Who Do You Think You Are? continues to draw millions of viewers in every season because each episode masterfully brings the past to life and tells an evocative story. “How can I find stories like that in my tree?” is the question we hear often at Ancestry, and the answer might be simpler than you think. If you are looking to step back in time and take a look around your ancestor’s world, settle into your favorite nook and start reading their newspapers.
Self-described “workaholic” Aisha Tyler wanted to learn more about her family’s past, specifically all the stories she grew up hearing about her mom’s family. “Every family has family lore—there have been so many stories from my mother’s side of the family, some of which I’m sure are true, some of which I’m sure are apocryphal, that I’m really excited to actually find out where that side of the family came from.”
A letter from Aisha’s great-aunt shared many of those stories, including information about her great-great-grandfather Hugh Berry Hancock attending school at Oberlin in Ohio. Because Hugh and his wife separated, details about his life were lost over time, so Aisha set out to learn more.
An 1860 census record showed Hugh as a 5-year-old boy from Texas living in Oberlin, Ohio, without his parents. But what took him there, and where are his parents? Inferring motivations of past family members can be tricky. The more context you have, the better your assumptions tend to be, so researchers at Ancestry ProGenealogists turned to Newspapers.com to better understand Hugh Hancock’s life.
When we think of newspapers today, we think of nationally recognized publications that report on global, high-profile news. It was not that long ago, however, that newspapers were most towns’ only source of information for both the outside world and the daily goings on of everyday, local folks. Newspapers are a remarkable window into the past, as we get the day’s events “in their own words.”
For Hugh, we searched on Newspapers.com, initially looking for Hugh Hancock in Ohio, with the town name Oberlin. That netted too many search results, so we added words like “mulatto,” “slave,” and “black” in different combinations to see what that yielded. While it’s hard to imagine using those words to describe someone in the news today, they were common designations then. Experimenting with different combinations eventually led to a winner: “Hugh Hancock Oberlin mulatto.” Interestingly, the New Castle Index from New Castle, Pennsylvania, was the reporting paper.
We learned so much about Hugh from the article! It revealed that Hugh was light skinned, a recent student at Oberlin, and had relocated to a ranch in Texas. The article also included two possible candidates for his father: General W. S. Hancock, presidential candidate, and old John Hancock, a democrat from Texas. A second newspaper article confirmed that old John Hancock was Hugh’s father and that his mother and brother died in Ohio when Hugh was very young. Despite the “scandal” of being the illegitimate son of a Texas politician, other newspaper articles showed that Hugh did not let the publicity slow him down. He was not afraid of making waves and sought to improve life for blacks and to represent them politically in the South.
Newspapers were the “social media” of their time, so don’t be too quick to discount them or assume your ancestors aren’t in them. Whether in a headline or a footnote, newspapers can give you the scoop on your ancestor’s life and community. Don’t miss the chance to read all about it!
Tips from Ancestry ProGenealogists
- Always start broad. Don’t limit your search by date or place initially, and use exact name searches sparingly. Stories were often circulated regionally, and sometimes nationally, depending on how sensational they were.
- Get creative with their name. How could it be spelled differently? As space in newspapers was at a premium, look for their initials as well as their full name. Women were often called by their husband’s name, i.e., Mrs. John Smith.
- Not finding what you are looking for? Before you start keyword searching your ancestor’s name, make sure the site has content for the years and locations your ancestor lived in, especially if you are hunting for an obituary.
- Newspapers are indexed digitally with OCR, or Optical Character Recognition, technology, which means a computer is trying to read and search the paper for you. While this tech is continually getting better, it’s not infallible. If you aren’t finding articles for a specific event, try reading through the paper page by page in issues around the time of the event. You can catch articles the index misses this way. Browsing through the local papers is also a great way to better understand the time and place your ancestor was a part of!
Learn more about Aisha’s journey or watch episode recaps from previous seasons on TLC.com. Watch more celebrities discover their family history on all-new episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? Sundays 9|8c on TLC.