Everyone has at least one in his or her family tree - a
scoundrel. The very word conjures up a scruffy appearance, shifty eyes, and
villainous deeds. Yet, the definition of a scoundrel varies between families.
Generally anyone who exhibits behavior outside the norm can be regarded as one.
Most people usually associate the condition with men, but just as many family
trees have colorful women. In fact, the word “scoundrel” refers to someone with
unknown origins or one who is known as a disreputable person. When searching for
the skeletons in your family closet, remember to keep your impressions in
historical context. A misdeed in the seventeenth century may not be considered
one in the nineteenth century.
Rhode Island had a reputation of being home to all sorts of unsavory
characters, from religious dissenters in Colonial times to rumrunners during
prohibition. Your chances of finding those “interesting” characters in your
family increase when you search records outside of the normal areas, as shown
below. Try to think like your ancestor and follow good genealogical research
techniques to discover the hidden history in your family tree.
Methodology comes first. It makes sense to create a list of records that the
individual may have created or left behind in his or her lifetime, and then try
to find them. If you think about life patterns, places lived, activities and
events of the time, and family members, you might be able to discover more than
you think. If you are researching a hard-to-find individual that lived within
the last century, start by talking with relatives. Generally, family members
pass on tales of exploit and remain silent on scandal, but you never know what
kernels your relatives might want to share.
Begin by checking all the usual places, such as vital, census, and military
records. Unfortunately, you may not find complete documentation for poor,
transient, or troubled individuals. Civil registration commenced in 1853, but
records before that are notoriously incomplete, especially for rural areas.
Census reports after 1850 contain lists of residents of orphanages, prisons, and
insane asylums. In the late nineteenth century, the Rhode Island State
Legislature printed rosters of students that attended schools for the deaf and
blind in their annual reports. Newspapers regularly published notices of
criminal activity, desertion, runaways, and personal notices. The two volumes of
my Runaways, Deserters, and Notorious Villains from Rhode Island
Newspapers (Picton Press, 1994, 2001) contain those announcements that
were published in Rhode Island in the eighteenth century. City directories,
usually thought of as being all-inclusive, in fact fail to include the homeless,
the poor, and anyone in an institution. However, directories are great resources
for locating orphanages, prisons, and names of institutions, which may lead you
to new record sources. Anyone in a special circumstance will not appear in tax
records either. So where can you look? There are plenty of places!
Here is an overview of seven different types of records, why you should
consult them, and where you can find them. Two good resources for earlier
records are Ann Smith Lainhart’s Digging for Genealogical Treasure in New England Town
Records (NEHGS, 1996) and Laura Szucs Pfeiffer’s Hidden Sources:
Family History in Unlikely Places (Ancestry, 2000). For twentieth-century
records, use Kathleen W. Hinckley’s Locating Lost Family Members & Friends (Betterway,
Adoption/Guardianship CasesPrior to the twentieth century,
adoptions were primarily informal affairs. However, you can find adoptions
recorded in guardianship papers, which are contained in probate records at the
town level. For instance, the Billings children appear in the probate records
for the city of Providence. Not only do the records indicate the reason for the
removal of the children from their natural family (neglect), but also who took
them (The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Children). By using census
records one can piece together their lives. As it turns out, the Billings
children were never adopted and they spent their childhood in state care.
The State Legislature also sanctioned adoptions. From 1800 to 1880, the
quarterly reports of the General Assembly listed the names of adoptive parents
and birth names of the children. Once you have that information, uncover the
background by using vital records and census reports.
Apprenticeship ContractsThese materials are difficult to locate
even when you know the name of the person and with whom they were apprenticed.
Start with manuscript collections for the family or town by searching the card
catalog at the Rhode Island
Historical Society or at NEHGS. An apprenticeship document usually contains
the name, age, place of birth, and term of service of the apprentice.
Court DocumentsCivil and criminal court cases kept by the Rhode Island Supreme
Court Judicial Records Center can be a gold mine for researchers. Their
archives contain civil and criminal court cases (1671-1900), divorce cases
(1749-1900), and some naturalization papers (1793-1974). Online order forms are
available on their website for specific requests, but for general information
about the archives’ holdings, send an email request to them.
