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Mysteries and other stories in the family tree

By Juliana Smith

Marissa Tomei’s journey into the past on last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (Fridays 8/7c on NBC) centered on the untimely death of her great-grandfather. At the start, he was little more than a name in the family tree and the subject of speculation—of the shadiest type. But his reputation got a makeover once Tomei dug into his story.

That’s the wonderful part about going beyond a name on a family tree—digging into the story brings people to life. And adding off-the-beaten-path resources like newspapers, which helped Tomei get the real story of her great-grandfather’s murder and its aftermath, makes the truth that much more vivid.

My first research experience with newspapers was also one of the first real research trips I took with my mother. We went to the Chicago Public Library, where we spent hours scrolling through microfilms of old newspapers, looking for mentions of her client’s ancestors. Although I was supposed to be searching for an obituary, I kept calling my mother over to see my exciting discoveries. Unfortunately they were not about her client; they were just interesting articles from the era we were researching.

I’ve never lost that fascination with old newspapers and still enjoy trolling through the pages of dailies and weeklies from places where my ancestors lived—and pretty much anywhere else.

Historical newspapers offer a firsthand look into the times and places our ancestors inhabited. And that glimpse into bygone eras often provides insights that can’t be found elsewhere. You’ll find the Ancestry.com newspapers collection through the Search tab. Click on it and look for Stories & Publications on the right side. Then use these search tips to find your family in the news.

·         Specify “Exact.” Restricting your search to “exact” can help narrow the results. For names, click the Use Default Settings links below the name fields and select the appropriate restrictions. For keywords, click the Exact box following the keyword field.

·         To narrow your search to a particular time frame, enter a date in the year field under Publication Info. You can click the Exact Only box, but also allow a little wiggle room by entering +/- 1, 2, 5 or 10 years (e.g., a search for a publication date of 1850 with +/- 10 years will search newspapers for 1840–1860).

·         If you want to search for a phrase, put it in quotes. This tells Ancestry.com to look for that exact phrase—for example,  “California emigration”—rather than pages that mention California in one article and emigration from Sweden in another.

·         Search beyond your ancestor’s stomping grounds. Like they do today, newspapers often picked up stories from places across the country. Try searching the entire collection for a place name (town or county) instead of a person.

Make some time to search or browse newspapers from the era of your ancestors. Bookmark your “favorites,” and when you find a few spare minutes, curl up with the laptop and take a quick trip through the past with some real pages of history. And be sure to add them to your family tree, in case you ever have the needs to unravel a family mystery, too. You’ll find information about doing just that at www.ancestry.com/wdytya.  Ancestry.com is a sponsor of the Who Do You Think You Are?.