Researching Your Female Ancestor: Women in the WCTU

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog article, Gena shows how you can research your female ancestor by searching old newspapers for articles about the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

Having trouble learning about the lives of your female ancestors? A good place to find their stories is an online collection of old newspapers, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives. Go beyond the obvious articles (birth notices, wedding announcements, obituaries) to find stories about the lives they led, causes they cared about, events they participated in, and groups they supported.

For example, what groups did 19th century women belong to? Their memberships most likely included organizations whose missions they were passionate about. One group that consisted of women who disavowed alcohol was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), founded in 1873.

photo of WCTU members of the New Hampshire chapter, 1888

Photo: WCTU members of the New Hampshire chapter, 1888. Credit: Keene Public Library; Historical Society of Cheshire County.

According to the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union website, the group:

was organized by women who were concerned about the destructive power of alcohol and the problems it was causing their families and society.

Member activities included trying to convince saloon owners to voluntarily close their doors. According to their website, the WCTU is today “the oldest voluntary, non-sectarian woman’s organization in continuous existence in the world.”*

Illustration: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union logo, scanned from a 1920 WCTU temperance flyer

Illustration: Woman’s Christian Temperance Union logo, scanned from a 1920 WCTU temperance flyer. Credit: WCTU; Wikimedia Commons.

Their most well-known leader was their second national president, Frances E. Willard, who led the organization for 19 years (1879-1898). She joined the WCTU shortly after its founding and during her tenure promoted other causes that impacted women such as suffrage, equal pay for equal work, and the eight hour work day.**

photo of Frances E. Willard, taken sometime before 1898

Photo: Frances E. Willard, taken sometime before 1898. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Frances Willard was famous in her day, well-known to all, and so looked up to that a statue in her likeness was presented to Statuary Hall at the U.S. Capitol by Illinois in 1905. Hers was the first likeness of a woman displayed in the Hall.

obituary for Frances E. Willard, Pawtucket Times newspaper article 18 February 1898

Pawtucket Times (Pawtucket, Rhode Island), 18 February 1898, page 9

The Frances Willard House and Museum in Evanston, Illinois, includes a library and archive with items of interest to genealogists. You can learn more by visiting their website.

The 19th and 20th century WCTU did more than just try to convince saloon owners to stop selling alcohol and men to stop drinking. Some of their efforts are still visible today.

Drinking Fountains

One of the first orders of business for the WCTU was to encourage the installation of drinking fountains in cities across the United States. It was thought that these fountains would provide clean water for everyone and give men a place to get a drink of water – thus avoiding the local saloon.

article about the WCTU installing drinking fountains, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 20 June 1941

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 20 June 1941, page 3

Some of these fountains still exist. A list of currently known fountains is found on the WCTU website.


As mentioned previously, temperance wasn’t the only issue the WCTU was passionate about. The WCTU lent their voices to other social ills they believed victimized women. They joined with other Protestant women to speak against the Mormon practice of polygamy. WCTU’s leader Frances Willard even wrote the introduction to the anti-polygamy tome The Women of Mormonism; or The Story of Polygamy as Told by the Victims Themselves by Jennie Anderson Froiseth (1882). It’s clear what the WCTU leader thought about this “twin relic of barbarism” when she writes:

surely it is time that the Christian women of this nation arouse themselves to organized action against this sum of all curses…***

Although the Mormon Church’s sanctioning of the practice of polygamy ended in 1890, the WCTU was still speaking against polygamy in the early 20th century. This 1906 Massachusetts newspaper article reports on a meeting of the WCTU:

As a result of one of the most startling anti-Mormon addresses ever heard in Boston, the delegates to the World’s convention of the W.C.T.U., assembled in Tremont Temple yesterday afternoon, unanimously passed a resolution placing that body on record to employ every means in its power to force the adoption of an anti-polygamy amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

article about the WCTU and the Sixteenth Amendment, Boston Journal newspaper article 20 October 1906

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 20 October 1906, page 1

Was Your Ancestor a Teetotaler?

Your 19th and early 20th century Christian female ancestors may have taken up the cause of prohibition. Their devotion to this cause may have included membership in the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union – but how do you learn more? The first place to look is their local newspapers. Newspapers listed WCTU events, and members elected to offices and committees – reports in which you may find your ancestors’ names. In some cases, their obituaries may also include mention of their membership in the WCTU, such as this example of Martha Sprague’s obituary in a 1916 New York newspaper.

obituary for Martha Sprague, Watertown Daily Times newspaper article 30 December 1916

Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, New York), 30 December 1916, page 5

Genealogy Tip: Don’t forget to search for your married female ancestor by her husband’s name, such as in the above example, where Martha Sprague is identified in the headline as “Mrs. C. H. Sprague” (her husband was Charles H. Sprague).

In this article from an 1874 Indiana newspaper, several different WCTU group members are mentioned.

article about members and meetings of the WCTU, Indianapolis Sentinel newspaper article 31 October 1874

Indianapolis Sentinel (Indianapolis, Indiana), 31 October 1874, page 3

Other Resources

A search on ArchiveGrid, an archival collection catalog, can also help you track down your female ancestors who belonged to the WCTU. Use the keyword WCTU to find relevant collections. To get the most of your search, consult their How to Search page.

