Of Bad Apples, Nobility,
and Famous Persons
in the Family Tree

Have you discovered any 'bad apples', or black sheep, in the course of your family history research?  Or, on the other side of the coin, any connections to royalty, or perhaps to a famous person of our generation?

Black Sheep

Many of us who have done family history research have found someone among our ancestors or their siblings, somewhere along the way, who got into trouble with the law, or, while not actually doing anything illegal, who seemed to be completely 'out of step' with the family and its values.

Some of these, although quite infamous at the time, with the passing of many years have attained what amounts to the status of a folk hero.

Take, for example, Jesse James - an outlaw who is forever in the annals of American folklore. Hmm - my greatgrandmother's maiden name was James ...

In the course of my research, I have discovered one 'black sheep' ancestor who, in the 1830s, was convicted of housebreaking. I later found the newspaper account of his trial.  His crime:  breaking into a house and stealing a silk scarf.

He was sentenced to death - which by today's standards seems rather severe for this sort of crime; but that sentence was later commuted to transportation to Australia for seven years of hard labour.

Eleven years after arriving in Australia, he was granted a pardon.

Tasmanian Convict,
wearing prison uniform and leg irons
Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain

I also discovered that one of the infamous Culworth gang, a group of approximately 15 highwaymen who terrorized Northamptonshire and the surrounding counties for nearly 20 years in the late 1700s, shared my (rather uncommon) maiden name. However, thankfully, I have yet to find a link between his family line and mine! He and three others were publicly executed by hanging in 1783.

Apparently, although called highwaymen, this group was noted to be non-violent. While they sometimes would threaten a household servant to get him to do their bidding, they were never known to have killed or seriously harmed anyone.

Interestingly, one of the members of the gang was the clerk in a nearby parish church. When the gang was arrested, it was discovered that he had stowed many of the stolen goods inside the church, including in the parish chest, where vestry and other parish record books were kept under lock and key! This fellow, no less guilty than the others who were hanged – indeed, one could almost see an argument for an additional “crime”, in desecrating a church by using it for such nefarious purposes! - was transported to Australia.

A few of my other ancestors and their siblings whom I have researched, although not in trouble with the law, and so not technically "black sheep" or "bad apples", were quite colorful characters.

Kings, Queens, and the Nobility

Many family history researchers may find that they are descended from "blue bloods" – people in the nobility and royalty - as I am through another family line.

A distant cousin in the US recently sent me a copy of his research, which traces his line back through the British peerage to Charlemagne. My maternal line merges with his line where we share a great-great-grandmother. So both he and I - and all of my maternal cousins - can trace our ancestry back to Charlemagne!

Now, one might think, this is not such a great thing. After all, it has been said that everyone in Europe is descended from Charlemagne (see Steve Olson’s article “The Royal We”, published in the magazine The Atlantic in 2002.

This notion that everyone in Europe is descended from Charlemagne, of course, would explain why, in tracing the ancestries of many of the US presidents, we can find royalty in their family trees:

So what's the big deal? Ahh – as Steve Olsen puts it in the article, the question then becomes, can you prove it? Thanks to my cousin, I can!

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