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Getting the Dirt on Your Relatives

When you begin doing research, you probably have no idea what you will uncover. Of course, you'll expect to find records for things such as the military and engagements, but you could also uncover some skeletons that can make great conversation at the next family reunion. Take pride in your ancestor's dirty little secrets-every family has a few black sheep. It just makes your family history more colorful and interesting.

Before becoming colonies, America was the place Europeans sent a lot of their criminals. Most took this as an opportunity for a second chance, with the more unruly ones being sent on to Australia. However, if your ancestors came to the United States in the 1600s or 1700s, there's definitely a possibility that they led unlawful lives in Europe and came to the New World either as punishment or to escape charges. Finding out the circumstances of your ancestor's immigration can be funny and interesting. Prison records, though they may be difficult to find and read, can give you an account of your black sheep.

Also, you may find some promiscuous relatives in your past. As is often the case today, it was generally a scandal to have a child out of wedlock, so if a girl found out she was pregnant before she was married, one option was to quickly marry the father (or her current beau, if they weren't the same person!). At the time, no one may have noticed, but when you do a timeline, check out the marriage dates versus the date of the birth of the couple's first child. If it isn't eight and a half months or more, your ancestor probably married to avoid scandal-perhaps she didn't even marry the true father. Didn't you ever wonder where your red hair came from?

Don't be surprised to find out that modern married couples are distantly related. Of course, you have every right to tease, but its nothing to be worried about. It was common practice in early America, and still within some Amish communities today, to allow the marriage of first cousins. Modern technology now warns us of the genetic dangers of this, but learning that your mother's great-great-grandfather was a cousin to your father's great-great-grandfather is not a big deal. Sure, it may be a little weird to think about, but in the end, it makes your research a little easier since your family tree converges a bit. Overall, go into your research with an open mind and a sense of humor. Families were (and still are) pretty wacky, so if you uncover some skeletons, don't be ashamed.

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