travel back home. To make matters worse, Helga learned that diphtheria had struck her family during her absence; her son Olaf was sick with it, and her daughter Bertha had died.

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This article from the Omaha World Herald reports the women’s efforts to get help from the office of charities commissioners in New York. It also includes a recounting by Helga about the unfortunate family’s years of misfortune:

For eight years we have had misfortunes. It was eight years ago that I fell one night over an obstacle in the streets of Spokane and was so badly injured that it made me sick for two years. Then I had an operation which laid me up a while and then cured me. About seven years ago my husband fell and fractured his knee cap. Afterward a horse fell on him and completely laid him up. Five years ago my daughter Ida went blind. She was treated in a hospital and is about well. Then my eldest boy got inflammatory rheumatism. Two years ago our house burned down, and as we had no insurance on it we only built up the kitchen part of it. Six weeks ago my eldest son, Olaf, had diphtheria. He was in a hospital near Spokane. He got out and went to our house. Now my daughter Bertha is dead.

They Were Brave Women (Helga and Clara Estby), Omaha World Herald newspaper article 7 May 1897

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 7 May 1897, page 7

By the time the pair finally made it back home they had been gone 13 months. Once home, there was no jubilant homecoming celebration to welcome the downtrodden travelers back. Two of Helga’s children were dead from diphtheria and the family was still in financial ruin. Prevailing attitudes about women leaving their children to pursue such a dream were not favorable from the community—or from her husband and children.

While Helga’s intention was to write her story and publish it, thus making some money for her family, family pressure stood in her way. The family was so angry about her leaving them and the tragedies that happened in her absence that after Helga died her daughters saw to it that her writings were destroyed. If it were not for a defiant daughter-in-law who saved a few scrapbooks, the story of Helga’s trek across America would be lost to the family today.

Helga died in 1942 having never collected the $10,000 promised for her feat. Her notoriety continued after her long, fruitless walk. This 1905 Tacoma Daily News article summarized her journey.

Walks to Gotham -- (Helga Estby) Gets No Money, Tacoma Daily News newspaper article 25 November 1905

Tacoma Daily News (Tacoma, Washington), 25 November 1905, page 21

Helga’s Story Is Finally Told

Fast forward to 1984 when a young descendent of Helga’s enters his story “Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast” in a history writing contest, in which he tells the incredible tale of his great-great-grandmother who walked across the United States in 1896. This essay gets the attention of author Linda Lawrence Hunt, who then sets about trying to find the historical facts, largely through newspaper research, of this remarkable journey.*

Helga’s incredible story is one that is the perfect example of family history research. Without documentation, fantastic family stories can be lost within a few generations. And it’s through research—and, very importantly, newspaper research—that we can recreate our ancestors’ lives. I highly recommend reading Hunt’s book about Helga, and taking to heart something about your own family history that was said by that daughter-in-law who saved the story of Helga for her family: “take care of this story.”**

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* Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2003. p. xi.
** Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk across Victorian America. Moscow, Idaho: University of Idaho Press, 2003. p. 240.

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8 Million More Genealogy Records Just Added to GenealogyBank!

Every day, GenealogyBank is working hard to digitize more newspapers and obituaries, expanding our extensive historical collections to give you the largest newspaper archives for family history research available online. We just completed adding 8 million more U.S. genealogy records, vastly increasing our content coverage from U.S. coast to coast!

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Here are some of the details about our most recent U.S. newspaper additions:

  • A total of 35 newspaper titles from 20 U.S. states
  • 17 of these titles are newspapers added to GenealogyBank for the first time
  • Newspaper titles marked with an asterisk (*) are new to our online archives
  • We’ve shown the newspaper issue date ranges so that you can determine if the newly added content is relevant to your personal genealogy research

To see our newspaper archives’ complete title lists, click here.

