When You Find that Your Ancestors MisbehavedFrom PastFinder newsletter, September 2013, pp. 1-2 (subscribe: www.svcgg.org/pages/ordermembership.html )
Reprinted by permission of the Silicon Valley Computer Genealogy Group
By Janet Brigham
We are not judge and jury. We do not know why some of our ancestors apparently misbehaved — or even whether they were justly accused. We can learn a lot, however, by trying to figure out what they did and why.
Consider a recently unearthed leaf in our family branches. A venerated ancestor born in the 1850s engaged in public service much of his adult life and was honored repeatedly for his contributions to his state and community. He raised a large family on a rural farm; all the children who could attend school did, and most graduated from college — after he helped launch the college. One of his sons studied abroad at a time when few U.S. students from the rural West studied abroad.
So imagine our surprise to find a clipping from 1918 reporting that this ancestor had been arrested for sedition and for “hoarding flour.” A farmer with a large family, he maintained possession of 13 sacks of flour at a time when residents of his community were required to surrender food for the war effort of World War I.
The disposition of the arrest is unknown and may take some effort to discover. The case is not mentioned in the ancestor’s obituary. We do not know how much flour a farm family with youngsters was allowed to store, nor whether the ancestor had political enemies who may have had some part in the arrest.
One thing we do know is that his purportedly seditious statements sound a lot like what has been said before about government, specifically, that a “yellow dog” might know more about how to run the government than the officials of the government knew. Whether he (a Republican) was referring to Yellow Dog Democrats, using a political term originating in the 1800s and peaking about 10 years after his arrest, also is unknown. We do know that not much is known.
Mistrust of standing government officials ran deep in the family’s roots, with multiple Revolutionary War ancestors, including some Massachusetts Minutemen. Perhaps, from the perspective of a public servant-turned-farmer, little had happened between the 1780s and 1918 to increase trust in governmental officials.
One of his sons suspended attending college and enlisted in the U.S. military a few days after the arrest. Another son registered for the draft later that year, after his 18th birthday.
Many people who have not yet started looking into their family history say that they are afraid of what they might find. A friend with African American heritage explained that she was afraid of finding ugly aspects of slavery that her ancestors would have endured. A middle-aged man with a British surname indicated that he preferred not to know what unsavory events might be in his family history.
This is the flip side of those who want to learn their ancestry in hope that they will discover famous settlers (for example, Mayflower ancestors), historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, or well-known families such as the Rockefellers. Perhaps they believe this will help them achieve feelings of self-worth or rootedness that they lack.
While those are not bad reasons for studying one’s family history, the success of the endeavor depends on finding the desired connections to the famous. On the other hand, only one thing dooms a more traditional genealogical search: finding nothing at all. Which, in this time of electronic access, is rare.
Without indulging in fantasy genealogy by simply making up our ancestry, we cannot control who our ancestors were, what they did, or what they experienced. It is history; our tasks are to find the best sources of information and to make sense of our ancestors’ lives.
To encourage family historians to use all records — including criminal records — major records providers such as Ancestry.com and FindMyPast.co.uk include searches of criminal records. The FamilySearch.org catalog lists 1,054 criminal records, including the “Circuit and supreme court records of Cooweescoowee District Oklahoma Historical Society. Indian Archives Division.” And 1,053 others.
Criminal accounts and records can be discouraging if you find that an ancestor was executed for even a small offense, as occurred in England — a scan of the Old Bailey records (www.oldbaileyonline.org/) brings up records of executions for offenses we now consider misdemeanors. The Old Bailey records of London’s central criminal report (1674-1913) can be searched by surname and given name, time period, alias, offense, verdict, punishment, and other terms.
The Old Bailey records include a transcript of witness testimony, with jury decision and punishment. For example, a man was arrested in 1809 for picking the locks on a row of stores. A physician said the man appeared insane. The man was found not guilty but insane (“non compos mentis”) and was sentenced to imprisonment for insanity. The disposition notation was that he was to be “detained, and to be taken proper care off [sic].” A “Calculate Total” click tells us that 433 persons listed in the Old Bailey records were sentenced to imprisonment for insanity.
Images of the original published records also can be accessed on the Old Bailey site.
Some criminal records will be more challenging to access. Records might be housed in county courthouses, county or state historical societies, university libraries, or many other locations, some unpredictable.
Remember that newspapers publish criminal and legal information; historic newspaper accounts might provide details about criminal activities and legal procedures and can set the events in a cultural and historical perspective because of the range of topics they cover. Criminal records can include much valuable genealogy information.
A final caveat: Don’t jump to conclusions. You probably do not know the whole story. For example, this notice appeared in a Spokane, Washington, newspaper: A man who “was ordered to report for entrainment to Camp Lewis Friday and failed to report and was posted as delinquent, is found to be serving and already in France, having entered some special service of the war department several months ago.”