Jesse Tyler Ferguson follows the trouble-filled story of his great-grandfather’s life—and draws conclusions about his ultimate legacy.

Posted by wexon on August 1, 2014 in Who Do You Think You Are

“To get a blueprint of where you came from definitely starts to color in some questions about yourself.” —Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson is part of a quirky family on TV, but his own family was fairly stable and he sometimes longed for drama. He finds plenty in the life of his great-grandfather.

Jesse was named for his paternal grandmother, Jessie Uppercue Ferguson, and it’s her family he wants to learn more about. He feels that when his beloved grandmother died six years ago, “history shut down” because he had no one to learn family stories from.

Jesse’s search starts with a photograph of his great-grandfather, Jesse Wheat Uppercue (whom he calls “JW”), a lawyer. A Google search brings up a shock: an 1872 newspaper article that names JW as the suspect in the murder of his aunt in Baltimore.

JW blames the murder on a burglar, but between old issues of the Baltimore Sun and court records, Jesse learns that the case included two conflicting wills—one drawn up at JW’s insistence that left everything to him—and two trials. The first ended in a hung jury. In the second, he was found not guilty.

An 1880 census search finds JW on the move and turns up another surprise: a wife and three children in Illinois that Jesse had never known about. And here, a pattern begins.

In early 1884, JW is in Fargo, Dakota Territory, charged with embezzling $1,800. Once again, he is acquitted. By May, he has moved on to St. Louis, Missouri, where he sues his wife for divorce and is arrested for embezzlement in 1886. He manages to repay the money, and the charges are dropped. But Jesse is beginning to suspect his great-grandfather is something of a con man.

By 1893, JW has gone east again and married again, to Sadie Canta in Hoboken, New Jersey. It’s the second family Jesse never knew about. Soon, JW’s wanderlust strikes again, and he becomes the promoter of an ambitious expedition to the Klondike gold fields, with 90 tons of machinery and more than 60 participants. When the venture turns out to be a bust, the participants decide that all who want to pull out can do so. JW, the expedition’s organizer, is among the 24 who leave. Jesse feels let down by his great-grandfather’s failings.

Despite his troubles, nothing seems to stick to JW, and he becomes a prominent Republican speaker. Then, after a second divorce, 64-year-old JW marries 27-year-old Elizabeth Quigg, Jesse’s great-grandmother.

And here, JW finally seems to “step up.” He adopts Elizabeth’s two daughters, and even though JW and Elizabeth divorce, the 1930 census shows JW living with five daughters, including Jessie.

Despite JW’s shortcomings, Jesse feels that he redeemed himself and became an honorable man, even wondering if he may have inherited JW’s drive, creativity, and acting skills.

As Jesse reflects on his journey he feels that knowing his great-grandfather has helped him know his grandmother a little better and wishes he could share what he’s found with her.

Find out where your story began. Don’t miss this special offer.
Find your family stories—and save.

Past Articles

13 Fascinating Victorian Funeral Customs

Posted by on July 29, 2014 in Family History

Many Victorian funeral customs started when Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861. She mourned him for the rest of her life, dressing in full mourning for the first three years after his death (her entire court did the same). Her style of mourning was copied the world over, especially in England,… Read more

A (Long) Day in the Life of Your Grandparents

Posted by on July 25, 2014 in Family History

Family life in the 1950s is the stuff of myth: rolling suburban lawns, practical housewives, Cadillacs, and tuna casserole. A lot of that is based in fact. Flush with postwar freedom and cash, life looked pretty good to most Americans. They got married earlier than at any other time in the century (women at 21… Read more

What’s Trending

Posted by wexon on July 22, 2014 in Family History

What Can Your Last Name Tell You In Western Europe, surnames first came about in Medieval times as civilizations grew larger and it became necessary to distinguish between people. Sometimes, names were based on occupation: a blacksmith may have been “John le Smith” (John the Smith) which became, over the generations, “Smith,” and a person… Read more

8 Celebrities With Asian Ancestry

Posted by on July 21, 2014 in Celebrity

For decades, Asian characters in Hollywood films and television shows were commonly played by non-Asian actors, and then for a few more decades, the only Asians portrayed were martial artists in action flicks. Even in today’s increasingly multicultural America (according to the 2010 census, 5.6 percent of the population is Asian, and it’s the fastest-growing… Read more

12 Bizarre Dining Customs That Are Now Extinct

Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Family History

[Photo credit: Shutterstock] It’s no secret that humans spend an inordinate amount of time on food, whether it’s procuring it, preparing it, serving it, or, of course, eating it. Here are 12 dining customs we’re glad are no longer in vogue. 1. Vegetarians that were, well, not. In Medieval Britain, chickens, pigeons and fish were… Read more

Hot Summer Nights: The 1890 Ice Famine

Posted by on July 20, 2014 in Family History

In the summer, it’s hard to imagine going without ice. But until the early 20th century, ice was a luxury and could be hard to come by. In the 1800s, it was “harvested” from ponds and streams, the frozen surface broken into huge chunks and shipped to cities to the south. This system could be… Read more

Phoenix NBC News Anchor Kim Covington Uncovers Her Slave Roots—and a Surprising Celebrity Connection

Posted by on July 11, 2014 in Family History

Phoenix NBC news anchor Kim Covington knew nothing about her Covington name or heritage, and like many African-Americans, she believed it was impossible to find out more. But when family history experts from began a search into her past, what they discovered not only answered questions about Kim’s family tree, but also, she says,… Read more

What Was It Like to Live in 18th-Century England?

Posted by on July 10, 2014 in Family History

The Dashwood sisters, characters from Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, lived rather elegantly in 1700s England. Is that what your 18th-century ancestors’ day-to-day lives were like? There were two very different lifestyles in 18th-century England: that of the rich and that of the poor. With the Industrial Revolution, which started in the middle of… Read more