On Who Do You Think You Are? family history isn’t always an unfamiliar story slumbering in a distant past. It’s often a
search for close family lost in a painful present. But what can you possibly find if you don’t even know much about the life of a parent or grandparent? What if names were changed or birthdates were forgotten? Where does this unexplored path even begin? At Ancestry ProGenealogists we began building a path like this the same way we do with every family tree—one step at a time.
As a young adult, award-winning actress Katey Sagal lost her mother. Katey wanted to learn more about her mother’s past, especially her participation in the USO during World War II under the stage name Sarah Macon. Finding more about the men and women she performed with was one way to uncover Sarah’s life in the USO.
We gathered the names of USO volunteers who shared the stage with Sarah Macon from newspaper records. The only catch? The articles tended to give only the performers’ stage names and a brief description of their acts. Clearly, we were going to have to get creative.
So we looked for clues from the stage names of Sarah’s fellow performers to lead us to their actual names.
For example, one act that performed with Sarah Macon was the “Three Ethier Sisters,” described as “three Western lasses who sing Western style.” The Ethier Sisters included Bella, Yvonne, and Viola. We found them in the 1940 census by putting the girls’ names into the sibling search feature on Ancestry. Using this method, we tracked down Bella, Yvonne, and Viola with their family in 1940 even without knowing the names of their parents or their state of residence. It turned out that these “Western lasses” were all born in Massachusetts!
Once we knew the performers’ birthplaces and ages, we could then search for them in the two most important sources for finding recent ancestors on Ancestry: the United States Social Security Death Index and United States Social Security Applications and Claims Index databases. These databases include the names, birth dates, birthplaces, and death dates of individuals who applied for Social Security numbers and include records from as recently as 2007. The Social Security Applications and Claims Index can even give the names of the individual’s parents. We used these databases to determine which of the USO performers from Sarah’s troupe had passed away.
George Mayo was another of Sarah’s touring group we zeroed in on with the help of newspapers. Searching censuses for George Mayo brought up hundreds of results. A keyword search on Newspapers.com for George Mayo with the keyword “Funologist,” though, brought researchers straight to the correct person. Newspapers are great ways of finding personal stories that vital records and censuses just don’t include and can be especially useful when the details known about an ancestor require more flexible methods of searching. They also are not limited by privacy restrictions, so it is possible to find articles about ancestors who lived much more recently. Newspaper research made finding performers like The Great Huber as easy as waving a magic wand!
Passenger lists are a valuable source of information about immigrant ancestors, but it’s easy to forget that they can also shed light on the lives of ancestors who were born in the United States. The first half of the 20th century was the golden age of ocean liner travel, and Americans typically journeyed by ship when vacationing or travelling for business. As time went on, passenger lists became increasingly detailed, often listing information such as a person’s birthplace and the names of close relatives. USO performers, of course, were particularly likely to travel overseas during World War II. For example, we found Pat and Lynn Valley, who were described in newspapers as a “novelty guitar and amplified dancing” act, on a New York arrival list in October 1945. The record gave their exact birth dates, birthplaces, and their address at the Claridge Hotel in Manhattan. Since performing artists were constantly traveling, they were less likely to appear in city directories or even in censuses. With the help of passenger lists, though, it was possible to get detailed biographical information that most records do not provide.
Katey Sagal was not simply curious about ancestors who lived centuries ago; she also wanted to know about the life and career of her mother, Sarah Macon. Genealogy is often thought of as a search for those who are long gone, but this case proved that research on individuals who lived in the 20th century can be just as fascinating and rewarding. With newspapers, passenger lists and other records, we learned more about the men and women who performed with Sarah Macon in the USO that Katey had ever known, giving her an even deeper connection with her mother’s life and legacy.
Tips from AncestryProGenealogists
- Maximize your search by tracing the lives of those closest to your ancestor. Neighbors, coworkers, fellow students, witnesses at a wedding or baptism, religious leaders, and immigration sponsors are just a few groups of people whose paths crossed with your family tree.
- Name changes can give fantastic clues. The United States Social Security Applications and Claims Index may list a change of name and the year it was changed. This information could indicate a marriage. If an ancestor was married multiple times, it may prove useful to know all of the surnames to trace each available record.
Learn more about Scott’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.