Did great-grandpa ride with an outlaw gang?
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By Martha Jones Recently, following a genealogy workshop, a man asked me in hushed tones about how to find out more about his great-grandfather who changed his name because as family legend goes, he once rode with an outlaw gang similar to the Quantrill Raiders or James Brothers. Needless to say, the man did not want others to hear his query. This was a first for me.
My mind started whirling as I put myself in his place and began to relate what I would do to try to find the truth about his great-grandfather.
First, I would start with the latest records, especially the census records and work backward. Establish the name his grandfather assumed and record the documents he signed or had recorded about him and his assumed name.
Check for locations where his ancestors lived and then start narrowing the focus to the time period and place where his grandfather resided when he decided to leave the criminal scene and start a new life.
Look for a marriage record to see what name he used at that time.
Another avenue I suggested was for the young man to gear his research toward trying to prove the family legend was fabricated. Often, we find many stories handed down through generations that include stories of ancestors who were Indian chiefs, Indian princesses, or five brothers who all came from Europe at the same time. It seems that when our forebears did not know the family heritage, they sometimes created one that fascinated young people sitting at their feet. You never know what you are going to find as you try to confirm or dispel a family legend.
After working back to the time and place where the "outlaw ancestor" resided, I suggested the young man visit the county courthouse and spend a few days researching the probate records, land deeds, wills, marriage and divorce records, criminal records and any other records that mention the family name.
Also, not to limit the research only to this great-grandfather, but include all members of the family who lived in the county. Sometimes stories are shifted from one person to another depending on who is telling the story.
Next, visit the nearby library and read through the county histories and old newspapers.
Create a community for the family and learn what was happening in the area at that time in history.
Learn about the outlaw gangs and if they actually were in the area or only a figment of someone's imagination.
Finally, ask the name of the local historian. Contact this person for an interview. Relate the story and see what the local historian has to say about the family tradition.
By this time, the researcher should have a very good idea of whether he is dealing with fact or fiction and most likely will receive suggestions for additional sources and records to research. Caution: Be ready to accept the findings.
E-mail genealogy queries to Martha Jones at email@example.com VCGS members will research queries requiring extensive study.