When “Modern Family” actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson wanted answers on the TLC reality series “Who Do You Think You Are?” producers turned to Carnegie Mellon University’s Scott Sandage.
Mr. Sandage, an associate professor of history in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, said he received an email “out of the blue” from the show’s producers.
“They were looking for a historian who could talk about an ancestor who had a very checkered career. It happens I wrote a book some years ago about failure and being a loser in American culture [‘Born Losers: A History of Failure in America’].”
In particular, they wanted research on someone who lived during the Gilded Age (late 19th century).
“Who Do You Think You Are?” airs tonight at 9.
The docuseries lets celebrities discover family history, and past seasons revealed a surprising number of scoundrels hanging from the family tree. In the case of Mr. Ferguson, he wanted to know more about an ancestor, a great-grandfather whose first name also was Jesse.
“It seems that Jesse had a daughter ... who was named Jesse, and Jesse Tyler Ferguson was named for his grandmother, rather than for his great-grandfather,” Mr. Sandage said.
The appeal of the show is a slow reveal of facts as the celeb is whisked around the world, following the path of the ancestor. In his research, Mr. Sandage uncovered a great deal of information, but the producers forbade him from discussing anything other than the specifics of Mr. Ferguson’s relative during the time he lived in Chicago.
Mr. Sandage met Mr. Ferguson — “on a Sunday morning at the crack of dawn” — at the Evanston, Ill., public library last April.
“The celebrities who are on this show have to be pretty good sports,” he added. “They are kept entirely in the dark about what they are going to learn.”
It doesn’t take a TV show to track down family history. Mr. Sandage said that a good place to start is by scouring legal documents such as court cases, bankruptcy cases or wedding announcements via historical newspaper databases.
“But if I can plug your tax dollars at work, one I use most often in my own work is called Chronicling America. It’s a [web]site that is administrated by the Library of Congress and is word-searchable. It has really pristine images of newspapers from 1835-1922.
“It cuts off at 1923, because of a copyright status thing. You can find all sorts of things: weddings, funerals, murders, all free, and it’s very high quality.”
The one tip he offers is to try multiple spellings of names, which were routinely inconsistent in the 19th century.
“A person might go years without having to sign their names ... you can find people spelling their own names two different ways in the same document. If you’re Abraham Lincoln, fine. If you’re great-grandfather Jesse, not so much.”
Maria Sciullo: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.