Go West Old Maid! Some of Our Unmarried Ancestors Did

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 about a time – in 1898 – when the U.S. government published a report and map to help unmarried women locate bachelors throughout the country.

Having trouble finding a marriage partner? Whom should you turn to for help? A matchmaker? A family member or friend? How about Uncle Sam?

Yes, Uncle Sam. Uncle Sam entered into the matchmaking business with the publishing of a 19th century U.S. Census Bureau report. This work was unique in that it addressed where to find an eligible bachelor based on location. According to the dissertation “Unclaimed Flowers and Blossoms Protected by Thorns: Never-Married Women in the United States, 1880-1930” by Jill Frahm*:

In 1898, the U.S. Census Bureau published what the popular press dubbed an “Old Maids Chart” graphically illustrating at a glance in what localities bachelors [were] the thickest, and in what regions spinsters [were] most dense per square mile.

illustration of a couple at their wedding

Credit: skinbus; openclipart.org

Using the now lost-to-us 1890 census (much of it was destroyed in a 1921 fire), the report documented “the number of single men and women over the age of twenty in each state.”

Statistical Chart of Bachelors and Spinsters of the United States

While officially titled the “Statistical Chart of Bachelors and Spinsters of the United States,” an 1898 Colorado newspaper article suggested a more tongue in cheek title:

The National Guide to Bachelors; a complete index for old maids and spinsters to the best places in the Union for getting husbands; with maps, charts, etc.; tells at a glance just where bachelors are most abundant.

article about a government report on bachelors and unmarried women in the United States, Denver Post newspaper article 23 September 1898

Denver Post (Denver, Colorado), 23 September 1898, page 4

Newspapers across the United States reported on the findings of this report. Like any article picked up by the wire services, some reports contained more information than others – and in some cases included the writer’s personal opinion.

How Many Eligible Bachelors Are There?

Did late 19th century spinsters believe that their lack of a marital status was the result of too few good men where they lived? While this was true during certain time periods like immediately after the American Civil War or in Britain after World War I, that doesn’t really seem to be the case in 19th century America, according to this 1898 Kansas newspaper article which stated that there were 2,200,000 more bachelors than old maids in the United States. (It’s important to remember that in reality not all of the men counted as single in the census would have been eligible bachelors. Some may have been institutionalized or incarcerated for example).

The article reports:

There is not a state in the union where there are as many old maids as bachelors. Even Massachusetts, the traditional home of the spinster of the poll-parrot species, has more men than women of marriageable age.

article about a government report on bachelors and unmarried women in the United States, American Citizen newspaper article 14 October 1898

American Citizen (Kansas City, Kansas), 14 October 1898, page 4

The article says “old maids” should have good luck finding bachelors anywhere in the U.S. – but it especially urges spinsters to “Go West”:

But if she wants a territory where negotiations may be completed with even greater ease – where the lottery of marriage must become a dead sure thing – let her hie herself from the crowded cities of the east to the rolling prairies or mountain wilds of the west, where there are ten bachelors to every available maiden. What spinster can resist such an advantage as this, which is offered by the states of Idaho and Wyoming? It would surely be a hopeless case which would not find its cure with the chances ten to one for recovery. Let the old maids try the free, fresh air of these mountain lands for awhile.

Where was the best place for a 19th century “old maid” to find a husband? Probably not too surprisingly, the western states of Idaho and Wyoming. Whether or not it was true, a popular belief was that young men were heading west to seek their riches, thus leaving behind single women in the New England states.

Some editorializing occurred with the publishing of this government report, including the stereotypical views regarding why marriage eluded some women. In this 1898 Massachusetts newspaper article, the rather derogatory point is made that:

With these figures in hand it ought not to be hard for the average lonely spinster to hunt down a husband and corner him, so to speak. She need not be attractive; a woman does not need many charms to secure a mate in a region like Idaho or Wyoming, where there are ten bachelors for every available maiden.

article about a government report on bachelors and unmarried women in the United States, Boston Journal newspaper article28 August 1898

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 28 August 1898, page 8

When Are You Getting Married?

So was every New England spinster chomping at the bit to go west to seek her (husband) fortune? Maybe not, according to author Betsy Israel. In her book Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century she writes:

…very few unwed New England women were inclined to trek after men into the wilderness. The self-educated spinster, in particular, understood just what was in store for her “out there.”

She goes on to point out that a good number of children were needed to help out on farms, and that farm work was hard and giving birth was dangerous, with 1 in 25 pioneer women dying in childbirth.** Other authors have also suggested that professional opportunities for women after the Civil War may have resulted in many women delaying marriage. Economic and educational opportunities may have also influenced where women lived, so they were not necessarily sitting idle in their hometown, left behind by men seeking their fortune.

An online collection of newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, is not only a great way to learn about the lives of your ancestors – the old newspaper articles also help you understand American history and the times your ancestors lived in, and the news they talked about and read in their local papers.

Do you have a “spinster” aunt in your family tree? Or do you have a female ancestor that headed west to find a husband? What’s her story? Please share it in the comments below.

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* Franhm, Jill. Unclaimed Flowers and Blossoms Protected by Thorns: Never-Married Women in the United States, 1880-1930. Dissertation. University of Minnesota. p. 142-143. Available at http://conservancy.umn.edu/handle/11299/96235.
** Israel, Betsy. Bachelor Girl: The Secret History of Single Women in the Twentieth Century. New York: William Morrow. p. 22.

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Tracing Female Ancestors: The Mother of All Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, to help celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Gena provides genealogy search tips to find information about your female ancestors.

