Can you embrace the rogue in the family?

9 years ago

Rogues, rascals, scoundrels, and ladies of dubious virtue have a habit of popping up in family trees like wormy apples in an orchard.  When you encounter a less-than-sterling relative you are far from alone.   Even the noblest family yields one or two less than exemplary characters – just take a look at a royal family tree sometime.

  However, some people can be truly mortified if they find a black sheep in the family, so I caution new genealogists don’t start researching if you can’t deal with what you may find.

As a child my favorite uncle was a scamp.  It’s common that the rogue in the family often ends up our most endearing forebear.  Perhaps there’s something in our psyche that secretly enjoys the less-than-perfect among us.  While most of us wouldn’t cheer for a mass murderer, we all rooted for the thieves in “Ocean’s Eleven”.  And, for a genealogist there’s a bonus that comes with black sheep.  They leave footprints in the form of documents recording their “sins.”  “Saints” can be hard work.

As an example, I’ve been trying to establish a father-son link in one family line for several years.  My fourth great-grandfather, Israel Damon, came from Massachusetts around 1768 to Westport, Maine, then part of Edgecomb.  By all indications he was an upstanding man. However, aside from soldiering with the militia at Castine, a couple of land transactions, and a stint as church warden and tithingman [a tithingman collected money that supported the official Congregational church],  Israel didn’t leave anything in written records for all his years in Maine.

My Mayflower ancestors were William Brewster and Stephen Hopkins.  Brewster was the “Elder”, leader of the church.  Stephen was a rascal. He was shipwrecked on the way to Jamestown, Virginia, led a rebellion against the expedition leader, and was sentenced to hang but managed to survive. He may have inspired Stephano in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”.  After a time in Virginia, Stephen returned to England, remarried, and sailed on the Mayflower.

He was never the sober Puritan of myth:  he ran a tavern, was friendly with the natives, earned a fine for fighting, questioned authority, didn’t always observe the Sabbath, and probably caused Elder Brewster much worry and more gray hairs.

While I’m proud of both ancestors I have a special place in my heart for Stephen.  He’s more fun than the strict Calvinist Brewster.

Have a rascal in your family?  You might enjoy checking out the International Black Sheep Society of Genealogists at  Its members share stories of the criminal and social scoundrels in their trees.  When you read about the bad boys and girls on this site you may find your rogues weren’t so bad at all.  And, if you decide to join and share your black sheep’s history, you can use IBSSG after your name.

So, as Halloween approaches send a smile to those ancestral scamps.  They do liven up our family trees. And, if you have Elder Brewster or Pilgrim Hopkins in your tree, hello, cousin!

Nancy Battick is a Dover-Foxcroft native who has researched genealogy for over 30 years. She is past president of the Maine Genealogical Society, author of several genealogical articles and co-transcribed the Vital Records of Dover-Foxcroft.  Nancy holds a MA in History from UM and lives in DF with her husband, Jack, another avid genealogist.  You can contact Nancy at