Tuesday, October 20, 2009

“A Baaaad Ancestor is Good to Find!”

International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists
“A Baaaad Ancestor is Good to Find!”

The International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists (IBSSG) website is a very interesting support group for those who can trace a direct family line to a thief, deserter, town drunk, or any other type of anti social characters. For those of you too shy to admit such relationships, the Blacksheep Society has a “Tender Lamb” category which will keep your identity a secret! Qualification for IBSSG membership is granted on the mailing list blacksheep@rootsweb.com by posting your relationship to the family “blacksheep”, and why you think he or she is the blacksheep of your family. Private submissions can be made to the Tender Lambs coordinator. There are no dues. The coordinators of the lists were happy to accept my email questions, which were answered privately.

I posted a question to the coordinators, “What benefit would Mayflower Society members find by joining IBSSG?” I quickly received several emails from members who were happy to share their experiences. The first person who contacted me was a John Billington descendant! She said “My personal genealogy contained only two black sheep when I joined the society and since then I have accrued several more including John Billington of the Mayflower. My first reaction upon discovering I was a Mayflower descendant was one of extreme joy and then it was, admittedly, a bit of a letdown to discover both John and his son Francis were going to join my list of unconventional black sheep family members. A little more research revealed the marriage of Francis Billington's daughter, Martha, to Francis Eaton's son, Samuel. My Mayflower connection then balanced out between my conventional and black sheep ancestors….I feel in no way responsible for the actions of my ancestors but they are every bit part of me and I would NEVER try to hide them in the proverbial closet. Their blood runs through my veins and I am happy that it does.... they are me and I am them ~ gratefully!”

The Blacksheep Society list coordinator, Jeffrey Scism, sent me some statistics. There are currently about 115 members contributing to the primary list, but it has been as high as 600 members. The group began in October 1996, and was “official” as of January 1, 1997 with 42 charter members. Jeff was kind enough to write: “Our purpose is to help each other find ways around hidden information on blacksheep ancestors, by suggesting places to check, doing look-ups, and by being supportive.”

Anyone who has worked on a family tree knows that there are always relatives no one wants to talk about, and finding information can sometimes be a daunting task. The International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists is here to help you with this task, and to provide a social network to share the humorous and human side to the stories behind your ancestors. For example: between 1717 and 1775 fifty thousand English convicts chose deportation to the colonies for seven years rather than hang. The convictions were over stealing bread, cutting down trees without permission, or merely standing mute in front of one’s “betters.” Chances are that one of your colonial ancestors fits this category, too!

Over the past few months I have scanned some of the on-going conversations on the IBSSG website, and found some very interesting stories. There was a sad story of a town drunk, and the saga of a descendant who found a newspaper article in a 1941 newspaper describing his death in the streets. Through the help of volunteers the descendant was able to put together the earlier, happier details of her ancestor’s life. Other postings listed how to retrieve records on ancestors who died in asylums, and how to petition the court for the ability to view these records. It was also interesting to see that some behavior labeled as “anti social” in the past is considered acceptable today- such as divorce, gambling, or having children out of wedlock.

My own family tree contains several nasty accusers at the Salem Witch trials, a pirate, an inmate at the “Danvers Insane Asylum,” Baker Nason- who killed his brother with an oar halfway across the Piscataqua River in 1693, and youthful Mayflower passenger Ned Doty- accused of dueling, deceit and slander, among other assorted offenses. Ned Doty eventually settled down and overcame his juvenile antics to become an average member of the Plymouth community, because not many records are available on him after his marriage. Sometimes the records of our “Blacksheep” ancestors are much more interesting than the records of our more polite, law abiding family members!

You can find the International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists at http://ibssg.org/blacksheep/

This is an article I originally wrote for “The Shallop” Volume 33, Number 2, page 4, the newsletter of the New Hampshire Society of Mayflower Descendants, Fall issue, 2009

Copyright 2009, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Great post. I'm a member of the IBSSG, and I have a lecture I give on "Our Black Sheep Ancestors -- How to Approach Them." I delivered it last night at the Clay County (FL) Public Library. One of the things I tell my audiences in this talk is just the point you make, above: that having a black sheep ancestor can be a lucky thing, because they do generate more of a paper trail than our boring, law-abiding ones! In the talk, I illustrate this point with a short case study on my bigamous great-great grandfather, whose escapade got me into the IBSSG!

    He certainly did spice up an otherwise boring genealogy!

  2. Great Post, I did a little on John Billington myself : ( the three John Billington Hangings ! )


  3. I was tickled-pink when I discovered my 8th-Great grandmother was quite a rogue. There are a considerable amount of legal documents relating to her; all because of her run-ins with the law. In 1679 she was tried for running a burglary ring in Beverly, MA and a Search Warrant was actually done at her house!

    Then in 1692 she was arrested, tried, convicted and sentence to hang for being a witch. The court transcript, indictments, jail commitment and statements used in her trial are all available on-line. She avoided being hanged by confessing and requesting time to repent. The next day 8 other witches were hanged (she was to be the 9th). Oh yea, during the trial she was accused of murdering her husband a few months earlier.

    My Mayflower and SAR/SAR ancestors are interesting, but my Blacksheep is downright cool.