Now What? Researching an Ancestral Murder
6/14/2010
Expert answers on how to research an ancestor who was murdered.
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 knowing the accused’s name, you’ll need to examine the records pretty closely to see which case involves your ancestor.
 
To learn more about how to tackle tough research questions, see Family Tree Magazine's book 101 Brick Wall Busters: Solutions to Overcome Your Genealogical Challenges, the Family Tree Magazine webinar recording Brick Wall Strategies: Advice and Ideas for Getting Past Research Dead Ends, and the Family Tree Problem Solver, all available on ShopFamilyTree.com
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