Most amateur genealogists probably do not fully appreciate the professional staff and dedicated volunteers required to maintain the vast archives that we easily access through the many available websites.
This point became clear to me on a recent visit to Boise and the Idaho State Archives, which is located in a beautiful modern building designed specifically for the preservation of historically-important artifacts.
At the front desk, my wife and I met Michal, a smiling 30-something collections archivist who asked how she could help us.
I explained there was a long-standing story about a family “black sheep” who is said to have spent time in the Idaho State Penitentiary in the 1920s for bank embezzlement, then later died in 1929 on the banks of the Boise River under mysterious circumstances.
I wanted to know if this story was true and how I could get more information about it.
Michal responded, “The prison part should be easy — what is the name?” She asked us to be seated and retreated to her alcove. After a few minutes, she reappeared and told us that this family member had never spent any time in the Idaho State Penitentiary.
She must have caught a look of disappointment in my face and immediately threw out a challenge: “You are not going to give up, are you?” she said. “Many families have juicy stories based on gossip and half-truths. Maybe there is something to the story. Let’s look a little further — give me some more details — I just love this stuff.”
During the afternoon, Michal led our search using her encyclopedic knowledge of sources and indexes. We went through boxes of old court records using protective cotton gloves, reels of microfilm and numerous internet searches.
Success came in bits and pieces. Each little triumph just served to fire her juices to continue the search. What really hit home with me during that afternoon was the obvious fact that it is the quality and dedication of people who maintain and service archival collections that make the difference — not the gleaming new buildings that house them or even the sophisticated technology that helps us access the information.
It turns out, Michal was correct in her hunch. There was some truth to the story about our wayward relative. In 1926, he was convicted of perjury in the car theft trial of his brother-in-law and served four months in the Twin Falls County Jail.
Later his wife filed for divorce on the grounds that he was a convicted felon and not fit to have custody of their two boys. Ironically, and with a touch of dark humor, the judge granted the divorce and gave her custody of the children even though she herself was a convicted felon of the same perjury and spent two months in the Ada County Jail.
We also discovered that our black sheep cousin did not die under mysterious circumstances but of a ruptured appendix while living in Modesto, California. So much for that bit of family mythology.
The Idaho State Archives is well worth a visit and if you should happen to arrive with an unsolved family mystery, so much the better – just ask for Michal.
(Robert Coffin is a member of the Genealogical Society of Washington County Oregon and an at-large member of the board. Learn more about Idaho’s research at history.idaho.gov/Idaho-state-archives.)