Tracking Your Past

Doris Green

While black sheep remain a popular Halloween costume, black sheep ancestor searches are popular at any time. Sometimes genealogists learn of a black sheep ancestor through family stories, or they may stumble on a revealing court case or a salacious news item in a local paper. Whatever act or behavior defines a black sheep makes them memorable and often easier for genealogists to track than their tamer relatives.

The bootlegging or burgling that once threatened your ancestor’s life or reputation may today be the source of a great story. If your ancestor was a murderer or thief, or involved in witchcraft trials or piracy, you may be eligible for membership in the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists, which has a Facebook group. 

Where to begin your search? Consider the crime, if crime is what made your ancestor a black sheep. County courthouses and jails are often a good starting point. If your ancestor outlaw went on to bigger crimes, the Wisconsin Historical Society holds inmate records on thousands of index cards from the Waupun Correctional Institute and the Green Bay Correctional Institution (reformatory) from 1946 to the 1990s; additionally, the Green Bay institution maintains a card index going back to when that facility opened in 1898. Genealogists may email a name to the WHS Archives and they will look in the indexes for you. You may also make an appointment to visit in person: https://wisc.libcal.com/calendar/whsarchives.

State inmate records may contain criminal history, a case file, or photo. A website, www.blacksheepancestors.com, offers searchable databases for some early prison records, court records, executions, and biographies of famous outlaws, as well as criminals and pirates in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

Ancestry.com offers federal penitentiary records and prison indexes, and you can also search Heritage Quest free through your Wisconsin library linkcat account, where you may find census, obituaries and family histories. These common genealogy sources may help pinpoint the whereabouts and connections of a family’s black sheep. 

Sometimes census enumerators recorded surprising notes along with names and addresses. More than one researcher has found a note reading “drunkard” and another, according to an Ancestry article, discovered this statement: “she-devil; says we must keep away or will get shot.”

Local newspaper articles may provide information on misfits, court appearances, and people on the lam for various reasons. Local history books, legal notices, and passenger lists may provide other signposts.

Doris Green authored “Elsie’s Story: Chasing a Family Mystery” and “Wisconsin Underground: A Guide to Cave, Mines, and Tunnels.” Now available: “Minnesota Underground: A Guide to Caves & Karst, Mines & Tunnels” is co-authored Greg Brick. Contact http://henschelhausbooks.com, Amazon or your bookstore.