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# Wednesday, June 03, 2009
Researching an Ancestor's Murder
Posted by Diane

Q I found out my great-great-grandfather Juan Chavez was murdered in Valencia County, NM, in 1883, but that’s all I know. How can I find out more about this story?

A Start by thinking about the kind of records a murder might generate: death records, a coroner’s investigation, newspaper coverage, a criminal trial. Let’s take these one at a time:
  • New Mexico became a state in 1912 and didn’t mandate death certificates until 1920, so one may not exist for your ancestor. Since some counties kept vital records earlier than the state did, contact the Valencia county courthouse at Box 969, Los Lunas, NM 87031, (505) 866-2073.
  • Newspapers might have published obituaries, as well as articles about the murder, investigation and trial. New Mexico’s state archives and library have large historical newspaper collections. Subscription sites Ancestry.com and GenealogyBank  have a few New Mexico newspapers covering 1883 in their searchable databases. Libraries in Valencia County also may have old newspapers.
  • Also look for probate records, which are created when a court distributes a deceased person’s estate. Valencia county probate court records are microfilmed at the Family History Library (you can tell by running a place search of the online catalog on the county name).
You can rent the film by visiting a Family History Center near you. First rent the index (film #2312158), and if there’s a file on your ancestor, note the packet number. Then you can request the roll of film covering that probate packet.  
  • Mysterious or violent deaths often led to a coroner’s investigation, usually part of court or police records. A search of the New Mexico state archives’ online catalog on Valencia court records brings up a listing for collection #1974-031, which has county records from 1847 to 1979. Coroners’ inquests from 1882 to 1908 are part of the justice of the peace records.
You could visit the archives in Santa Fe to search, or e-mail a research request. There may be fees associated with research requests.
  • If someone was arrested for the murder, records from a criminal trial would answer a lot of questions. The state archives’ collection #1978-003 has records for US territorial and New Mexico district courts covering Valencia County, including criminal cases from 1852 to 1912. In this collection, series V, file 13-24, covers 1852 to 1909.
These early case files aren’t numbered, and without the accused’s name, you’ll need to examine the records pretty closely to see which case involves your ancestor.

black sheep ancestors | court records | US roots
Wednesday, June 03, 2009 5:18:00 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [5]
# Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Finding Incarcerated Ancestors
Posted by Diane

Q. My mother told us repeatedly that she thought our paternal grandfather spent time in various jails and/or prisons in the Deep South. Is there any way to track criminal incarcerations in first quarter of the 20th century without going to each individual district?

A. I don't know of any comprehensive prison indexes, though you can find a few records from individual institutions online. See Ancestor Hunt for a list. (I haven’t clicked all those links—some may go to pay sites.)

Decennial US censuses typically enumerated prisons and other institutions (you’ll see the institution’s name at the top of the return), so search for your ancestor’s name in censuses during his lifetime. Note that not everyone listed in censuses as “inmate” was in prison—people in orphanages and hospitals sometimes were called inmates.

You also could run searches of various online newspaper indexes to see if your grandfather’s name turns up in crime-related coverage.

Do you know the places he lived? If so, you could always run place searches of the Family History Library catalog to see whether it has any microfilmed prison records from those counties or states, then rent the film through a Family History Center near you. Search state archives’ Web sites and catalogs, too, as state prison records would likely be with the archives.

But it sounds like you’re taking a shot in the dark. Without a more-specific idea of when and where your grandfather may have served time, renting all that film will be time-consuming and expensive.

Aside from checking censuses and using the easily accessible online indexes mentioned above on the off chance you'll find something, your best bet is to continue your general research of your great-grandfather and other relatives. Keep your eyes open for clues. Ask cousins whether they've heard anything about your grandfather being incarcerated.

For example, my family had a similar story about my great-grandfather, and only when I got his son’s orphanage application (it mentioned the state penitentiary) did I learn when and where he was imprisoned, and where I needed to look for records.


black sheep ancestors | institutional records
Wednesday, January 14, 2009 4:46:40 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Friday, October 05, 2007
Tracking down Contact Information
Posted by Grace

Q I want to contact a person who posted on a genealogy message board a few years ago, but the e-mails bounce back. How can I get in touch with this person?

A It happens all too often: A Web search for an ancestor turns up a nugget of information on a message board, but when you try to contact the person—no dice. First, check out the poster's user profile. If it includes a personal Web site, visit to look for updated contact information. If you're not that lucky, look next for a full name in the profile or the original posting.

You can then search for the name in an online directory such as Yahoo! People Search or Switchboard. Doing a Google search for the name may turn up some contact information as well, though this will be more helpful if you're looking for a Heidi Kryschek-Horowitz than if you're scouting a Steve Smith.

Another tactic is to search Google for the person's message board username—people often use the same ID on different sites. GenieFreak293 may show up with more-recent activity on other forums.

You can take this as a lesson in genealogical karma. Whenever you get a new e-mail address, always update your contact information on all the Web sites where you've posted queries. Or sign up for a free, Web-based e-mail account at Gmail or Yahoo! to use just for genealogy correspondence—then you'll never need to change your e-mail address.


black sheep ancestors | Web tips
Friday, October 05, 2007 5:06:07 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]
# Friday, September 21, 2007
Convicts and Indentured Servitude
Posted by Diane

Q My fifth-great-grandfather Nathaniel Tenpenny was convicted of a crime in England in 1764 and sentenced to seven years of indentured servitude in America. He was transported aboard the Tryal the same year. He’s in the 1790 Rowan County, NC, census with his family, but I haven’t been able to find out their names or anything else about him.

A An indentured servant was “bound” to a property owner in exchange for passage to America. Many people indentured themselves. Your ancestor was part of a popular criminal justice trend in England: Punishment by "transportation," or exile to work in America (after the Revolutionary War, Australia became the primary destination).

After England passed the Transportation Act in 1718, courts there sent approximately 60,000 convicts—called "the King's passengers"—to America.

It sounds like you found the information on Nathaniel Tenpenny’s conviction for stealing tools online at The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London, 1674 to 1834. That site has accounts of more than 100,000 trials at London's central criminal court.

Look for your ancestor’s name in two books by Peter Wilson Coldham:
The Complete Book of Emigrants in Bondage, 1614-1775 and Emigrants in Chains, 1607-1776. Both are $45 from Clearfield Co. You may learn the port where his ship arrived and other details, giving you a starting point.

There’s a good chance your ancestor served his sentence in Maryland or Virginia. According to a 2004 NPR report, 90 percent of the King’s Passengers served their sentences in Maryland and Virginia.

Laws governed indentured servitude (servants who tried to run away or became pregnant, for example, might have their contracts extended), so look for contracts and other documents among court records where your ancestor served. If you learn whom he was indentured to, check the local historical society and university archives for collections of personal papers—they may mention Nathaniel.

To narrow Nathaniel's place of service, research him backward from his most recent known location—North Carolina in the 1790 census. Look for Colonial censuses, land and tax records. Presumably Nathaniel would've been released in the early 1770s. Could he have returned to England temporarily? Stayed in America and fought in the Revolutionary War?

Look for his will, too, which would likely give the names of his children and wife. For additional resources, see the Colonial research article in the February 2006 Family Tree Magazine.

To learn more about prisoners and indentured servants, explore these sites:


black sheep ancestors | court records | immigration
Friday, September 21, 2007 9:31:50 PM (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #  Comments [0]