Search billions of records on


From the Green Valley News, Sunday 1 September 2007, page B8

Genealogy Today, by Betty Malesky

Black Sheep are More Fun

Last month a Smithsonian magazine author falsely accused genealogists of only researching their ancestry to find famous ancestors. A greater challenge than finding illustrious connections and more fun besides, is finding the black sheep who make the family’s story more interesting.

Before the invention of the telegraph and telephone, advances in transportation and the growth of community newspapers, it was easy to hide family scandals. Nearly every family had them but few admitted it. As a result, a researcher often stumbles on a family secret totally unaware. It may take a little extra searching to dig up all the juicy details, however most court records are easily accessed and often reveal long-hidden family scandals.

What constitutes a black sheep? Basically, he or she was a scoundrel, rebel, rabble rouser or maybe a nonconformist ahead of his time but perfectly respectable by today’s standards. Many black sheep did commit murder, robbery, piracy or other heinous crimes, but others were scorned because they were just a shade outside of society’s norm.

Two web sites are dedicated to black sheep ancestry. The International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists was formed in 1998. Descendants of black sheep share information and try to learn more about the deviant ancestor and what caused the fall from the family tree. Submitters are asked not to submit details publicly if the individual is living, the acts still affect the family or cause any person to be in danger.

Online at, membership is restricted to those who can trace a family line to a murderer, thief, gang member, bigamist or other unsavory character. Bigamists who were also Mormons are disqualified since their religion once sanctioned bigamy, but an amazing number of non-Mormon bigamists turn up in Civil War Pension records. As the country expanded it was relatively easy for a man to just disappear, head west, and start over. He may have eluded the law when he was alive, but what a shock for his survivors when both wives applied for a widow’s pension and each learned of the other. Only the legal wife was eligible. offers links arranged by state to prison records, historical court records, executions and biographies of famous outlaws, criminals & pirates. Massachusetts, for instance, lists 345 executions between 1630 and 1947. First on the list and perhaps the first American black sheep is John Billington, a passenger on the Mayflower who was hanged for murder.

One of my eligible ancestors was banned from Puritan Massachusetts because she held Bible studies for women in her home. Another of my black sheep constantly in hot water due to his outspoken religious views, escaped death by one vote before being deported back to England by the Massachusetts court. He won favor with the Earl of Warwick, returned to the colonies in 1642 and founded the city of Warwick, Rhode Island.

Edward Gibbon, the 18th century English historian who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire said, "History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." If this is so, we family historians should not rebury our black sheep, but simply use them to energize our family histories.

Home Page
997 visitors since
6 September 2007
Page revised
08 October 2007
Valid XHTML 1.0