“Who Do You Think You Are?”: Tony Goldwyn Discovers Roots in Oregon

By Diane Haddad

Thanks to guest blogger and Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Sunny Jane Morton for this recap of last night’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” with actor/director Tony Goldwyn. She also offers tips for finding old newspapers, an important resource in this episode:

We don’t often get to learn much about our female forebears’ personal lives and values. Neither do we get many glimpses into our ancestors’ marriages, unless they end in scandal or divorce. But Tony Goldwyn’s episode of “Who Do You Think You Are?” yesterday paints a compelling portrait of his third-great-grandparents Nathaniel and Mary Coe. And it does this with the types of documents that are available to anyone else out there willing to search for them.

As a young couple, Nathaniel and Mary Coe lived in New York. In 1838, Mary organized a ladies’ group to crusade against sexual exploitation of women. Ten years later, Nathaniel was in the state legislature, promoting an anti-rape law. Newspapers followed their efforts with varying attitudes toward their cause.

The family ended up in Oregon after Nathaniel’s presidential appointment as a US postal mail agent. Nathaniel and Mary promoted settlement of the Oregon Territory and championed the growth of their own little town. Goldwyn was disappointed to learn that his ancestors expressed a callous prejudice toward the American Indians they were displacing. But he also praised them as pioneers who were “absolutely equal and indispensable partners” in their marriage at a time when this was uncommon.

The Coes’ story couldn’t have been told without newspapers. I loved watching Goldwyn page gingerly through enormous original newspaper pages with crumbling edges. “WDYTYA?” also mentioned news stories found at the subscription website (owned by show sponsor and the free Historic Oregon Newspapers website.

Another great online resource for newspapers is the Library of Congress’ free Chronicling America, where you can search a sampling of digitized newspapers from across the country, as well as a comprehensive directory of all US newspapers by location, date and other categories. Learn more about newspaper research in our video class Three Cool Tools for Finding Your Family History in Newspapers, presented by Lisa Louise Cooke of Genealogy Gems.

I was more than a little envious when Goldwyn visited the Oregon Historical Society in Portland and found neatly archived boxes of original family documents. There was a scrapbook and letters that detailed the family’s adventures and challenges on the Oregon frontier. Our Libraries and Archives Web Guide download can help you work the web to search for those kinds of hidden treasures about your family that may be buried in a library or archive.