Posted by Ancestry Team on April 3, 2016 in Who Do You Think You Are?

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.us-1709-wdytya-blog-tyler-800x800

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.Aisha Tyler_1

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.

13 Comments

  1. Felicia Clem Murray

    This is such a beautiful show…… How do I go about auditioning for your show ?

  2. dmarshall511

    Does anyone know if the shows from the British WDYTYA? are available to USA first-person devices like Roku or Amazon Fire TV? I have been wanting to see them since WDYTYA? first appeared on NBC in 2010.

  3. Lori

    Hi,
    Can you tell me when we can view Season 3? I loved that season, as I love all of them, and I really enjoy looking them over for more ideas. Thanks!

  4. Pat Borcherding

    Well i already sent a message to ancestry about this, they told me to talk to newspapers.com,but seeing as you want feedback, I tried typing in her great grandfathers name just as she did, and i got nothing, can you explain how she was able to pull up his info if its as easy as you make out?

  5. Trish

    I recently had some luck on newspapers.com by typing in my great great grandparents address. I discovered that they had two nieces that died while they were staying with them. The one obituary actually gave the name of the town that the family was from in Ireland. This was a HUGE find for me!

  6. Linda

    I love the show, but think it is very misleading to viewers who have never done any type of genealogical research. The new site isn’t as easy as the older version nor is newspapers.com or Fold3. When searching these sites it takes time and patience and sometimes you find family treasures. It would also be very beneficial to new users if they could actual see all the photos many of us have spent hours uploading to the site so family members searching could actually put a face with the name. Ancestry needs to be more than just a data base search site. For those of us who have been renewing customers for many years it is very disheartening.

  7. Tee

    I really disliked devoting an entire hour to ONE ancestor. I felt it was very ” dismissive” of her other ancestors who were not famous or whose homes are not historical landmarks. Plus it was really dragged out in order to fill an hour show.

  8. Jayme

    I really do have a lot to say regarding this episode, but it would be impossible to write it all out here. I agree with many of the the other comments. I believe the episode is misleading as to the ease of accessing information from newspapers.com. I also agree with the comment about focusing on ONE ancestor! Please be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem! We have enough racially dividing inflammatory media in this country. Please use the wonderful resources available through genealogy to unite humankind. The FOCUS on the newspaper article regarding Hugh’s father’s view on voter’s rights did not mention that women did not have the right to vote at this time either! Also, would you want one defining moment to DEFINE your entire existence? Human beings are complex creatures who’s options can change from day to day, much less over a life time. John Hancock must have had some redeeming qualities! He did make sure his son was provided for, it also appears he voted against secession from the brief research I did. It makes a lot more sense to allow your “participant” to make their own conclusions regarding their ancestors instead of sensationalizing history. I would also like to point out what I felt was the most impactful moment in the show. When Aisha was taken to the building that had been the actual bar that Hugh had owned, the Black Elephant. The genealogist and Aisha were both visibly moved….now that is a positive and HEALING part of genealogical research. Hope we see more of that in the future. Henry Louis Gates has mastered that ability, needless to say, he’s the best in his field.

  9. nr davis

    You know what… some history shows people behaving inhumanely and abominably. You may want to have your head in the sand, but whatever “redeeming qualities” any individual may have, do they mitigate being a slave owner or turning one’s back on one’s child (even if you do provide for them as long as they stay away from you)? In my experience, NO. You want a pretty story? Fine. As the five times great granddaughter of a slave owner, I would rather have the truth, good, bad, and ugly. There is no mitigating seeing the sales receipts for one’s ancestors. None. I know. I’ve seen them.

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