Now what: Guilty Plea

Now what: Guilty Plea

Answers for the beginner, the befuddled and anyone hitting a brick wall.

Guilty Plea

Q. I discovered my great-great-grandfather in a listing of “black outrages against whites” in North Carolina. The microfilmed court docket says my ancestor was found guilty in 1867 of assault with intent to kill, but no sentence was recorded. I can’t find him in the 1870 or later censuses. What should I do next?

A. Your ancestor’s family was undoubtedly changed by his conviction. Here are three strategies for tracking criminal ancestors:

1. Use what you already know. Getting the microfilmed court docket was a good start for learning your ancestor’s fate. Now you need to learn what happened after the trial. Try court-minute and court-order books. The sentence may be recorded there, or in separate judgment books. Look to newspapers of that area and time period for details. Check local and county histories for clues to where prisoners may have been incarcerated, and then recheck the 1870 census for those institutions. The county courthouse and state archives will most likely house county jail and state prison records, as well as parole board and pardon records. Also look for court and institutional records at Prison Search <> and Cyndi’s List <>.

2. Dig deeper. Your ancestor may be an exception to typical ancestral patterns. Although some accused criminals skipped town or changed their identities to escape their pasts, many stayed put. Persist in your search through all the familiar genealogical sources, but also check less-familiar ones. Scour indexes to county and federal civil and criminal court records, state and local institutional records, published histories and periodicals. Take advantage of the increasingly powerful search capabilities of electronic indexes and search engines, and go back to them regularly to look for new or updated information.

3. Research the whole family. Apply the search strategies above on a larger scale. You may not be able to find your ancestor in 1870, but what about the rest of his family? Track all descendants, cousins and in-laws forward in time for connections or clues to your great-great-grandfather’s whereabouts. Do the same for other people with whom he had close associations. Was he married with kids at the time of the trial? Look for a guardian appointed over his children. Check civil court cases for a separation or divorce. Use census, land and probate records, which might indicate family members’ migrations. Investigate local and religious newspaper obituaries for all the relatives. If you’re lucky, one of these might list him as a surviving relative.

Above all, be persistent. The ancestors who got in trouble usually created records, and are often the most interesting part of the family.

From the February 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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