Posted by Juliana Szucs on February 11, 2012 in Who Do You Think You Are?

Marissa Tomei’s journey into the past on last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (Fridays 8/7c on NBC) centered on the untimely death of her great-grandfather. At the start, he was little more than a name in the family tree and the subject of speculation—of the shadiest type. But his reputation got a makeover once Tomei dug into his story.

That’s the wonderful part about going beyond a name on a family tree—digging into the story brings people to life. And adding off-the-beaten-path resources like newspapers, which helped Tomei get the real story of her great-grandfather’s murder and its aftermath, makes the truth that much more vivid.

My first research experience with newspapers was also one of the first real research trips I took with my mother. We went to the Chicago Public Library, where we spent hours scrolling through microfilms of old newspapers, looking for mentions of her client’s ancestors. Although I was supposed to be searching for an obituary, I kept calling my mother over to see my exciting discoveries. Unfortunately they were not about her client; they were just interesting articles from the era we were researching.

I’ve never lost that fascination with old newspapers and still enjoy trolling through the pages of dailies and weeklies from places where my ancestors lived—and pretty much anywhere else.

Historical newspapers offer a firsthand look into the times and places our ancestors inhabited. And that glimpse into bygone eras often provides insights that can’t be found elsewhere. You’ll find the newspapers collection through the Search tab. Click on it and look for Stories & Publications on the right side. Then use these search tips to find your family in the news.

  • Specify “Exact.” Restricting your search to “exact” can help narrow the results. For names, click the Use Default Settings links below the name fields and select the appropriate restrictions. For keywords, click the Exact box following the keyword field.
  • To narrow your search to a particular time frame, enter a date in the year field under Publication Info. You can click the Exact Only box, but also allow a little wiggle room by entering +/- 1, 2, 5 or 10 years (e.g., a search for a publication date of 1850 with +/- 10 years will search newspapers for 1840–1860).
  • If you want to search for a phrase, put it in quotes. This tells to look for that exact phrase—for example,  “California emigration”—rather than pages that mention California in one article and emigration from Sweden in another.
  • Search beyond your ancestor’s stomping grounds. Like they do today, newspapers often picked up stories from places across the country. Try searching the entire collection for a place name (town or county) instead of a person.

Make some time to search or browse newspapers from the era of your ancestors. Bookmark your “favorites,” and when you find a few spare minutes, curl up with the laptop and take a quick trip through the past with some real pages of history. And be sure to add them to your family tree, in case you ever have the needs to unravel a family mystery, too. You’ll find information about doing just that at is a sponsor of Who Do You Think You Are?.

Juliana Szucs

Juliana Szucs has been working for for more than 19 years. She began her family history journey trolling through microfilms with her mother at the age of 11. She has written many articles for online and print genealogical publications and wrote the "Computers and Technology" chapter of The Source: A Guidebook of American Genealogy. Juliana holds a certificate from Boston University's Online Genealogical Research Program.


  1. Leslie Gries

    Please follow the story of an adoptee (famous or not) who does a family search on “Who do You Think You Are?”

  2. patricia crawford

    Thank you, Ancestry, for such wonderful, inspiring programs and for allowing me to watch them on my computer. I do not have a TV and without the stories being on your website I would have missed them. I have thoroughly enjoyed them. Keep producing them, may you have 25 seasons. Thank you again.
    pat c

  3. Randy L

    Could we please do some shows on normal people from different walks of life. Be creative. I is so trite to continually follow actors like they are icons to the human race. Maybe a Mother from Erie who was adopted as a child, maybe a fisherman from Seattle who never knew his dad….anything. But for God’s sake please, not Kim Kardashian or another person who abuses drugs and is on ET every night.

  4. Nancy

    Sorry, I found the first two episodes a bit boring. You took first and second generation Americans over to Europe and had someone else doing the research for them. I liked previous shows with celebrities with early American heritage more and they were easier to identify with. I was able to follow the process of the research and enjoyed the retelling of American history. Marissa’s story was so confusing I didn’t know who was murdering whom!

  5. scwbcm

    Enjoyed the show. It did not have any overlap for my research but Marissa seemed to be actively involved.

    I would still like to see a show that connects some health issues with family history. The health issues are not as easy to follow as simple birth, marriage and death records but it may surprise people how much can be found.

  6. MsWinston

    I, too , was somehat disppointed in the first two episodes. As do some others, have an issue with the celebs being handed the records by people who have done the real research. It is entertaining, and if it encourages people to start researching their family, it is worthwhile. But I am afraid some are going to give up right away when they realize it isn’t as easy as it looks on television. Am really looking forward to the Blair Underwood episode, as he grew up near where I live now.

  7. Larry Van Wormer

    Why not have a link shown on the show, to a video or web article that would give useful data: what databases used, research techniques, specific problems addressed for that show, etc? That would provide substance for those who want it, without getting in the way of the “glitz”.

  8. Diana Ellison

    I agree with others that it would be nice to see “normal” people. I’ve been looking for the parents of my ggrandmother for 15 years and a gguncle for whom I have a WWI draft registration but nothing for him since then. I’m sure others have these brick walls as well.

  9. There are two main drawbacks to using ‘normal’ people.

    1). They don’t come with a built in fan base from which to draw an audience.

    2). Most of them couldn’t commit to the unpredictable shooting schedule needed to produce a show. (i.e. “Hello- Mrs. Normal, we need you in Spain tomorrow morning and then Prague tomorrow evening- oh, and then Rio on Thursday. A car will pick you up in an hour. Enjoy your trip!”)

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