Who Do You Think You Are? Features Jesse Tyler Ferguson

Tonight’s episode of the U.S. version of Who Do You Think You Are? featured Jesse Tyler Ferguson, an American actor known for portraying Mitchell Pritchett on the ABC sitcom, Modern Family. He has earned 5 nominations for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. However, he knew little about his family history. In the first part of the program, Jesse states that he wanted to fill out his “family stump” to convert it into a family tree. He started by interviewing his own father in his home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The program’s professional genealogists undoubtedly traced all of Jesse’s ancestors they could find earlier; but featuring all of them on one program would have resulted in a show that was many, many hours too long. Instead, the producers selected the most interesting person they could find in the family tree and focused on him.

Jesse’s great-grandfather was Jesse Wheat Uppercu. Jesse Tyler Ferguson always knew that he was named after his grandmother, but he did not know that she had been named after her father, the younger Jesse’s great-grandfather. The older Jesse had a long and illustrious career but not all of it was upstanding.

As a young man, Jesse Wheat Uppercu was arrested and accused of murdering his own aunt. He had a possible motive as the man stood to benefit substantially from the older woman’s will. The case against him consisted of all circumstantial evidence since there were no eyewitnesses and no hard evidence. A trial ended in a hung jury, meaning no verdict. A second trial resulted in a verdict of Not Guilty. Soon after, he married for the first time, only to divorce after about 7 years.

He moved to Illinois and to Dakota Territory, where he was arrested for embezzlement from a bank. He was found not guilty by a jury. However, this event provided the opportunity for the show to put the man’s ventures in the context of the times. The explanation of the Gilded Age of America painted a picture of the opportunities and the opportunists who took advantage of them, showing this one man as representative of a broader spirit of his era.

In St. Louis, Missouri, Jesse Wheat Uppercu was a lawyer but was arrested (again) for embezzlement. The charges were dropped after he paid back the money. Later, he married again in New Jersey, only to divorce again.

Still later, while living in Philadelphia, he formed and led a large company of men on an expedition to find gold in Alaska in 1898.

After Jesse Tyler Ferguson traveled to Alaska to find records, he found that his great-grandfather led one of the biggest and most complex expeditions ever in the Klondike Gold Rush. When the going got tough, many of the men abandoned the expedition and returned home. Jesse’s great-grandfather was one of the men to abandon the effort, even though he was the organizer and leader.

After his third marriage, he lived in Brooklyn, New York. Still later, he married for the fourth time, and the children from the fourth marriage included Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s grandmother. The fourth marriage ended in divorce. Jesse Wheat Uppercu lived the rest of his life as an apparently reputable man who was actively involved in politics.

It was an interesting story of a man who at times was an accused murderer, an embezzler, a lawyer, an adventurer, and a politician.

One thing I liked about this week’s episode was that it appeared that Jesse Tyler Ferguson was doing his own research. Obviously, the program’s professional genealogists had done all the research ahead of time; but, the manner in which the program was displayed looked as if Jesse was doing his own research, one step at a time. (There were a couple of exceptions, such as the time a researcher handed Jesse a professionally-prepared timeline. However, most of the other research looked as if Jesse was doing it himself by reading books and asking various experts.) I like that method of presentation as it shows non-genealogists how family history research is really done. You don’t simply walk into an archive and have a document shown to you with everything already prepared, as was shown in this TV series in prior years. Instead, you find the information one step at a time through proper investigative techniques. I like this week’s presentation better than any of the previous episodes.

All in all, I enjoyed watching Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s journey through his family tree. If you did not see tonight’s episode, you can catch it later on the reruns or on a number of Internet sites that rebroadcast television programs.

Next week’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? will feature Rachel McAdams and her sister, Kayleen McAdams. Check your local listing for the time.

5 Comments

I noticed the timeline in tonight Who Do You Think You Are? included a map of the US showing where the events happened. Any idea what software was used to make the timeline/map?

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There are SEVERAL family trees on the Ancestry website about Jesse Wheat Uppercu. They don’t mention all the details about his life, including the embezzlements and the Alaska expedition. His last wife Elizabeth is listed in the 1940 US census as a widow, (after Jesse’s death in 1937). I think the researchers said they were divorced in 1925 (divorced people quite often seem to be listed as Widowed rather than Divorced in the census.) She is living in the same town (same house?–I can’t tell) as Jesse (1930 census) with three of her children, including Jesse Tyler Ferguson’s grandmother, Jessie, age 24. According to the US Social Security Death Index, Elizabeth Uppercu died in July 1973 and Jessie/Jesse W (Uppercu) Ferguson died February 7, 2008.

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Who do You Think You Are? is trying to be entertaining and visually attractive, but they are failing to emphasize what I consider to be important about genealogical research. Start from the known and work back to the unknown. I guess that can be boring.

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Unlike last year, it seems that TLC is not making the episodes available for streaming the day after airing the show. What is the cheapest, easiest option to see the show?

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That was probably the most difficult show to follow and edit. Jesse Uppercu’s life and behaviour pattern is obviously that of a con artist, and details show him to be quite possibly a cruel psychopath. Yet he was probably very charming, good looking, seemed very respectable, to all except those he targeted. Typical. It might have been kinder to the current Jesse to have chosen a different ancestor. He looked very sad at the end trying to hold onto one good thing – the man was living with some of his kids. But any genealogist who had researched even a few generations, has come across at least one of these.

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