Nellie Tayloe Ross: the Nation’s First Female Governor

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 learn more about one of the pioneering women in American history: Nellie Tayloe Ross, the first woman governor in U.S. history.

It would seem fitting that the first U.S. state to inaugurate a female governor was Wyoming. Wyoming, whose motto is the “Equality State,” approved female suffrage prior to statehood in 1869. In 1924, after the untimely demise of her husband, then-Wyoming governor William Ross, Nellie Tayloe Ross was asked by the Democratic National Committee if she would run for governor.

photo of Nellie Tayloe Ross, 1922

Photo: Nellie Tayloe Ross, 1922. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

While she was discouraged by others close to her, in the end Nellie – who had two sons to support and bills to pay – decided to add her name to the ballot. The race would be tough for a Democratic woman since Wyoming was largely a Republican state and many did not see politics as a place for women. On top of that, her campaign relied largely on friends and advertisements since the recent widow was not ready to actively promote herself.

However, Nellie won the election on 4 November 1924 and was inaugurated on 5 January 1925.

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Two Women Running to Be Nation’s First Governor

During that 1924 election year, Wyoming wasn’t the only state looking to elect a female governor. In Texas, Miriam “Ma” Ferguson was also campaigning to become the nation’s first female governor.

This article from the Evening Star reminds readers that Wyoming was first in granting women’s suffrage: “Thirty-four years ago, Wyoming Territory felt sufficiently grown up to put on the long pants of statehood, and the strangely assorted group of cowmen, homesteaders, prospectors, and lawyers who framed her progressive laws cudgeled their brains for some gesture with which to demonstrate their superiority over the backward and decadent East.”

article about Nellie Ross and the Wyoming election of 1924, Evening Star newspaper article 18 October 1924

Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 18 October 1924, page 4

In the 1924 election, Texas’ Ma Ferguson was elected governor in her state’s race. Interestingly, her husband had also been governor years earlier but was impeached. That didn’t stop Miriam from winning her race and becoming the first female governor of Texas. However, Nellie was inaugurated in Wyoming 15 days before Ferguson was in Texas, giving her the title of the nation’s first woman governor.

Nellie, the Governor

After her overwhelming win, Nellie continued to work on some of her husband’s projects including enforcement of prohibition. In addition she promoted her own agenda that included “…requiring cities, counties, and school districts to have budgets; stronger state laws regulating banks…obtaining more funds for the university; improving safety for coal miners; protecting women in industrial jobs; and supporting a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would cut back on child labor.”*

Nellie’s brief stint as Governor of Wyoming (she was governor for two years) was not without its detractors. One might expect that many men who believed that politics was no place for women would be hyper vigilant to point out her foibles and mistakes, but women were also among those who were unhappy with her performance. Their complaints included that she had not done enough to assist women in the political sphere, including her lack of female political advisors.**

One issue that women’s clubs had with Nellie was her position on prohibition. In this article boldly titled “California Women Snub Nellie Ross” about a Southern California chapter of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), they had “by resolution…declared Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross inconsistent in avowing herself a prohibitionist and at the same time campaigning in the California presidential primary in behalf of the candidacy of Governor Al Smith, of New York.” They want on to say: “We deplore the position taken by Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross, former governor of Woyming [sic], who is now in California proclaiming herself a prohibitionist and in favor of enforcement of the prohibition laws of the United States and yet is speaking publicly in support of the presidential candidacy of Governor Al Smith, of New York, whose record on nullification of the prohibition law and whose personal sentiments in opposition to prohibition are well known to the people of the entire nation.”

article about Nellie Ross and prohibition, Macon Telegraph newspaper article 20 April 1928

Macon Telegraph (Macon, Georgia), 20 April 1928, page 1

Public Life after Being Governor

After Nellie served two years as governor, she continued a high-profile life that included the lecture circuit. In this 1930 South Dakota engagement reported by the Aberdeen Daily News, she was addressing the issue of women in politics. She said: “Political emancipation in the 19th amendment gives recognition of women as thinking, intelligent human beings.” She went on to talk about the fact that it wasn’t easy for women to enter roles that had been traditionally held by men. She stated that “men have felt the responsibility resting upon them for so many years…that it is hard for them to allow women to enter in.”

article about a speech by Nellie Ross, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 27 June 1930

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 27 June 1930, page 7

Nellie went on to be the vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and then, in 1933, was the first woman appointed to head the U.S. Mint, a job she held for 20 years until 1953.

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There’s no doubt that Nellie enjoyed many firsts in her life. She was written about in newspapers throughout the United States for the various events and activities she took part in. She also made the news in 1976 when she turned 100 years old.

article about Nellie Ross turning 100, Seattle Daily Times newspaper article 26 November 1976

Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 26 November 1976, page 2

Nellie died at 101 years of age in Washington D.C. Although she had been Wyoming’s governor for only two years, her title of first woman governor was one that was repeated in almost every newspaper article about her throughout her life – including her obituary.

obituary for Nellie Ross, San Diego Union newspaper article 21 December 1977

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 21 December 1977, page 36

Note: FamilySearch International (FamilySearch.org) and GenealogyBank are partnering to make over a billion records from historical obituaries searchable online. The tremendous undertaking will make a billion records from over 100 million U.S. newspaper obituaries readily searchable online. The newspapers are from all 50 states and cover the period 1730 to the present.  Find out more at: http://www.genealogybank.com/family-search/

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* Rea, Tom. The Ambition of Nellie Tayloe Ross. WyoHistory.org. http://www.wyohistory.org/essays/ambition-nellie-tayloe-ross. Accessed 28 December 2014.

