Screenwriters, playwrights, and storytellers have been using the three act structure to tell their stories for generations. Any story requires a setup, rising action, a climax and a resolution. When we’re researching the family histories of the celebrities for an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? we also look at how we can tell the story in a narrative arc. And to fill in the events and scenes for each act of an episode, we create timelines.
For Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s episode, we created multiple timelines to follow the story of Jesse’s great-grandfather Jesse Wheat Uppercu. Jesse Tyler Ferguson was named for his grandmother Jessie (Uppercu) Ferguson, who was named for her father, Jesse Wheat Uppercu. And when we looked at Jesse Uppercu’s life on the timeline, patterns and stories emerged.
The timelines we created for Jesse Wheat Uppercu served multiple purposes. First, they let us quickly see what records had already been found. Seeing all the information displayed in a timeline format exposed holes where information was still missing, which showed us years and places where research still needed to be done.
Second, we used the timeline to track Jesse W. Uppercu through his various moves. It was vital to track Jesse’s moves to know where to look for more records. And when you consider that as an adult Jesse had at least nine residences (Baltimore, Evanston, Chicago, Fargo, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Atlanta, and New York City) before he settled on his farm in Ramapo, New York, pairing a timeline with a map made a powerful combination.
Third, the timeline was a communication tool. We had several researchers in multiple states involved in discovering Jesse’s story, and they could easily access the timeline, identify any new information, and see the research next steps at a glance.
Timelines can be designed to fit the needs of the research or preference of the researcher. They can cover an entire life or be used to solve a problem by focusing on a specific time span. They can focus on one character, an entire family, or even a larger community or nation. We created one timeline just for Jesse Uppercu’s gold-seeking expedition. It spanned from February 1898, when the company left Philadelphia, to August 1898, when Jesse left Alaska. Jesse’s adventure lasted only seven months, but we logged plenty of entries for records we found along the way. [Note: For more on creating timelines, please check out this research guide]
Another timeline we created for Jesse W. Uppercu’s entire life started with his birth in 1850 and marked his activities until his death in 1937. As expected, there are large gaps during Jesse’s childhood and adolescence, but during the trial for his aunt’s murder and the probate of her estate, the timeline contained daily entries as we followed newspaper articles. He also managed to fit in a marriage during this period. We discovered this marriage to his first wife through a newspaper article titled “A Remarkable Wedding” while tracking news of the trial and estate. When our research wrapped up, Jesse Uppercu’s timeline had 112 entries on it.
Jesse W. Uppercu’s life was filled with court cases, moves, three marriages, and a Klondike adventure before he settled down in Rockland County, New York, and raised his two daughters and two-step daughters whom he adopted. Our timelines helped us put these events in phases—an early phase in which he struggled with ethics and morality, a middle phase where he embraced adventure, and a final phase where he settled down with his family. You can do the same thing to help guide your research or share the story of your own amazing ancestor.
Learn more about Jesse’s journey on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Wednesdays 9|8c on TLC.
For those of you who were following along on Twitter last night, here is a recap of the posts shared by us and other participants in the chat: