05 June 2012

Baaaaa.... Black Sheep

Creative Commons: scenicreflections.com
Black sheep.

Life is full of interesting characters, and some of those are considered the "bad guys," the "oddballs," the skeletons in the closet. My own husband claims to be one.

I firmly believe its important to research them, to learn about them. Certainly they must be included in any client research or volunteer project.

The question is, what do you do with them in your own family? Especially when no one else wants to talk about them?

Do you even blog about them?

Here's an example. When my great-grandfather was a young man in Nebraska, he got married, and they had one baby; a girl. The marriage failed, and he got on a train westbound, settled in Washington, married again and had a new family. No one ever really knew about the first wife, the daughter; that entire part of his history was completely absent from our collective knowledge as a family until I discovered the marriage certificate. That started to bring back some of the story.

If that's not sheepy enough for you, here's the rest of the story.

Researching the first wife and daughter led me to an interesting website; the archives of the Nevada state penitentiary system. The mother/daughter combo stayed in Nebraska, and the daughter got married there. Eventually, the couple headed west themselves, and made it to Nevada. In the 1930s, he came across a young couple, a soldier and his wife, along a quiet highway in the desert. He murdered them. Caught and thrown in jail, he was sentenced to the death penalty, and his life was ended behind the walls of the Nevada prison system.

They had children. They have descendants. Bet you can guess not one of them wants to talk about Grandpa or his wife.

So, now we know that these people exist, that we all came from a common ancestor in my great-grandfather. But, they want nothing to do with us, understandably, they don't want to relive, as a family, the history of their grandfather. I've decided to leave it alone. They know how to reach us if they ever change their minds, and in the meantime, my family has an interesting story to talk about among ourselves.

You'll note in this post, I haven't used any names. That's intentional too. Stories like this affect all of us, and it would be just as easy for a member of that second family to come across this post as it would be for one of my family. So, to respect their decision and their privacy, I've left out those  details.

Perhaps if I'd known them longer, had a more personal relationship with them, I would have pushed harder for information. I'm really more interested in their grandmother, anyway, the daughter of my great-grandfather. I want to know if they have any pictures of her, to see the family resemblance. I want to know if she knew about us growing up, to know if her mother told her about the family in Washington.

What does that family know about us that we don't?

Because of the black sheep, however, we may never find out. Perhaps someday our descendants will connect again, but for now, I am forced to let it sit.

What do you do with your black sheep? How do you deal with the emotional side effects that your research brings back to the surface for your family members?  I would love to hear your thoughts...


  1. Excellent post, and I can really relate to this! Ideally, families would accept their "black sheep" as part of humanity (everyone has them), but that is probably not reality. Even in my memoir (a book), there were names I left out--just put a string of deeds as happening somewhere in the family. I'm trying to deal right now, being open and up front, about our history of mixed-race relatives from slavery days. My family always surprises me in positive ways. And I love your black sheep photo!

    1. Thanks Mariann! It's such a difficult thing to address at times, the black sheep. My direct family has been nothing but interested and positive... its those folks that you find in the course of your research that you have to be careful, and sympathetic, towards.
      (Thanks for the comment on the photo: just Googled it and instantly fell in love with the little guy.)
      Thanks for commenting! ~Jen

  2. Interesting topic Jen. So far I've only found some gray sheep, still looking for the black ones. As time passes it seems that most families become less sensitive to the secrets and are ready to open up about them. It's just a fine line to determine when "enough" time has passed. Good post!

    1. Makes me wonder if this other side of my family will ever come to terms with it - convicted of murder is a big deal, and I would imagine they are not quick to admit it. Thanks for reading, and commenting! ~Jen

  3. I've thought a lot on this as well, Jen. I have several that were remembered as good sheep with some bad times. I'm drawn to finding out more about those times since they helped create the person that these sheep eventually became, but it's like opening an old wound for some relatives. Sometimes it's best to think of the living. Eventually it will be time to look and learn.

    1. Living? Who are they? Just kidding, and I totally agree. Their time will come. Thanks for reading and commenting, Steph! ~Jen

  4. I found this very interesting. Thank you for the information.

    family trees

  5. Jen, we have spoken once before on Ancestry.com. I know who you're speaking of and I have a small amount of information and after a bit of digging through what little I have, I found some newspaper articles and some photo's that you may be interested in. I also might know of someone willing to talk about our black sheep. You may contact me anytime at


Please comment! I would love to hear your thoughts!