There’s no doubt that tracing female ancestors can be difficult and sometimes near impossible. Unlike men who were documented via different types of transactions throughout their lives, women can seemingly disappear just by marrying an unknown-to-you spouse or spouses.

Let’s face it, finding a certified Mother of the Year might be easier than finding most of our female ancestors, but consider the following genealogy search tips to help you find success as you embark on your family history research.

Mother of the Year (Mrs. Elias Compton), Boston Herald newspaper article 12 April 1939

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 April 1939, page 1

Finding Dear Old Mom in the News

First, consider the relationship your ancestress had to others. She may have been a wife or several men’s wife. Maybe she was a mother and a grandmother. Likely as a younger woman she was a student, perhaps a volunteer, and a church or organization member. Don’t forget that she was also somebody’s daughter and friend. She can be in all kinds of different newspaper articles based on her activities and relationships at the time.

Enter Last Name










As you consider all this, remember that her name will “change” according to her relationship and time. A non-married woman will be listed by her given name and surname (a.k.a. maiden name), while a married woman might be listed as Mrs. [insert husband’s first name or initials and surname]. A widow may revert back to using her given name, so that Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. J. W. Smith becomes Mrs. Grace Smith after his death.

An example of this is the obituary for Mrs. Emily Ann Smith, a widow who was living with her daughter Mrs. W. E. Gilchrist when she died. Note she is not referred to as “Mrs. Sanford Smith.”

obituary for Emily Smith, Daily Register Gazette newspaper article 17 December 1921

Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 17 December 1921, page 6

Rarer is a news article such as this next one, in which the deceased is referred to by both her own name (Mary Smith Keenan) and her married name (Mrs. James Keenan). Because this is rare, make sure that you are searching all variations of a female ancestor’s name—because some articles will have her name one way, and some will have it another; very few will have both versions.

obituary for Mary Smith Keenan, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 5 February 1906

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 5 February 1906, page 7

Start Research with the Basics

As you research, use a timeline of dates and places to help you find newspaper articles that you may miss just searching by a name, due to misspellings or name variations. Find the corresponding newspaper articles for your timeline that document the major events in her life: birth, engagement, wedding, children’s births, major anniversary milestones, and death.

This engagement notice from 1939 for the appropriately named Mary Love Jones gives great information—not only about her but other women in her life: her mother, sister, aunts, and other family and friends. Note that not all of the women are listed by their given names. Plus, this article provides a photograph of Mary as a young woman—what a great find if she’s one of your ancestors!

engagement notice for Mary Jones and Truett Bishop, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 29 October 1939

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 29 October 1939, section III, page 6

Avoid Making Assumptions about Your Female Ancestors

Stay away from making assumptions about your ancestor’s life. Don’t fall into the old “she was just a housewife” syndrome. You might be surprised to find what she was involved in during her lifetime.

For example, I love this front page montage of photos of teachers and women from the local PTA of Greensboro, North Carolina. What a great find for a descendent who may not be aware of their ancestor’s school involvement.

article about women in the local PTA, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 15 May 1938

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 15 May 1938, page 37

Another great example of “women’s work” making it into the newspaper is this article about  Red Cross volunteer Mrs. D. P. Beyea, who spoke to groups about her experience nursing soldieries overseas during World War I. Known as the “Little Mother of the First Division,” she is said to have been one of the first to volunteer. You get a sense of her accomplishments from the newspaper article and a reminder that a woman’s activities may have depended on the time period.

article about WWI nurse Mrs. D. P. Beyea, Lexington Herald newspaper article 9 November 1919

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 9 November 1919, section 5, page 1

Again, the issue of name is important here. The old news article isn’t clear whether D. P. (later listed as D. Pirie) is her husband’s initials or her own. A newspaper search on just one version of her name might easily miss this informative article.

Enter Last Name










Use Clues in Newspaper Articles to Find More Information

Continuing our genealogy search for Mrs. D. Pirie Beyea by searching Google, we can learn even more about her life. For example: click here to see a copy of her lecture brochure digitized and made available through the University of Iowa Libraries Digital Library. This is a great brochure complete with personal information, charming photos, and testimonials by those who heard her speak.

Genealogy Search Tip: Once you find your ancestor listed by a certain name or involved in an activity in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, make sure to continue your search in Google and Google Books for any other mentions of them.

Consider Your Ancestor’s Activities

It’s hard to know what activities your ancestor may have been a part of since some groups that would have been familiar in her time are all but unknown today. Consider that she may have been a member of a group that was an auxiliary to one her husband was a member of (The Daughters of Rebekah, Order of the Eastern Star, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic), a religious benevolent group (Dorcas Society, Relief Society), a cause she believed in (Women’s Christian Temperance Union, National American Woman Suffrage Association), a heritage association (Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the Confederacy), or just a local group that may have done anything from hold cultural events to provide a social outlet. These groups may have had articles published in the newspaper that listed members or officers, meetings, special events, or persuasive missals.

The following newspaper article reports on the Spinsters, a social group for young unmarried women.

Miss King to Head Thalian Spinsters, Greensboro Record newspaper article 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

The historical news article above is from this newspaper’s “Women’s Activities” page which has some great articles about women’s groups, wedding notices, and personals that list names of women and mentions of vacations and visits.

Women's Activities page, Greensboro Record newspaper 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

There’s So Much Genealogy to Explore

Having trouble finding genealogical information about your foremothers? Newspaper collections are an excellent place to start because newspapers recorded the happenings of a community. Can’t find anything about your female ancestors? Remember to search the archives for your ancestress with applicable name variations—and keep checking back: GenealogyBank adds more newspapers daily. Even though you may not find anything about your ancestry today, tomorrow could reveal your “aha” genealogy moment.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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