Who Were the Black Sheep in Your Family?

Family History
8 April 2020
by Ancestry® Team

Whether they were bootleggers, grifters, or other colorful characters on the wrong side of the law, black sheep are some of the most interesting ancestors you’ll ever trace.

These nine things to know will help you figure out where to turn to bring your own family’s black sheep into the fold.

1 Who’s the black sheep in your family?

He or she is the one who went against the grain. Of course it’s all a matter of perception, but you may discover that you’re looking at a black sheep simply by looking at comments in the U.S. Census and elsewhere. Try a few of these on for size.

Examples of historical records with entries indicating black sheep.
A variety of historical records have entries that indicate black sheep.
2 You can find black sheep in family stories.

Family stories are a great resource on the life of a black sheep. But before you add Jesse James to your family tree, check out the story carefully. Passed-down stories are notorious for their on-the-fly edits, which in turn get handed to the next generation and beyond.

To sort truth from fiction, you should do the following:

a. Create a timeline of the story. And mesh it with known records. Jot down ages, years, and family relationships from U.S. Census and birth, marriage, and death records.

b. Check city directories. They could give you the whereabouts of your rogue ancestors during the 10 years between censuses.

c. Search yearbooks for insights about their early years like where they might have grown up. Often you’ll also find any siblings.

d.  Check family albums and scrapbooks. There might well be clues lurking there.

3 Black sheep often have long paper trails.

Depending on your ancestor’s offense, you may find his or her trail in newspaper records, court records, and even prison records.

Historic document showing "Larceny of post office."
Black sheep sometimes left paper trails, like this one for “larceny of post office.”

If committing crimes—and getting caught and tried—was your black sheep’s forte, check newspapers more carefully.

Coverage of a criminal trial may have lasted months and extended well beyond the town or county where the offense was committed. Even petty criminals could make repeat appearances in the town’s published police blotter.

4 What’s in a black sheep’s name?

Whether your black sheep ancestor was escaping the law, a jilted lover, or something else entirely, he or she may have adopted a new name. If you think that’s the case with your ancestor, try the following:

a. Search by criteria. Forget names and use birthplace, age, gender, occupation, and other details that match your ancestor. Pay attention to names that sound familiar: a family member’s maiden name or middle name, for example.

b. Lengthen and shorten names. An alias might have been taken from the existing surname.

c. Follow the black sheep’s address in city directories. The name may have changed even when the address remained the same.

5 Certain geographic locations attracted black sheep.

The American West was big—and wild. Check state and territory censuses and newspapers carefully if you think your ancestor migrated, even temporarily. Black sheep in the UK? If he or she was of the criminal variety, check Australian records, too.

People and a wagon in the American West, a region that attracted black sheep.
Certain geographic regions like the American West tended to attract black sheep.
6 Other people may have written about your black sheep ancestor in their own histories.

Check written local histories and biographies of law-enforcement officers: either may mention local notorious characters.

An example of a police biography.
Police biographies like this one could reveal more about black sheep ancestors.
7 Everyone has a mother.

And mothers can lead you to black sheep.

Follow the family of a black sheep ancestor in census records and newspapers. You may find mentions of them visiting kin, living with a parent, child, sibling, or even next door. Pay careful attention to boarders and neighbors who seem to match the black sheep’s description.

8 Black sheep on the lam.

More than just a pun, it’s a fact: black sheep often had reason to travel the globe or get away from something (see #4).

Look for them in passports (bonus: you often get a photo, too).

Examples of passport photos and applications.
You can look for black sheep in passport photos and passport applications.

You can also search passenger lists and in out-of-town newspapers. You’ll even find a handful of histories about “privateers” and “pirates” in the Ancestry® card catalog.

9 They may be hiding in plain sight.

Sometimes you have to get creative and look for your black sheep ancestors in broader record collections like passenger lists and city directories. But sometimes they're "hiding" in plain sight.

Ancestry has a number of historical collections of criminal records, largely in the mid-to-late 1800s but as far back as 1680, where you can search directly for black sheep ancestors.

You’ll find historical records from infamous prisons like Sing Sing in New York and Alcatraz in California, as well as collections from the UK and Australia.

Prison records can include some surprisingly rich details. This Sing Sing prison record for William (“Willie”) Sutton, the infamous bank robber known for being against violence—who all told stole millions and escaped from prison three times—is a great example.

The Sing Sing prison record for Willie Sutton.
This Sing Sing prison record for Willie Sutton yields surprisingly rich details about his life.

From his prison record you can get some very precise details about his life and family: if he was married, if he had children, how many siblings he had (both their gender and if they were living and deceased), his birth order in the family, his religion, and his occupation (a skilled florist).

But you also get other fascinating details you might not expect like how much he drank (he was “temperate”), if he smoked (yes), what other languages he spoke (French) and how long since he last regularly attended church.

And of course you’ll get the details of the crime: In this case, the “hold up [of a] jewelry store” in the city of New York, for goods worth $130,000 (or over 250 times his stated weekly salary)—marked not recovered.

Who Will You Find?

The stories of the black sheep in your family tree await. Check out these black-sheep only record collections.

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