All court cases after 1900 must be requested via regular mail. See their website
for further details.
Since Rhode Island had a reputation as the most litigious colony, there is a
good chance you’ll find information on those unsavory ancestors in court
documents. Civil or criminal court cases and divorce proceedings consisted of
petitions and depositions with lots of details. You’ll be surprised how much the
neighbors knew about family disputes in the eighteenth century. Indexes are by
the name of the petitioner or criminal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find
your ancestor. Try searching the indexes by surname for collateral relatives and
you might uncover testimony given by your direct descendant.
ManumissionsWas your ancestor involved in the slave trade? Rhode
Island figured prominently in the Triangle Trade of slaves, rum, and sugar. Jay
Coughtry’s Notorious Triangle (Temple University Press, 1981) divulges
all the details. A small but wonderful collection of manumission papers exists
in the Quaker records for the city of Newport. My personal favorite is the slave
who first bought his own freedom, then negotiated for the release of his mother.
Names, dates, and terms of the manumission make for interesting reading.
Unfortunately, there is no surname index for this group of material. While
colonial census records included a column for slaves, the next step is finding
out their identity in state documents and family papers.
PhotographsDon’t overlook your photographs for clues to those
notorious family members. In existence in Rhode Island since 1840, photographs
offer hints to the time period in which they were taken. Look closely at the
clothing, the props used, and the photographer’s imprint. That small pin in the
lapel of your grandfather’s suit coat may link him to a membership organization,
or the style of his clothing may tell you more about his occupation.
Poor RecordsIn colonial New England, towns had a responsibility to
care for their indigent population. That means you might find them mentioned by
name in town records. When formal workhouses and poor farms became the norm in
the mid-nineteenth century, records for these institutions started being kept.
The Dexter Asylum served as the primary poorhouse in the city of Providence for
over a hundred years. The manuscript division of the Rhode Island Historical
Society currently houses the records of the Dexter Asylum. These records list
the names of inmates, their ages, and how long they stayed at the asylum, among
other things. Sometimes you will find whole families under town or state care.
If you know your family lived in Rhode Island, but you cannot find them in
tax records, city directories, or any other records, check the poor farm
documents. Since the towns themselves paid for the care of the poor, they were
careful to make sure that they only assisted their own citizens. Anyone moving
to a new town in the colonial period had to prove they had means to financially
support themselves; if they could not, they underwent a transient examination,
in which they would have to disclose information about their last legal
residence to the town’s council or selectmen. The town officials might then
elect to order the newcomer(s) out of town, which was known as a “warning out.”
The purpose of warning out transients was to protect the town and reduce the
homeless and vagrancy rate. In some areas, warning out records list the names of
all family members, while other areas list only the head of the household and
his or her children. Many, however, list the previous residence of the family or
individual, which is perhaps the most valuable information contained in warning
out records.Ruth Wallis Herndon studies Rhode Island’s transient population in
her new book, Unwelcome Americans: Living on the Margin in Early New
England (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001)
PrisonPrison records are related to court documents and usually
list the name of the incarcerated, their place of birth, age, crime, and length
of sentence. Bear in mind that persecution of certain ethnic groups sporadically
occurred, which is why prison ledgers show large numbers of Irish or Italians
during certain time periods for offences as minor as drunkenness to serious
crimes like murder. These records can be found in various locations, such as
State Archives or at the prison itself. The manuscript department at the Rhode
Island Historical Society Library has a large collection of prison records.
If you do find a “scoundrel” on your tree, it is important to understand why
he or she was regarded as one. Consider when and where they lived, their
occupation, why they disappeared from public record, when that happened, and the
historical events that may have shaped their behavior. It is vitally important
to understand your relatives in the historical context in which they lived
rather than using contemporary standards to judge them. Don’t forget to use
Internet resources to assist in your search. Enlist the help of other relatives
through online message boards and search online databases for the information
you seek. You never know where you’ll find clues. If you are unsure how to
include these scoundrels in your family history read the "Family Histories"
chapter by Christine Rose in Professional Genealogy (GPC, 2001); it has some great