State City Title Date Range Collection
Alaska Anchorage Anchorage Daily News: Web Edition Articles* 12/17/2007–Current Recent Obituaries
Arizona Rivers Gila News Courier* 09/12/1942–09/05/1945 Newspaper Archives
California Newell Newell Star* 12/31/1944–11/26/1945 Newspaper Archives
California San Francisco Corriere del Popolo 03/14/1916–12/20/1962 Newspaper Archives
California San Francisco San Francisco Chronicle 4/1/1917–8/27/1939 Newspaper Archives
Georgia Marietta Marietta Journal 2/22/1990–8/30/1998 Newspaper Archives
Idaho Boise Idaho Statesman* 1/1/1934–6/30/1987 Newspaper Archives
Idaho Hunt Minidoka Irrigator* 01/01/1944–07/28/1945 Newspaper Archives
Indiana South Bend South Bend Tribune: Web Edition Articles* 03/10/2013–Current Recent Obituaries
Kentucky Louisville Louisville Anzeiger* 03/28/1923–05/31/1928 Newspaper Archives
Massachusetts Boston Boston American 4/30/1953–11/14/1960 Newspaper Archives
Michigan Flint Flint Journal 8/19/1915–8/31/1915 Newspaper Archives
New Jersey Egg Harbor City Egg Harbor Pilot 10/08/1864–10/08/1864 Newspaper Archives
New Jersey Jersey City Jersey Journal 11/4/1914–11/4/1914 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Arbeiter Zeitung 12/12/1874–11/01/1895 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Cristoforo Colombo 07/28/1892–07/28/1892 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Eco D’Italia 01/12/1890–11/19/1896 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Fiaccola 04/11/1918–04/11/1918 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Fur Worker 10/17/1916–04/01/1930 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Gaelic American* 10/07/1905–09/28/1907 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Jewish Messenger 03/07/1879–01/21/1898 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Ognisko* 07/14/1887–06/22/1889 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Progresso Italo-Americano 04/08/1886–12/15/1889 Newspaper Archives
New York New York Vorwarts 01/18/1919–01/18/1919 Newspaper Archives
North Carolina Charlotte Charlotte Observer* 8/1/1928–3/22/1929 Newspaper Archives
North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro Daily News 3/16/1974–3/16/1974 Newspaper Archives
North Carolina Greensboro Greensboro Record 11/29/1929–11/29/1929 Newspaper Archives
North Dakota Grand Forks Evening Times 1/14/1910–3/7/1914 Newspaper Archives
Oregon St. Benedict St. Josephs-Blatt* 01/03/1938–01/03/1938 Newspaper Archives
Pennsylvania Philadelphia Momento* 01/27/1917–12/27/1919 Newspaper Archives
South Carolina Murrells Inlet Waccamaw Times* 05/30/2014–Current Recent Obituaries
South Dakota Yankton Dakota Freie Presse* 02/24/1920–02/24/1920 Newspaper Archives
Texas Corpus Christi Corpus Christi Caller-Times: Web Edition Articles* 05/22/2014–Current Recent Obituaries
Wisconsin Milwaukee Milwaukee Herold* 01/01/1921–01/01/1921 Newspaper Archives
Wyoming Heart Mountain Heart Mountain Sentinel* 08/25/1942–10/23/1945 Newspaper Archives

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Game On! A Brief Genealogy & History of the Super Bowl

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post—on the 47th anniversary of football’s first Super Bowl—Scott searches old newspapers to find stories about the beginnings of this uniquely American sporting event.

While there are older football bowl games such as the Rose Bowl (which just played its 100th game, and where I am happy to report “my” team, the Spartans of Michigan State, won), to most football fans worldwide the real “Granddaddy” of them all is simply known as the Super Bowl.

Today, January 15th, marks the 47th anniversary of the first-ever Super Bowl championship football game. This distinctly American sports/cultural phenomenon began 15 January 1967, when the NFL’s Green Bay Packers beat the AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs 35-10 to win Super Bowl I.

photos from football's first Super Bowl, Boston Record American newspaper article 16 January 1967

Boston Record American (Boston, Massachusetts), 16 January 1967, page 4

But wait, you might say that there had to be football champions before 1967! Indeed there were—and here is the genealogy of what has now become one of the biggest sporting events in the world, a huge commercial success and, according to some sources, the second-largest day for food consumption in the United States behind only Thanksgiving (good thing the Super Bowl is #2 since Thanksgiving is my personal favorite holiday and I am glad it is still #1 in something).

Brief History of Professional American Football

So when did professional American football start? The National Football League (NFL) as we know it has existed since 1920. However the first “pro” football player goes back far beyond that year. The first professional football player was a standout athlete from—of all places—Yale University, and was named William (Pudge) Heffelfinger. In 1892 he received a $500 payment from the Allegheny Athletic Club to play against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.

