Wednesday, October 2, 2013

From My Archives: Petty Criminals = Great Research Opportunities

Here's another (still) relevant post from 2009. See yesterday's post for information on "my archives." This used to be my Wednesday theme ("Mid-week Mayhem"). I've done some light editing to shorten the post.

This week I'll just tell you a little about why you want murderers, horse thieves, moonshiners, and other miscreants in your family.

For years I went along doing genealogy like many people do, collecting dates and places. But I was always wondering "why" and "what." Why did my Pattersons (from Georgia) serve in the Union army? What were my ancestors really like? As all good genealogists should, I began researching these questions.

Eventually I had to rev my genealogy research up a level and break into less used sources. That's when I started to find the "good stuff." These were mostly crimes my relatives committed but occasionally crimes committed against them.

I soon learned to check very dry court records for my family. In one case this in-directly connected three siblings I could not document elsewhere. Tax records or census records often aren't available in the times and places I need them but court records often are. Newspapers are a source in themselves but also as a finding aid for court records.

All those relatives involved in 'mayhem' have provided great stories but also great research opportunities. Along with using genealogy sources I try and research the history that goes along with all these stories. I've learned my family isn't that different from their neighbors (remember those Union soldiers from Georgia? It wasn't just my family). When I'm reading those dry court records it's pretty likely my relatives are involved with other residents whose names keep coming up over and over again for moonshining, or hog stealing, or whatever the crime du jour is. Keep track of those associates, yet more places to look for new information! [If you aren't familiar with the genealogy term "FAN club," go learn about it now.]

I've never been under the delusion that I would find rich and powerful men in my family so finding criminals wasn't a shock. If you're always on the look-out for relatives who rose to the top of society, maybe you should consider looking for common criminals instead. They can leave great records and the stories aren't too bad, either.