** Ibid

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The Leaves of Fall: Leaf Stories, Poems & Decorating Ideas

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott celebrates the colorful foliage of the autumn season by finding lots of leaf stories in old newspapers.

I am an unabashed lover of autumn and all it brings us! It is my favorite time to go out and take photographs at cemeteries. I love the crisp mornings coupled with the still-warm afternoon sunshine, walking in the woods, and perhaps most of all the leaves as they present us with all their magnificent fall colors.

One of our family’s favorite autumn pastimes when our children were young was for me to rake the leaves into a huge pile and then allow our children to make a massive leaf “fort.”

photo taken by Scott Phillips of his son in a leaf fort, circa 1979

Photo: the author’s son in his leaf fort, circa 1979. Credit: Scott Phillips.

The other day, I was enjoying the wonderful fall colors and delightful vistas—along with some wonderful autumn memories stirring in my mind’s eye—when I decided to take a look at the online historical newspapers of GenealogyBank.com to see if other folks shared my love of autumn. Let me just say it appears, much like the colors of our autumn leaves, to be a bit of a mixed bag.

Fall Fairy Tale

My first discovery was a delightful fairy tale from a 1917 South Dakota newspaper. Featuring autumn leaves, “Mr. Wind,” the “Breeze Brothers,” gnomes, and fairies, it is exactly the kind of story I would have enjoyed telling my children and I have now saved it so that I can read it to our grandsons.

Daddy's Evening Fairy Tale: Autumn Leaves, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 10 October 1917

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 10 October 1917, page 7

Decorating with Leaves

Next I came across a name that rang a bell with me. It was “Cappy Dick” in a 1954 issue of my hometown newspaper in Cleveland, the Plain Dealer. I recall looking forward to Cappy Dick’s “Hobby Club” ideas in the newspaper every week when I was a child. In this article, Cappy instructed his young fans to take a vase and “Brush shellac all over the surface. Then stick the bits of leaf to the shellac after first applying glue to the back of each leaf.” Reading it made me laugh out loud at the thought of how my mother and grandmother might have reacted had I ever dared take shellac, glue, and autumn leaves to any one of their precious vases.

Decorate a Vase or Jar with Leaves, Plain Dealer newspaper article 15 October 1954

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 15 October 1954, page 51

Moonshiners Make Crafty Use of Leaves

Still chuckling over my likely “shellacking” had I shellacked a vase, I came across an article from a 1928 North Carolina newspaper, during the height of Prohibition, that contained a unique take on autumn leaves. The article reported: “Officers in recent days have discovered that the moonshiners are taking advantage of the fall of autumn leaves in a unique way. A trench deep and long enough to contain about four barrels of beer is dug next to the log of a fallen tree in the depth of the woods…On top of these is (sic) laid sheets of iron roofing and then leaves are raked so that they gradually slope up to the top of the log as if blown by autumnal breezes. Four barrels like this were found during last week by the use of sticks to punch into the leaves.” I guess there were smart moonshiners in those days—but perhaps even smarter officers.

Officers Locate Horse Head in Barrel of Corn Beer in East Davidson County, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 12 December 1928

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 December 1928, page 13

Leaves Cause Broken Ankle

Mrs. Francis M. Whitlaw evidently did not take too kindly to autumn leaves, as reported in a 1908 Missouri newspaper. While it made me a bit sad that Mrs. Whitlaw broke her ankle due to the leaves, I found it an interesting bit of time-travel to read that she was treated by her doctor at “Rose & Gordon’s drug store” and was taken “in a carriage” to the hotel where her husband was the manager.

Autumn Leaves: An Accident, Kansas City Star newspaper article 9 November 1908

Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 9 November 1908, page 4

Leaves Cause Fall Fatalities

Then I got a real shock when I read an article from an 1898 New York newspaper about a fatal train wreck caused by autumn leaves. While definitely a tragic story, I found the amazing details related to this autumn leaves event extremely interesting.

Wreck Caused by Autumn Leaves: Clogged Brakes, and Sent Lehigh Valley Train Dashing Down Mountainside to Collision, New York Herald newspaper article 12 November 1898

New York Herald (New York, New York), 12 November 1898, page 7

Poem about Leaves

I closed out my searching after making a delightful discovery in a 1911 Idaho newspaper. Oh what memories this lovely poem brought back! I could smell the wonderful aroma of burning leaves (now forbidden in our community) in the fall. I encourage you to read this nifty little poem. As the anonymous author writes, “such scented censer smoke” brings each of us “The glory of our olden dreams.”

A Poem: The Burning Leaves, Idaho Statesman newspaper article 29 October 1911

Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho), 29 October 1911, page 4

I hope you enjoy the wonder of this autumn’s colorful leaf display, and indulge in some fun memories of your own as you rake the leaves. And if you have a moment, how about sharing your favorite autumn family memories here with me in the comments section? I’d certainly enjoy hearing them!