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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]
# Thursday, December 11, 2008
This Brick Wall is Murder
Posted by Diane

Q. I have a great aunt who was murdered in San Francisco, July 18, 1918, at age 30. Her husband had died four months before and she had a 3-year-old son. I was able to find the date of death, but I really want to know the facts behind the case. How did it happen? Was the killer caught?

A. You don’t mention whether you’ve already found a death certificate. If not, look for one. The certificate will confirm details such as the date and cause of death. Contact San Francisco’s Office of Vital Records or the California Department of Public Health for information.

A microfilmed index of California deaths covering 1905 to 1988 is at the Family History Library. You can rent film for viewing through your local FamilySearch Family History Center.

As a FamilyTreeMagazine.com Forum member suggested, coroner’s records (also called medical examiner records) may help. Coroners would investigate suspicious deaths. The San Francisco History Center at the San Francisco Public Library has coroner’s reports from 1906 to 1950. Contact the library (415-557-4567) to request a search .

You’re right to search newspapers. You can use a service such as Proquest Historical Newspapers or Newsbank at many libraries; or you could use a site such as the subscription site GenealogyBank at home.

If searching doesn’t produce results, try browsing through newspapers for the days and weeks after your great-aunt’s death. San Francisco being a major city, your local library may have its newspapers on microfilm. Search for titles of San Francisco papers using the directory on the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America site.

The above records should help you determine whether anyone was caught and tried for the crime. The State Archives of California has San Francisco criminal case files from 1850 to 1965. Learn more about researching California court records using the archives' online finding aid.


birth/death records | court records | printed sources
Thursday, December 11, 2008 9:59:06 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Tuesday, March 18, 2008
How to Find Your Ancestor's Will
Posted by Diane

Q I'm not sure if my grandparents ever had a will drawn up. They died 10 years apart. How would I go about checking to see if they ever filed a will? Whose death should I check first?

A We asked Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer, author of Long-Distance Genealogy (Betterway Books, out of print), to weigh in on this question:

Your grandparents didn’t necessarily have one will in common. While that's possible, a will is usually made for one person. In pre-feminist days, any land probably would've been in your grandfather's name, so he might've been the only one with a will—but your grandmother might've had a separate will. It's also possible neither had a will.

Your ancestor’s will would be in his estate file. An estate file might exist even if neither ancestor left a will. They're often more interesting without a will, because they could include papers listing names and relationships, filed to prove the heirs’ identities.

Estate files may contain many types of documents other than wills, including:
  • letters of administration
  • list of the deceased's heirs, including their relationship
  • list of who bought what at the estate sale
  • final account of the estate (who got how much money), which can help you deduce relationships from the differing amounts each person received
  • petitions, which may state the relationship of heirs to the deceased
Check for an estate file for each ancestor. If a female ancestor remarried, look for her under her the last surname she used.

To locate estate files, write to the probate court in the county where the ancestor resided at death. Give the name and death date of the ancestor, and ask for photocopies of the estate papers for that person.

Several books list addresses for probate courts, including:
You'll find more on researching wills in the September 2008 Family Tree Magazine, on newsstands in July.

birth/death records | court records
Tuesday, March 18, 2008 2:56:09 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [2]
# Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Finding Birth Dates and Parents' Names
Posted by Diane

Q My great-great-grandfather Edwin Lemon was born in Chester County, Penn., in 1818. This is all I can find about him. How do I find his parent's names and the month and day of his birth?

A When you boil it down, finding parents’ names is what genealogy research is all about. Make sure you've taken the basic steps to talk to family, search for home sources, and research your more-recent Lemon ancestors.

You don’t say how you know Lemon’s birthplace is Chester County. Family stories and even later records identifying birthplaces sometimes turn out to be wrong. Look into Chester County history and see if boundary changes could have affected where you should look for records on Edwin. 

Assuming Chester County is the right place, you’re not likely to find a vital record from 1818, and unfortunately, no magical record is guaranteed to give you the information you need. Instead, search for records on all the members of the Lemon family and create a timeline of their locations and dates. Eventually the clues will add up to answers. Here are some records to search for:
  • Baptismal and other religious records. Lutheran, Reformed, Quaker, Moravian and Roman Catholic were common denominations in Pennsylvania. Check the Family History Library (FHL) online catalog for microfilmed records from churches in Chester County. (Run a place search on the county, then click the church records heading.)
  • Tax records. Everyone had to pay taxes, so search for Lemons in Chester County tax records (alson on FHL microfilm) when your ancestors lived there.
For more ideas, you'll want to use the Pennsylvania State Archives genealogical records guides. Here, you can see the types of county records available and what the archives has on microfilm for each county. As one of the three original counties William Penn created in 1682, Chester County is the subject of a lot of microfilm.

For more helps researching Pennsylvania ancestors, see the February 2007 Family Tree Magazine Pennsylvania State Research Guide.


birth/death records | court records | genealogy basics
Wednesday, January 23, 2008 8:44:45 PM (GMT Standard Time, UTC+00:00)  #  Comments [1]
# 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]