Thu, July 18

Black Sheep Ancestors

The delving into family history isn't for the faint hearted, so if you are determined to search into the past you need to be prepared because what you find might not be exactly what you want to learn. While we might all like to be descended from Royalty or a President or a National Hero, it just isn't possible. Most of us at some time, will find an ancestor that we may not want to shout about from the rooftops.

One woman who had always known that her great-grandmother was an "early female entrepreneur" was surprised, during her research, to find out that her grandmother was never listed as having a father.

After checking through city directories and newspaper articles she discovered that her great-grandmother ran a "late evening business" that turned out to be a brothel. Her great-grandmother had managed to make a lot of money and had always kept some of her assets liquid just in case she had to leave town in a hurry. As a result she missed out on the stock market crash in 1929, later invested, and left her family comfortably well off.

Depending on what your family moral values were, the black sheep ancestor may have been an actual criminal, or the first one in the family who didn't attend college or who left home to join the circus. Some families aren't anxious to talk about the miscreant or they may spin the story so that the ancestor who was a "close acquaintance of Wyatt Earp" was called that because he was arrested on more than one occasion by the famous lawman.

It is important to put events into context. You need to take a look at the history of the area in the time period of your ancestor. Life was very different 100 or more years ago. A criminal who was hung or was shipped out of England on a prison ship bound for Australia may have been guilty of stealing bread to feed a starving family or disagreeing with the King. We may never find out why an ancestor did what they did or what they were thinking when they did it.

The advantage when you have a "black sheep ancestor" is that they usually leave lots of records. These records are often found often in newspapers ­ sometimes in the headlines. While putting together a family for someone not long ago, I found a son when he and a cousin left their home town and went to the "city" and forged some checks. The fact that they were cousins was mentioned in the newspaper article detailing their crime spree. These ancestors can also generate photographic records like the man I found in the late 1800s who was photographed standing in front of his upright coffin before he was executed by a firing squad.

Court records are also a good source. These are public records, and are found in the area where your ancestor lived. While early records may have been filmed, later court records are so vast that to film them would be overwhelming and they may need to be searched in the locality where they were recorded. If you are distant from the location you need to search, try contacting a local historical society for advice on how to get the needed records. A great web page exists dedicated to Black Sheep Ancestors, which will give you clues about where you might search for records. It is

Remember you can accept who your ancestors were and still not be proud of what they did. After all your ancestors may have some questions about you as a descendant, and those "errant" family members can actually be the most interesting. Accept the fact that your ancestors weren't perfect and be glad that you finally have some ancestors for which there is documentation. Remember those traits that they used in an unacceptable way may be the traits that are strengths in your life.

Genealogy Happenings: Yavapai County has a great website for Arizona Research at