Finding a Black Sheep Ancestor

June 13, 2011

Thomas Allen, born 1790, died 1883

Well, I suppose it had to happen sometime. With thousands of people in my family tree (so far!), it’d be unusual if I didn’t have a black sheep or two in there. The picture above is my fourth-great-grandfather Thomas Allen. I recently received some information on court records (as of yet unverified by yours truly) for a Thomas Allen in our ancestral home of Lawrence County, Mo. It’s quite a rap sheet:

  • May 20, 1865: Thomas Allen Jr. was indicted on grand larceny for stealing several sheep.
  • May 24, 1865: Released on bond by Thomas Allen (Sr.) and A.J. Davidson.
  • November 1865: Thomas was found not guilty.
  • May 10, 1869: Thomas Allen (no suffix listed) found guilty of forcibly taking someone’s house and land. Fined $100. Several other men were also charged but acquitted.
  • Sept. 2, 1869: Thomas Allen charged with first-degree murder. The trial venue was moved to Greene County, Mo., and at that trial he was acquitted.

The problem is that I have several Thomas Allens in my tree. Only two of them fit into the right time frame for these records. However, they aren’t father and son. The Thomas in the picture was born in 1790 and had nine children. As far as I can tell, none of them were named Thomas, even as a middle name. The younger Thomas in my tree (born in 1840) was the nephew of the Thomas born in 1790. I’d always assumed the elder Thomas was the “junior,” as his father was Thomas Daniel Allen (born in 1735). You can see how confusing this is getting!

So my question is this: Could the elder Thomas be referred to as “senior” and the younger nephew as “junior” even though they weren’t father and son? And how in the world will I differentiate between the two? I understand the whole namesake thing, but it is utterly inconvenient for us genealogists.


Related resources:

Family Tree Firsts is an ongoing blog series featuring newbie genealogist Nancy Shively of Skiatook, OK. Read all her posts at Family Tree University.

7 thoughts on “Finding a Black Sheep Ancestor

  1. Nancy, this is a common deal back in the day. There even could be people who weren’t related, with the same name, and the townspeople called them Senior, Junior, or by some other moniker to know to whom you were referring….

    Often in a family, an uncle would be Senior and a nephew would be Junior, if they had the same name.

    I agree with Sharon: I have two women known as Senior and Junior — we believe they were aunt and niece.

    My husband’s great-grandfather was irritated that his mail kept going to another man — unrelated — with the same name and spelling! So he began to insert an M. as his middle initial — and it worked! For about 40 years, he continued to be known as Thomas M. Hardie…. Guess what the M. stood for?! His dear wife, Margaret!!!


  2. Identically named people can really mess up your tree and mess with your brain! I have a 2xgreatgrandfather named Erastus Thompson. As a newbie genealogist I thought he would be easy to track with what I thought was an unusual name. But I found many men of the same name who served in the Civil War, several from the same state! Ages, occupations, land records and names of spouses,children and siblings all help to sort out people who share names, whether they are related or not. As for your sheep-stealing, black sheep candidate, it seems unlikely that your distinguished looking 4xgreat grandpa was out rustling sheep at the age of 75, so if it was one of your Allen ancestors it is more likely to be the nephew who at 25 was a more likely suspect.
    Happy hunting!

  3. Yes. Don’t assume that senior and junior means father and son. I’ve seen uncles and nephews called senior and junior.
    As for going by the suffix, I would say you can only assume there were 2 people with the same name in the same area; they were called senior or junior in the records to denote their relative ages in order to distinguish between them.
    Also keep in mind that the suffixes were also not necessarily fixed: I have a father-son-grandson trio who shared the same name. When the father (who had been called senior) died, his son (who had been called junior) was thereafter called “senior”, and the grandson was then termed “junior”.

  4. I welcome black sheep ancestors…they make the stories more interesting.
    I am having the same problem with my Bowman’s in Ross/Pike counties, Ohio. A Bowman girl had a brother named William Bowman. She married a different William Bowman and her father was John Bowman and he had a John Jr; There is a John Bowman who murdered a John Betz and John Bowman was branded on his hand to mark his crime due to a change in charge from murder to manslaughter. I don’t know which John Bowman did the dirty deed.

  5. Sufexes like spelling was a creative art form. It was very common for a SR and Jr not to be father and son. They may not be related at all. Just an older man by the same name living in town with a younger man so one’s SR and other JR. In my Dyer family Newell 2is not the son of Newell but his nephew.

  6. You soooo have my sympathy! My Howard family was not very creative when coming up with names for their children, or they were very “green” and decided to recycle. :)

    With multiple Samuel’s, William’s, and Simon’s my cousin and I (the family genealogists) are constantly getting confused when talking about them. We’ve started referring to them as “the Uncle”, “the one who married Christina”, etc. and when we email about them, we always add their birth and death dates after their names, too.

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