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Movers and shakers who forged the way on Who Do You Think You Are?

On last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? award-winning actress Helen Hunt uncovered the stories in her dad’s family tree. She knew little about his family; her dad’s mother died when he was just five years old. But Helen’s goal to unlock the past and share it with her own daughter persevered. First stop – census records that directed her to California and ultimately the Gold Rush, where Helen’s great-grandfather staked his claim. But the gold he found was a little more green as he built the foundation of a financial institution that still stands today.

And the inspiration kept coming. Next Helen traveled across the country to Maine to learn more about a great-great-grandmother. Following her through historical records, Helen discovered this powerful woman paved the way for women’s suffrage – even casting a ballot herself. is a sponsor of Who Do You Think You Are? airing Fridays at 8/7c on NBC. Watch Helen’s episode online here.

Every family tree is full of inspiration, yours included, even if your own family’s story never made it into a history book. You can rest assured that the sacrifices they made and the struggles they endured helped forge a more welcoming path for each of us. And the best part? Now you get to follow their trail, uncover their journeys and come face to face with history all over again.

Helen Hunt Discovers Her Past on Who Do You Think You Are?

Discovering that her great-grandmother was a leader in the Women’s Christian Temperance Union doesn’t sit well at first with award-winning actress Helen Hunt – until she traces this powerful female’s surprising impact on history. From groundbreaking roots in California to a women’s rights mover-and-shaker in Maine, it’s a story full of surprises. Watch it unfold on Friday night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? at 8/7c on NBC, sponsored by

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 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 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 is a sponsor of the Who Do You Think You Are?.

Twists of fate in the family tree on Who Do You Think You Are?

When you start down a road in your family’s history, you never know whose paths may have crossed in the past. Actor Martin Sheen found that out on the first episode of this season of Who Do You Think You Are?. In a mind-bending twist of fate, he learned that a great-great-great-great-grandfather on his grandmother’s side and a great-great-great-great-grandmother on his grandfather’s side had a surprising and unpleasant association 150 years before his grandparents married and connected these two branches into one family. (BTW, you can catch the episode online at

As interesting as it was, if you think about it, it’s shouldn’t be too surprising that branches of your family tree occasionally cross before they connect. In my own files, I have a newspaper clipping about the wedding of a Brooklyn, New York, politician’s daughter. The clipping not only describes the wedding in great detail but also lists all of the guests—and this was no small affair. The guest list was rife with politicians, including ex-president Grover Cleveland and his wife, the governor, a senator, and several congressmen. The father of the bride was no slouch either; he was well-known in political circles as the “Boss” of Brooklyn.

Two of my relatives were also there, and some thirty years later, their grandchildren would marry. While it’s no bombshell like the one dropped on Martin Sheen, it’s a good reminder that your ancestors were part of a community in which their lives intertwined. My two relatives at that wedding were both on the police force, one the ex-commissioner, and the other a patrolman who had worked his way up to become a captain. So they may easily have known each other through their work and shared some mutual friends.

Learning about the people your ancestor interacted with can really bring your family history to life. Start a list of your ancestor’s associates—people whose names appear as sponsors, in-laws, witnesses, business partners, members of a religious community, or even just neighbors. Then hop on and see what you can turn up on them. Check census records, directories, and historical newspapers for mentions.

As you learn more about them, you’ll get to know your ancestor’s community. If that’s not enough inspiration, keep in mind that immigrants and families often traveled and settled with people they knew. Tracing the origins of your ancestor’s friends and neighbors may lead you to your own ancestor’s roots.

And of course, don’t overlook a direct ancestor’s siblings. Martin Sheen uncovered two compelling stories about two different uncles who shared some of the same political passion. You never know what stories are waiting just off your direct line.

So, now you’ve heard my story. What’s yours? Have you found a connection in your family tree that had you raising an eyebrow or shouting for someone to come take a look at this? Or maybe an inspiring story about your ancestor’s sibling? Please share it in the comments, or email it to me at