Amelia Earhart: Retracing Her Life of Adventure

Just in time for Amelia Earhart’s birthday on July 24th, Ancestry staff genealogist Juliana Szucs retraces the pioneering pilot’s life and mysterious disappearance.

Happy birthday Amelia Earhart!

“Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done.”

“The most effective way to do it, is to do it.”

“There are two kinds of stones, as everyone knows, one of which rolls.”

My Aunt Chula would have said that the woman behind these quotes “had gumption.” And she would have been right. Amelia Earhart was a woman of courage, taking on challenges with spirit and determination. America followed her exploits through articles she wrote and in her book 20 Hours, 40 Min: Our Flight in the Friendship, which documented her first cross-Atlantic flight in 1928. 

Though she was born in Atchison, Kansas, on July 24, 1897, Amelia’s father’s work as a claims adjuster for various railroads forced the family to move frequently, at times separating the family. In the 1910 census, Amelia was recorded twice, once with her parents, Edwin and Amy (née Otis), and sister, Grace Muriel in Des Moines, Iowa, and once with her maternal grandparents, Alfred and Amelia Otis, in Atchison, Kansas.

Amelia Earhart 1910 Census Courtesy Ancestry

Amelia Earhart 1910 Census Courtesy Ancestry

1910 census records show Amelia Earhart recorded twice, once with her parents and sister (above), and once with her maternal grandparents (below). (Credit: Earhart household, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Des Moines, Polk Co., Iowa, image courtesy Ancestry)

Amelia Earhart 1910 Census Courtesy Ancestry

Amelia Earhart 1910 Census Courtesy Ancestry

(Credit: Otis household, 1910 U.S. Federal Census, Atchison, Atchison Co., Kansas, image courtesy Ancestry)

Amelia’s grandfather Alfred G. Otis was an early settler in Atchison County, Kansas, arriving as a young man in 1855, the year the county was formed. He was a lawyer and according to the History of Atchison County, Kansas, by Sheffield Ingalls, he began his career in Atchison County litigating land claims and went on to become a judge. He was also involved in banking and real estate and invested in the growth of the rail industry in the area.

Amelia Earhart Family Tree Courtesy Ancestry

(Credit: History of Atchison County, Kansas, image courtesy Ancestry)

Amelia’s father was also a lawyer and claims adjuster, but he struggled with alcoholism and things were not easy for the Earhart family. In 1912, both of Amelia’s Otis grandparents died within a few months of each other, leaving a large estate to their children. Both Amelia and Alfred’s probates can be found on Ancestry. Perhaps because of Edwin’s struggles, Amelia’s mother, Amy’s portion of the estate was to be held in trust for 15 years. Amy’s two siblings who had been named as trustees in the will both declined to act as trustees, so Northern Trust Bank in Chicago was appointed to act as trustee, and provided Amy with an annual income from her portion of the estate for the next 15 years, after which she was free to dispose of it as she wished.

Amelia Earhart Family Tree Courtesy Ancestry

(Credit: U.S. Wills and Probates, Atchison County, Kansas, image courtesy Ancestry)

For a while Amelia’s parents split up, and her mother took Amelia and Muriel with her to Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where Amelia would graduate from Hyde Park High School in 1915. The income from Amelia’s grandparents’ estate helped pay to further her education. After graduation it was on to a finishing school in Pennsylvania and later Columbia University in New York City. In the 1920 census, she is living at 318 Morningside Avenue in Manhattan, a few blocks from Columbia. 

Amelia Earhart 1920 Census Courtesy Ancestry

Amelia Earhart listed in the 1920 census. (Credit: 1920 Census, Panny household, New York Co., New York, image courtesy Ancestry)

Amelia Earhart Family Tree Courtesy Google Maps

Amelia Earhart lived at 318 Morningside Avenue in Manhattan, according to the 1920 census. (Credit: Google Maps)

After a year, she left New York for California where her parents had reunited. It was there that she took her first flight and her passion for aviation was ignited. She began taking flying lessons, and following her parents’ divorce in 1924, she and her mother moved back East where she continued with her interest in aviation, joining the American Aeronautical Society in Boston and beginning her career writing about aviation. 

In 1927 she was invited to join a crew that would fly across the Atlantic. While she did not pilot the plane, in June 1928, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. The press gave her the nickname “Lady Lindy,” and she made front page news around the world. The historical newspapers on Newspapers.com can give us some insights into the coverage. 

Amelia Earhart Family Tree Courtesy Newspapers.com

A newspaper report of Amelia Earhart’s historic flight across the Atlantic. (Credit: The Huntington Herald (Huntington, Indiana) 18 June 1928, image courtesy Newspapers.com)

On September 25, 1930, Amelia was slightly injured landing her plane in Norfolk, Virginia, but undaunted she continued to fly. 

Amelia Earhart Plane Crash Courtesy Ancestry

A newspaper account of Amelia Earhart’s injury in a 1930 plane crash. (Credit: Oneonta Herald, (Oneonta, New York) 26 September 1930, image courtesy Newspapers.com)

In 1931 Amelia married her publicist George Putnam, and on May 20, 1932, she embarked on a solo transatlantic flight from Newfoundland to Co. Derry, Ireland, which earned her much acclaim and several honors. As her fame grew, so did her ambition. She embarked on a number of speaking tours and served on the faculty of Purdue University, encouraging more young women to become involved in aviation. 

In 1937 Amelia began planning her trip to circumvent the globe. During her first attempt, the plane was damaged during a take-off in Hawaii and the trip had to be aborted. On her second attempt, with navigator Fred Noonan on board, she made it most of the way around the world, but after radio navigation failed she was unable to find her way to Howland Island in the Pacific and the aircraft was lost. 

Earhart, wearing headphones, adjusts the controls in the cockpit of her Lockheed Electra.

Amelia Earhart with headphones adjusting the controls in the cockpit of her Lockheed Electra. (Photo: Courtesy George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers, Courtesy of Purdue University Libraries, Karnes Archives and Special Collections)

The mystery of her disappearance had the entire country glued to their radios, waiting anxiously to hear word of her fate. The Hammond Times (Hammond, Indiana) of July 7, 1937, wrote: 

“If anyone can meet this test of fortitude, you can, Flying Lady. Somehow you can’t fail to get home. There should be something to having virtually all the world sending you good wishes and wanting you back. ‘Calling Earhart plane….Keep your courage…Help is coming…Planes are coming…Calling Earhart plane.’”

Amelia Earhart Newspapers.com

(Credit: Hammond Times, (Hammond, Indiana), 7 July 1937, image courtesy Newspapers.com)

Her disappearance spawned plenty of conspiracy theories throughout the years. When Ancestry digitized a set of records from the National Archives containing Reports of Deaths of American Citizens Abroad, 1963-1974, we discovered that included in those records were about seventy-five documents relating to a 1960 investigation into her disappearance. A story appeared in the San Mateo Times [California] citing a World War II veteran’s recollection of a visit to a grave on the island of Saipan that he believed held the missing aviatrix and her navigator. You can view a sampling of those documents here

While Amelia was never found, her legend lives on and she continues to capture the world’s interest. The Hammond Times article suggested that “when you get back off of that reef or from the crest of big black waves, and you’re going to without a doubt, won’t you settle down to being just plain Mrs. Putnam?” Had Amelia survived, I doubt this would have been the case. My guess is Lady Lindy would have continued to fly, with gumption. 

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