You can read about football’s first “pro” in this entertaining article from a 1982 Ohio newspaper.

Family Will Get a Kick out of Pro [Football] Hall of Fame, Plain Dealer newspaper article 9 April 1982

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 9 April 1982, page 85

But now back to the Super Bowl.

For decades before the first Super Bowl, the NFL fought off many competitors. However, in 1960 a new league, the American Football League (AFL), presented itself as a serious and strong competitor to the NFL. Competition between the two football leagues got downright nasty at times, as you can see in this 1960 Texas newspaper article.

Angry AFL Sues NFL for 10 Millions, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 18 June 1960

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 18 June 1960, section 2, page 1

In 1966 the two leagues agreed to merge, effective 1970. It was also decided that the two competing leagues would play for a championship at the end of the season, and both sides agreed that this competition would continue after the merger.

How Did the Super Bowl Get Its Name?

Believe it or not, it was an 8-year-old girl who had a significant role in naming that first championship game in 1967, after the completion of the1966 season, the “Super Bowl.” This nugget of football history was something I did not know until I read this 1977 article from a Virginia newspaper. It seems that the daughter Sharron of the then-owner of the Kansas City Chiefs, Lamar Hunt, was playing with a Super Ball and suggested to her father that the football championship game be called the “Super Bowl”—and so the name of the game was born!

story about how football's Super Bowl got its name, Richmond Times Dispatch newspaper article 24 November 1977

Richmond Times Dispatch (Richmond, Virginia), 24 November 1977, page 80

The First Super Bowl

Right off the bat (or, more appropriately, the arm of Green Bay quarterback Bart Starr) the Super Bowl was BIG! On the day of the game, the headline in this 1967 Massachusetts newspaper blared: “Super Sunday—Here At Last!” The news article wondered: “Will it be the SUPER BOWL or the BLOOPER BOWL?” I guess we all know the answer to that! It was a success, as told by the fact that this year we will witness Super Bowl XLVIII.

Super [Bowl] Sunday--Here at Last, Boston Herald newspaper article 15 January 1967

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 15 January 1967, page 63

I did get some surprises when I read this 1967 article from a South Dakota newspaper. It seems that everything about that first football championship game was not immediately “super.” The article reported that: there were some 30,000 empty seats at the first Super Bowl; not one, but two, television networks (NBC and CBS) televised the game; and “the price scale was too high for the average fan. Tickets ranged from $6 to $12.” Contrast this with the current prices listed by the ticket reselling website StubHub! for Super Bowl XLVIII: tickets range from $2,524 for a single seat in the upper end zone to $525,022.50 for a “level 6 suite”!

stories about football's first Super Bowl, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 16 January 1967

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 16 January 1967, page 9

The Super Bowl Becomes Super Profitable

Beginning from a somewhat less-than-super start, the Super Bowl has now fulfilled its promise and practically become a national holiday in the U.S. The financial aspect of this legendary football event has become enormous. In 1977, just 10 years after the first Super Bowl, this North Carolina newspaper reported that Super Bowl XI was expected to result in an economic impact of “between $85 and $105 million.” (Last year the University of New Orleans estimated that Super Bowl XLVII resulted in a net economic impact of $480 million for the New Orleans area.)

Super [Bowl] Bash--Serious Business off Field, Greensboro Record newspaper article 7 January 1977

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 7 January 1977, page 20

Super Bowl Trivia

As you begin your preparations for this year’s Super Sunday and Super Bowl LXVIII, I suggest you might want to take a few minutes and have some pre-game fun with this trivia challenge from a 1990 Illinois newspaper. It has a dozen questions that just might stump even the most diehard football fan at your party.

Super Bowl Trivia, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990

Chicago Metro News (Chicago, Illinois), 27 January 1990, page 14

From the same issue of the Chicago Metro News, these trivia answers were provided. Keep in mind these answers were current in 1990.

answers to Super Bowl trivia quiz, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990answers to Super Bowl trivia quiz, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990answers to Super Bowl trivia quiz, Chicago Metro News newspaper article 27 January 1990

Share Your Super Bowl Story

Were you at the first Super Bowl? What are your memories of football’s first Super Bowl? Share them with us in the comments, and enjoy the game everyone!