Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena helps celebrate Women’s History Month by providing search tips to help you find your female ancestors in old newspapers.
One of the biggest roadblocks genealogists find when researching female ancestors is the lack of resources that document their lives. This is especially true of government records, which don’t always tell us what we want to know about our ancestresses’ lives. Fortunately, there is a good source for information about the women members of our family: old newspapers. The great thing about using historical newspapers is that they document the lives of common people and their everyday events, special occasions and activities—for women as well as men.
Where can you find your female ancestor in the newspaper? A complete discussion of all newspaper article types would be too lengthy for a blog post—but to start with let’s consider the following three categories (Death, Milestones & Activities) that you can find in the newspaper pages of GenealogyBank.
One caution before you start your female ancestor search. As you will notice from the following articles, it’s important to consider how you will search for your female ancestor’s name. Until very recently married women were most likely identified by their husband’s names. So searching for Mary Jane Smith might not yield any hits, but a search for Mrs. Aaron Smith or Mrs. A.P. Smith very well might. As you search, keep an Internet research log and note the variations of your ancestor’s name that you find and the date of the newspaper. GenealogyBank adds more newspapers to its online archive collections daily, so what you don’t find today might appear tomorrow or next week.
Female Ancestor Death Records in Newspapers
An obvious place to start researching any ancestor’s life is with their death. While we often equate death with obituaries, remember that other types of notices and articles about someone’s death may also exist in newspapers.
This list of death notices from a Philadelphia newspaper provides information about each individual’s death and funeral.
Throughout this list many women are identified—such as Anne C. Winkworth, wife of the late Thomas A. Winkworth, who died in her 80th year.
Major Life Milestones in Newspapers
Milestone wedding anniversaries are something to celebrate and newspapers have done that with photos and articles about the wedding anniversary couple. If your ancestors celebrated 50 or more years of marriage, you may want to see if their golden anniversary was documented in the newspaper.
This old wedding anniversary article from a Portland newspaper doesn’t give us too many clues about Mrs. Austin H. Gates—in fact, her birth name is never printed. However, we are provided with her photo, as well as her descendants’ names.
Do you have an ancestor who lived to be the ripe old age of 100 years or beyond? That significant milestone is often documented in the newspaper, as in this old Philadelphia newspaper article reporting that Mrs. Eliza Stranahan survived an entire century—from 1800-1900!
As you create a timeline of your female ancestor’s life, note any milestones she may have achieved and look for these in the newspaper.
Women’s Activities Are Recorded in Newspapers
What organizations, activities or events was your female ancestor a part of? Her name could appear in articles associated with those activities.
Women were members of all types of groups. Consider church groups, auxiliaries to male membership organizations, benevolent groups, and social causes as you search for records of your ancestor.
In this small article about the Women’s Relief Corps in Wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the occasion of their elections provides us with the names of members.
Women and their church activities were often published in the local newspaper. In this article highlighting the fundraising efforts of female church members, even a few street addresses are included. It’s interesting to note that even though the women failed in their three-day fast (most suffered from thirst and hunger after a dozen hours), the article was still published.
The great thing about old newspapers is that your ancestor didn’t have to be wealthy or famous to be mentioned. Newspapers document communities, and it is in that documentation that you just might find mentions of your female ancestors.
Enjoy the Women’s History Month celebrations and good luck with your own female ancestry research!