“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Black Sheep Ancestor + Old Newspaper Research Tips

“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s Black Sheep Ancestor + Old Newspaper Research Tips

In last night's "Who Do You Think You Are?" Jesse Tyler Ferguson's great-grandfather Jess Uppercue—the father of Ferguson's paternal grandmother, Jessie, with whom he was close—seemed to get into trouble wherever he went. It started when he was arrested for the murder of an aunt he lived with...

In last night’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” Jesse Tyler Ferguson‘s great-grandfather Jess Uppercue—the father of Ferguson’s paternal grandmother, Jessie, with whom he was close—seemed to get into trouble wherever he went.

It started when he was arrested for the murder of an aunt he lived with at age 22. Although he had motive (he stood to gain a tidy sum when she died, having just insisted upon the rewriting of her will), the evidence was circumstantial. The first trial ended in a hung jury; the second, in acquittal.

Uppercue later turns up in Evanston, Ill.; Fargo, ND; St. Louis; and Philadelphia, each time being prosecuted for some money-related charge and managing to evade punishment.

Then, as the promoter for an expedition to the Alaskan Klondike in 1898, he brought so many participants and provisions, and so much mining machinery, that the group couldn’t use the rugged trail. The expedition’s secretary wrote letters to his hometown paper describing the terrible conditions, one man’s death, and the early departure of nearly half the group, including Uppercue.

He again managed to bounce back, named in newspapers as a speaker at political events, and married his third wife, Ferguson’s great-grandmother, who was some 30 years younger than he. The couple later divorced and their daughters stayed with their father.

Ferguson worked pretty hard there at the end to see his great-grandfather in a positive light, as someone who survived multiple setbacks and “stepped up” to care for his girls. But from what I saw as a viewer—which admittedly probably isn’t as full a picture as Ferguson got—Uppercue just wasn’t a good guy.

I do think it’s natural to want to believe the best about your own family, especially when your closest link to that person was someone you respected as much as Ferguson did his grandmother.

As you could see in this episode (and as I’ve found in my own research), newspapers are a good source for tracing ne’er-do-well ancestors. Old newspaper resources include:

  • subscription site Newspapers.com , which was used on last night’s episode (it’s owned by “WDYTYA?” sponsor Ancestry.com)
  • subscription site GenealogyBank

  • the free Chronicling America, from the Library of Congress
  • newspaper services your local library may offer its patrons (ask at the reference desk or check the website)
  • Real genealogy gems may still be hidden in not-yet-digitized papers. You can search the Chronicling America newspaper directory to find titles of papers published in your ancestor’s hometown when he lived there. The directory also tells you the names of libraries and archives that hold the paper on microfilm, microfiche or paper.

A few resources from Family Tree Shop to help you do genealogy research in newspapers:

If you’re dying to watch “Who Do You Think You Are?” but your Wednesdays are busy or you don’t have TLC, you can purchase full episodes for $1.99 each or buy the whole season for $12.99 on the show’s YouTube channel.

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  1. Hi, Dianne,

    I had a g grandfather who, I learned online, was the only Norwegian immigrant in US history to lead a mob (in 1889 in WI) that ended up lynching another Norwegian immigrant. I was shocked when I learned the bare facts, but found many mitigating circumstances. For instance, the victim had burned down my g grandfather’s barn with the livestock inside and, threatened to do the same to his house with his family inside. He’d also been the scourge of the neighborhood, in many ways, spending time in prison for attempted murder. My g grandfather pleaded guilty at trial (which was a clear travesty) but got life in prison. Five years later, he got an unconditional pardon from the governor, who chastised the judge. He went on to live an apparently exemplary life with his 5 children–his wife died while he was in prison. As with Jesse, I ended up not thinking quite so badly of him. In fact, I became so fascinated with his life story that I wrote a historical novella about him, which I passed out to my family at our reunion last weekend.

  2. Excellent article Dianne. I started looking up my own family after a trip to the LDS family records hall in SLC – where I had a great time looking back on my roots. I got home and wanted to keep researching – and dig up actual physical documents. Realized I had to contact the county clerks offices for a few different counties to find more info. This was a challenge, there wasn’t any site with all this data on it in one place, so it took time to Google, Google, and more Googling. Decided to put together a database for this info to make my own life easier and figured I’d share it if its of value to you and your readers as well 🙂 County Clerk Court Records.

    Jessie might want to take a look at the following pages to help get some more documents:
    Philadelphia County Clerks
    Alaska County Clerks
    Illinois County Clerks
    and finally
    Nord Dakota County Clerks