Black Sheep Ancestors

February 6, 2014  - by 

In almost every family tree there will be a black sheep ancestor. Don’t shun these relatives or pretend they do not exist. These are fun relatives to research and genealogists love them. Judy Russell entertained us with her topic “Doing Time-Prison Record as Genealogy Resources.”

“I have mostly farmers and preachers in my ancestry. Frankly they are boring. I like finding the black sheep in my family. I found a relative who committed his first murder at the age of fifteen. He was described as a gentleman killer. How did he get that name?  He said he never killed anyone who didn’t deserve to be killed. He also was a gentleman killer because most of the people who lived to describe him stated he was very nice”

Genealogists are thrilled to have prisoners to research. Why? Because they create records. Not only can you find newspaper clippings of the crimes committed, but you have their prison records. Prison records give you information that you won’t find on your average citizen. Prison records will include photographs of the criminal, the county of sentencing, their age, height, colorations, tattoos and scars. Prison records not only show the facts, but also show what kind of prisoner your ancestor was. With many prisons you can find letters received while your ancestor was incarcerated. These letters will give you an idea of their lives, what kind of prisoner they were. Not only do you find out about their crimes, you can find personality traits, what they struggled with and why. Some records will go into great details like whether or not they could read; or if they had any talents such as fiddling. A warden’s record will give you tons of information.

You can find prison indexes online at or at FamilySearch online. You may also find some records and images online at or at Library of Congress. Another excellent source for pictures is Flickr photostreams at They will have images and documents you can obtain and research completely free.

State Prisons are a great resource and are run by the State Corrections Departments. There is a wide variation in what may be available state to state. Many historical records have been moved to the state archives or the state historical society. In every state you can get current inmate lists online.

Cyndi’s list is a great source for online prison records. genealogy has hotlinks with state records that have been digitized.

County jails are a wealth of information. County jails are a good place to start your search. They are run by the county or the local government. This is where you find short term prisoners for minor offenses of pending trial. Not everyone who served time was a criminal. Some people were jailed for not paying a bill. The records will still be at the county courthouse.

This kind of detailed information so easily obtained may make you wish all of your ancestors had gone to prison.

This article was written by guest blogger Maggie Stevens


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  1. Once you find these shady characters and their sensational stories, what do you do with this information? First, refresh your understanding of ethics by reading Sissela Boks’ “Secrets: On the ethics of concealment and revelation”. Then, when you get around to writing your family history, avoid being judgmental. Tell the story with as much objectivity and understanding as you can. I usually find it best to let the documents themselves tell the story, keeping my own opinions out of it as much as possible.

    1. Excellent comment John. In the excitement of the discovery of a fascinating family story, it’s tempting to go out and tell everyone what you found and make quick judgements with very limited information. Your words provide very sound advice. Thank you.

  2. I have an Uncle and a nephew separate but connected to him that both served Prison sentences. The Uncle’s was Train robbery. Wounded in the process. How did they find him? The posse followed the horse track in the snow from the train. There are letters from all kinds of people stating what a fine gentleman he was and should receive an early release. He wrote a letter asking to be released in the summer months so he could return to his family in warmer travel and not at GREAT Discomfort to his already infirm body.
    He was release in January, after serving his Full 10 year sentence.
    That was a fun search.
    I have close family members who have kicked out black sheep {anyone they disagree with–I am one of them}. IT has been REALLY exciting to find these people in spite of their steering me in every OTHER direction and seeing the looks on their faces when I can tell them exactly ‘How much of this person’s blood you have in your veins.’
    I do not want them linked to me, BUT THEY ARE; like it or not for them.

      1. Thank you Amy. I had spoken to a Mr Johnson of Family Search awhile back and he was so kind and said that I could call him if ever I need some help. I really appreciate that great service.

      2. Thank you Amy. I set up an appointment for a zoom visit for Tuesday. I sure hope that I can glean some valuable hints.
        Robert (Bob)