Another good genealogy resource is community cookbooks. The WCTU used cookbooks to raise funds for their activities, as did other women’s organizations. You can find these cookbooks on digitized book websites like Google Books, and in library and archive collections.

The WCTU Today

The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union is still in existence and continues to be dedicated to issues that affect families, such as substance abuse. You can learn more at the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union website. Their website also includes links to some affiliate chapters. In the case of the California chapter, an archive page contains images and a history of the WCTU in Southern California.

Was your ancestor a member of the WCTU? Add to her life story by documenting her membership and the events she was a part of, as preserved in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives.


* The Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Accessed 16 June 2015.
** Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Frances Willard. Accessed 18 June 2015.
*** Froiseth, Jennie A. The Women of Mormonism, Or, the Story of Polygamy As Told by the Victims Themselves. Chicago: Bryan Bros. Pub. Co, 1883. Available on Google Books.p. xviii. FA902D0%40W.

Related Women’s Genealogy Articles:

Clues in Petitions: Did Your Ancestors Petition the Government?

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, Mary writes about our ancestors’ petitions to the government, an often-overlooked source of family history information.

From the establishment of companies, to divorces, to relief from tobacco weighing, the right to petition the government “for a redress of grievances” is a constitutionally-protected right in the U.S., ever since the Bill of Rights came into effect on 15 December 1791.

These petitions that our ancestors sent to their government, reports of which can be found in old newspapers, can be a valuable source of family history information.

Here is an example of several petition notices published in a 19th century Virginia newspaper.

citizens' petitions to the government, Richmond Whig newspaper article 1 January 1850

Richmond Whig (Richmond, Virginia), 1 January 1850, page 2

Many genealogists have not yet discovered their ancestral petitions—but in all likelihood, family historians will be able to locate them with a little digging into newspaper archives.

When our ancestors petitioned the government, a typical procedure was to have a public representative or prominent citizen present their case in front of Congress.

In this example, Mr. Wayne (i.e., General “Mad” Anthony Wayne) presented a petition “praying compensation” for Revolutionary War surgeon John Davis, who, according to The Life of John Davis (William Watts Hart Davis, 1886), served valiantly under Wayne at the Battles of Monmouth, Morristown, etc.

petition by John Davis, Massachusetts Spy newspaper article 1 December 1791

Massachusetts Spy (Worcester, Massachusetts), 1 December 1791, page 2

This historical newspaper article also reports on similar pleas for Revolutionary War service compensation that were referred to the Secretary of War. We can also review a variety of other requests: Philip Bush had lost a certificate, the Branch Pilots of Pennsylvania wished an increase in their fees, and Mr. Wicks prayed compensation for a vessel and cargo damaged during the late war.

Some petitioners’ names were not identified in the news articles, probably due to the publisher’s need to conserve space. To make further identification in such cases, search archives of official congressional papers.

Petition requests are valid evidence for genealogical proofs. Whether or not the petitions were granted is another story. But whatever the outcome, our ancestors’ pleas are a treasure trove of data waiting to be mined. There are so many government petitions that (in my humble opinion) this is a project waiting to be tackled.

Wouldn’t it be great to have an indexed book on petitions, divided into subtopics, such as debt relief or the Temperance movement?

The crusade against drinking sparked a number of petitions in 19th century America. For example, in 1850 a “Mr. W.” presented fifteen petitions from citizens of Massachusetts, asking that the spirit ration of the Navy be abolished.

petition against Navy's liquor ration, Daily National Intelligencer newspaper article 1 January 1850

Daily National Intelligencer (Washington, D.C.), 1 January 1850, page 2

Were these concerned Massachusetts citizens members of the group that met at Gibbs’ Hotel in Boston, where Sons of Temperance meetings were held?

Gibbs' Hotel advertisement, Boston Herald newspaper 1 January 1850

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 1 January 1850, page 3

I haven’t yet completed the research, but my hunch is that Gibbs’ Hotel is where the teetotalers of the temperance petitions were meeting. My suspicion was enhanced after discovering this delightful old 1800s poem.

poem dedicated to J. B. Gibbs, Norfolk Democrat newspaper 29 March 1850

Norfolk Democrat (Dedham, Massachusetts), 29 March 1850, page 3

To locate petitions in GenealogyBank, search using the “Legal, Probate & Court” category in the Newspaper Archives.

GenealogyBank's search form for legal, probate and court notices

GenealogyBank’s search form for legal, probate and court notices

Include keywords such as pension, military or relief, along with an ancestor’s surname.

Have fun searching for petitions in GenealogyBank. Some are serious, and others are not.

Here’s an example of a petition I found in the “not so serious” category—and I see that some things never change.

This 1810 Georgia petition shows that, the same then as now, lawyers—as much as we need them—tend to infuriate us!

“We pray your honorable body to make such laws as to dispense with and totally obliterate the most useless pests that ever disgraced the human society, to wit, the lawyers, who have so successfully learnt the trade of living.”

Georgia petition against lawyers, Connecticut Herald newspaper article 2 January 1810

Connecticut Herald (New Haven, Connecticut), 2 January 1810, page 6

Yes, petitions in old newspapers can help us a great deal with our family history searches. And if, every now and then, one of our ancestor’s petitions manages to give us a chuckle or put a smile on our face—so much the better!