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Shaking Your Family Tree!

Tracking Down a Black Sheep Relative


Question: I have a relative who 70 years ago was sent to the Leavenworth, Kan., penitentiary for counterfeiting. However, a prison official told me they have nothing in their records about him. How can I research this family black sheep?

Answer: Most modern (within last 72 years) prison records fall under the jurisdiction of privacy laws and cannot be released. However, family members sometimes can obtain the records of deceased convicts. Possibly the records you need from this prison have been transferred elsewhere. To determine if this applies to your case, write to the penitentiary.

You might find information about this black sheep by checking the indexes of criminal court records where he was convicted. Since counterfeiting is a federal crime, look in those courts. Additional material may have appeared in the local newspaper. In addition there may be data about your ancestor in a jail book. It usually includes the names of persons arrested, the arresting agency, date of commitment to jail, suspected offense, address of prisoner, terms and amount of bond. These records are usually organized by date rather than the prisoner's name. They are open records and often contain information closed off in other court or police records.

Q: Could you tell me the nationality of the surname Sharpe, and if it is spelled without the e does that change its origin?

A: According to all the surname dictionaries I consulted, Sharpe and Sharp are of the same origin. It is an English surname derived from a nickname, meaning "an acute, keen-witted or quick person." It appears in English records as early as 1273 where it was spelled Scharp. Other spellings are Scharpe and Scharppe.

While our surnames are clues to our ethnic origins, many of our ancestors came from other countries and anglicized our family names.

Q: My search for the parents of my ancestor, John W. Burt, who lived in Michigan, have been unsuccessful. All census records show he was born in New York, but I have not been able to find records in that state or in New England that identify his parents. What records am I overlooking?

A: To find the proper county in New York you need to examine the land records in the county (or counties) of Michigan where your ancestor later lived. In the deed records, usually on the first piece of property he purchased, will often be noted the county and state where he previously lived. If his parents did not migrate to Michigan with him, and if you have checked probate records there, then once you determine the county in New York, go to the probate indexes and search through all the Burt families mentioned. There you may find him referred to in his parents' estate, or you may discover by searching that county's land records that he received land earlier from them.

Q: How do you gain access to the DAR Library in Washington, when you live halfway across the country and can't go there?

A: Write to the Librarian General, NSDAR Library, Memorial Continental Hall, 1776 D Street N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006-5392 and request a list of genealogists who do research for a fee and have access to the DAR Library. Enclose a self-addressed stamped envelope with your request.

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