I have been going back over some of my research lines lately and working on a few dead ends to see if I could revive them. One of my mysterious ancestors is my 2nd great-grandmother Margaret Tierney, whom I first learned about when I found her living with my great-grandfather and family in Manhattan in the 1900 US census.

It took a fair bunch of research and microfilm spinning to find her death certificate as filed a few years after the 1900 census, and since then I have been trying to find her crossing from Ireland to New York.

The 1900 census info for my Tierneys is particularly wonky, so is not of great help in providing a date I trust for her emigration. So I have been casting a wide net, logging all of the even-marginally possible records, and hoping I can trim them down to find the most likely one for her.

Margaret Tierney, Grass WidowFrom a few clues, I find it likely that Margaret arrived before Ellis Island was operating, so have been looking through Castle Garden records. During that process, I found an interesting Occupation listed for one Margaret Tierney: Grass Widow.

Well, that was a new one to me, so I began digging a bit more.

Over on The Google Books I found an 1873 book entitled Long Ago, A Journal of Popular Antiquities, (Edited By Alexander Andrews, Volume 1, Issue 1 – Volume 2, Issue 17) with a few references to the phrase.

In fact, I find the book as a whole very interesting, as it contains queries by researchers that are answered by other fellows in subsequent volumes. Kind of like an early Twitter Lazy Tweet asking for help from the masses.

Grass Widow Inquiry, Pages 120-121 Beginning on page 120 of the book there is a request to others for more information about it by a Mister J.L.C.

As you can see, he found burial entries, such as “1615-6, March 15. Anne Houghton, an oulde grass widow

Good old JLC notes that in America, it is a slang term for a “widow of light character”, which is a description I love.

He also references a work (by John Taylor, whom I am unfamiliar with) implying that a grass widow might be a woman left by a husband because she is unable to have children.

Grass Widow - Responses
Happily, in the next volume (Page 150 in this same compilation), a few learned gentleman provide responses.

I leave you with the full responses at right, including the idea that a grass widow is a wife temporarily parted from her husband, some saying for innocent reasons, others not so much.

Also, another description of the meaning that might apply to my great-grandmother – she is here in Manhattan, but I do not know what has become of her husband John. Did he remain in Ireland? Is he alive? Is she “a widow, whose husband is abroad and said, but not certainly known to be dead?”

Perhaps one day I will find out. For now, I’ll just put the phrase “grass widow” in my pocket.

For extra credit, a pre-published, postscript:

After I had finished writing most of this post, I happened upon a short entry in the Irish Genealogicial Society International blog that also mentions the phrase.


  • avatar

    Comment by Mairéad — May 20, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

    Very interesting post. I had never heard the term before, but I really enjoyed your thorough exploration of all the possible explanations.

  • avatar

    Comment by John — May 20, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

    Thanks Mairead!

  • avatar

    Comment by Alex — August 13, 2014 @ 9:11 am

    I’m behind on my reading, but I LOVED this post!

    I was curious, so I wanted to see what my Mac Dictionary had to say about a Grass Widow.

    This is what it gave me:

    grass widow |ˈˌɡræs ˈˌwɪdoʊ|

    a woman whose husband is away often or for a prolonged period.
    ORIGIN early 16th cent. (denoting an unmarried woman with a child): from grass + widow, perhaps from the idea of the couple having lain on the grass instead of in bed. The current sense dates from the mid 19th cent.; compare with Dutch grasweduwe and German Strohwitwe ‘straw widow.’


    – Alex

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