c. 1900, Grand Rapids Historical Commission

Etta Smith Wilson

Life Dates: b. July 16, 1857, d. January 5, 1936

Full Name: Etta (Ethel Eliza Wolfe) Smith Wilson

Birthplace: Northport, MI

Tags: Education, Journalism, Government Service, Suffrage

The granddaughter of Christian missionaries and an Odawa medicine woman, Etta Smith Wilson managed to integrate the values of both cultures as a pioneering journalist, an advocate for women, and a nationally renowned lecturer in the field of ornithology. Born Esther Eliza Wolfe in Leelanau County, she overcame great family difficulties, especially after her father returned severely injured from Civil War service with a Native American regiment of sharpshooters. After high school in Grand Rapids, Wilson was hired in 1886 to invent a “society column” for the Telegram-herald, which later described her as the “first [full-time] lady employed in newspaper reporting in Grand Rapids.”

Learning her trade, Wilson was clever enough to finagle assignments covering baseball, horse racing, police work, and political news in addition to interviewing suffragist Susan B. Anthony. She amused herself at the same time she proved that women could do it all. Within two years Wilson was listed as the newspaper’s Society Editor. She soon integrated the Grand Rapids Press Club as an active member and officer and helped found the Michigan Women’s Press Club for the mutual aid and support of early women journalists. Five years after she was lured to the Detroit Journal-News in 1901, a freak disease forced her to leave newspaper work. Still, she reinvented herself as an ornithologist and preservationist and never abandoned her writing skills.

Through the end of her life in 1936 Wilson was engaged in bird work for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey and became a popular lecturer for the National Audubon Society, reaching up to 20,000 people a week. She also published articles describing her early professional life, honoring her Native heritage and grandmother Kin-ne-quay, and memorializing such birds as the amazing passenger pigeon, suddenly extinct in the early twentieth century.


This biography can also be found in the October 2018 issue of the Grand Rapids Women’s LifeStyle magazine.

“Etta S. Wolfe Wilson.” FindAGrave. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/103167957/etta-s-wilson.