Genealogy Tips: Looking for Female Ancestors before 1850

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega gives tips for finding all kinds of mentions of your female ancestor in historical newspapers before 1850. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.”

Have you hit a brick wall trying to research your American female ancestors before 1850? Not sure where to look? Have you looked “everywhere” and are still not seeing her name mentioned in genealogically relevant records?

Don’t forget that historical newspapers can hold clues to finding and documenting the life of your 18th and 19th century female ancestors. Knowing how to look and what newspaper articles most likely document women can help. The following are just a few examples of what can be found.

Vital Record Events

It makes sense that you would find women’s names in articles dealing with vital record events, and this is also true for women living prior to 1850. In early newspapers you most likely will find notices about marriage and death, but not birth.

In this typical, very brief announcement from New York, we learn of the marriage between John Tomer and Eve Grim on 16 September 1820.

A wedding announcement, Commercial Advertiser newspaper article 28 September 1820
Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), 28 September 1820, page 3

As you search for these newspaper articles, keep in mind to search not just on your female ancestor’s name (including maiden name, if known) but also other family members’ names. Remember that she could be in any number of death notices, including that of her husband, her children, her parents or siblings, as well as her own.

A mortuary notice, Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot newspaper article 13 December 1823
Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot (Boston, Massachusetts), 13 December 1823, page 4

Letters Lists

Let’s face it, we aren’t the only ones who procrastinate or who move and forget to take everything with us. You could also have an ancestor that needed to pick up their mail, either because they forgot or they moved. That could be one of the reasons a woman (married or not) could be listed in the newspaper, and she could be listed in a list separated by gender, such as this one from New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1850. Notice that this list indicates whether the woman is married or not (Mrs. and Miss). While some of the married women are listed by their husband’s names, many are listed with their own given first name.

A of unclaimed letters, Times-Picayune newspaper article 13 September 1850
Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 13 September 1850, page 4


Yes, our married ancestors’ marital relationships weren’t always happy, and one way you may learn about this is by searching the newspaper. A husband may have paid for a newspaper advertisement to warn others that his wife had left his “bed and board” and he was no longer responsible for her financial obligations.

In this 1837 New York example, the husband, Bazille Knorine, claims that his wife left “without legitimate cause, but her caprice for a French vagabond.”

A "runaway wife" notice, Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer newspaper article 21 June 1837
Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer (New York, New York), 21 June 1837, page 4

Genealogy Tip: Use information in historical newspapers to lead you to other sources. A “runaway wife” advertisement might lead to divorce records and potentially subsequent marriage records.


Women have always worked, because historically many families were either reliant on her income (women who were widowed, had sick husbands, or no support), or they were forced to work (the enslaved and indentured servants). So, it’s important to keep in mind the occupations women had during earlier time periods, such as teaching, keeping a boarding house, or providing retail services. Remember that newspapers provided advertisements and articles that might mention a woman in relation to her occupation, such as this short mention of the boarding house kept by Mrs. P. R. Wood in Massachusetts.

An article about a boarding house, Pittsfield Sun newspaper article 16 May 1850
Pittsfield Sun (Pittsfield, Massachusetts), 16 May 1850, page 2

Or this column, of women offering boarding to members of Congress in 1836.

An article about a boarding house, Daily Globe newspaper article 19 January 1836
Daily Globe (Washington, D.C.), 19 January 1836, page 1

Benevolent Works

Financial donations have always been important to help organizations do what they need to do, and our ancestors were involved in benevolent groups that focused on causes they cared about. This notice from the New York City Female Assistance Society (an organization that helped needy women and children) thanks their donors by publicly acknowledging them by name and the amount they donated, or the item they donated such as fabric or tea.

An article about charitable work, Spectator newspaper article 21 January 1843
Spectator (New York, New York), 21 January 1843, page 4

Genealogy Tip: Notice in this list that women are listed simply by Mrs. [husband’s surname] or their husband’s name. It’s important to not just search using her first name, since she may not be listed by her first name – especially if she was or had ever been married.

In this 1803 New York City newspaper article for the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children, there is a list of laundry services, the prices charged for those services, and the names and addresses of the women willing to provide those services (linen to be washed, seamstress, etc.). It’s not clear if the women named are the widows or the women who volunteer for the organization, but notice that each woman is listed as Mrs. [husband’s surname].

An article about charitable work, Mercantile Advertiser newspaper article 11 March 1803
Mercantile Advertiser (New York, New York), 11 March 1803, page 2

Organizational Memberships

Women belonged to all types of groups, and those groups and their events would be printed in the newspaper. Those notices included information such as the names of members – as in this 1847 Portsmouth, New Hampshire, mention of the Daughters of Temperance, which includes the names of the officers elected at their 29 April 1847 meeting.

An article about a temperance organization, New-Hampshire Gazette newspaper article 4 May 1847
New-Hampshire Gazette (Portsmouth, New Hampshire), 4 May 1847, page 2

There’s More

It’s so important to take into consideration events that happen in the place your ancestor lived. That might help you consider what other newspaper articles you should look for. This May 1828 Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper article lists those badly injured in the “late distressing calamity at Boston.” The list includes names and injuries – but notice that the last one discusses a Reverend who “happily escaped without injury; his lady was not equally favoured as she has suffered by spraining her foot severely.”

An article about an accident, Charleston Courier newspaper article 12 May 1828
Charleston Courier (Charleston, South Carolina), 12 May 1828, page 2

In this case she isn’t named at all and is just referred to as “his lady.” Once again: it’s important to search both a female ancestor’s name and her husband’s name to find everything that might exist, because she might not always be named, instead referred to as his “wife” or “his lady.”

I think it’s important to keep in mind that “we don’t know what we don’t know” and sometimes historical newspapers can provide the unexpected, such as this 1752 Philadelphia notice of the sale of Mrs. Mary Leech’s house.

An article about Mary Leech, Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper article 2 July 1752
Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 2 July 1752, page 4

Newspapers Are Important for Researching Early American Women

Are women found in early newspapers beyond a vital record mention? Yes! Searching old newspapers from where your ancestor hailed, such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, can provide additional clues and information about your female ancestor that can’t be found anywhere else.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.