On the Black Sheep of the Family: Family Stories and Your Identity

by | Dec 15, 2016 | Extended Family, Family | 13 comments

Merchandise is Here!

Do you know very much about your family tree?

With Christmas just around the corner, I’ve been talking about Christmas traditions and family last week and this week, and today I want to start a 2-part series with some really COOL stories I’ve been itching to tell you about what I’ve discovered!

Tracing Your Family Tree: How I Used Ancestry.com to discover my con man ancestor--and why genealogy, even with black sheep, can be awfully fun!

On Thanksgiving my cousin came over for dinner and showed me what she had discovered about our family tree on Ancestry.com.

When I was 13, I went on a big family tree blitz. I interviewed older relatives and went back as far as memories could go, and then, in a visit to England, I applied for birth certificates and marriage certificates and took the family back a few more generations. But then everything came to a halt around 1830. I couldn’t go any further back, and I didn’t look into it anymore.

That was 30 years ago.

Now we have the internet, and Shawna was doing all this amazing work on my mother’s side, so I decided I’d join Ancestry.com and take a look at my father’s side.

(Note: all of these links to ancestry are affiliate links–but I’m a fully paid up deluxe member, so I totally use this, too!)

I entered all the info I had gathered back in the early 1980s.

You can buy “worldwide access” on Ancestry.com where you can search all kinds of public records all over the world–census records, birth, marriage, and death registries, parish records, military records–so much. On some lines I’ve actually managed to get back to 1500! It’s so neat. (You can also buy just access to one country, if you know that everything happened there.)

But I want to tell you the story of William Conroy Dalton, my great-great grandfather.

Here’s what I knew before I started the latest genealogical research:

My grandmother came to Canada as a girl along with her siblings and her parents. It was common knowledge in the family that William, my grandmother’s grandfather, had been a sergeant in the army hospital corps.

We all were also told that my great-grandparents (William’s son Thomas and his wife Lillian) had married in January of 1902.

However, back in the 1980s, when I was looking for their marriage certificate, I couldn’t find it. So I searched further back. Maybe they married in 1901? In 1900? Nope. So I went FORWARD. They were actually married in 1903. The only problem? Their first child was born in May of 1903. Whoops.

So my great-grandmother was five months pregnant when she walked down the aisle. I always figured that they had had a hard time convincing him to marry her, and it was sort of a shotgun wedding. And then they always celebrated their anniversaries adding one year to the actual total, so their kids never knew.

Later they all immigrated to Canada. My great-grandfather died fairly young, but my great-grandmother died right after she learned my mom was pregnant with me! I found their graves when I was in Winnipeg last year.


Now, fast forward to Ancestry.com.

I found all kinds of census records for them! I found them all in the 1921 Canadian census:


But also on the 1911 census before they left for Canada!

And here’s something interesting. On the 1901 English census, I discovered that Lillian and William Thomas (my great-grandparents) were actually neighbours! Guess that’s how the friendship grew. William Thomas is there with his family (he was 17 in 1901); Lillian’s family was there, but Lillian’s on the census elsewhere since she was a live-in domestic servant at the time.


But the 1901 census left me in a bit of a quandary, because someone is missing from the Dalton household. Do you see it?

My great-great-grandfather William Dalton isn’t there. His wife Ellen is the head of the family.

His son William Thomas is there, but he’s not. And then Ancestry.com gave me a hint. They told me there was a William Dalton who is likely the right William Dalton, but he’s not living at that address. He’s actually in a prison.


“Was my great-great-grandfather really in prison?!” I thought.

So I searched for his military records–and found them. But he had left the military by 1901.

I decided to search further afield, and took a look in the British Newspapers Archives. On a whim, I typed in “William Conroy Dalton”. And lo and behold, I found a TON of rather amusing articles of my great-great-grandfather’s antics.

Allow me to share what I’ve learned about William Conroy Dalton’s life.

William was indeed a sergeant in the army hospital corps. He was 27 when he married his wife Ellen in 1883; she was only 17 at the time. Over the next 15 years or so they travelled around with the army, according to the military and census records I found on Ancestry. One child was born in Cairo; another in Scotland in 1893.

Around 1895 he left the service.

And in 1897, the newspapers first started reporting about him.


I love that line–“the prisoner had already been twice before the court.”

So basically he’d been obtaining free clothes and groceries by impersonating other people and pretending to have a government pension.

In 1899 he was back at it again. Allow me to give you some excerpts of the rather long account of his trial:

He was accused of going into posh hotels and other wealthy businesses to say that he was in charge of a holiday advertising guide that we be going out to all railway passengers on British rail. He obtained money for advertisements in said guide from many businesses–but no guide, of course, existed.

He represented himself at the trial. And the really long newspaper article provided a transcript of his cross-examination of witnesses, including the fact that there was much laughter. The judge had to tell the jury not to judge based on his charisma, but based on the facts.

In trying to justify himself, he also said, “Could someone REALLY be such a merciless sinner, given that his father is a well known merchant in Huddersfield and his brother an important man of the cloth?”

He threw himself on the mercy of the court, especially in light of his wife and six children, who would be destitute.

But it was to no avail. He was sentenced to three months’ hard labour.

Over the next 10 years I found five more instances of him being charged with crimes like this, including several where he also threw himself on the mercy of the court as a first offender (and since there were no computers then, and he was committing the crimes in different cities, I guess no one knew any better!)

He served at least three stints in prison that I could find.

That’s right. My great-great-grandfather was a charismatic and charming con-man.

So it got me thinking about that marriage when Lillian was 5 months pregnant. Maybe it wasn’t that HER family had a hard time getting HIM to marry her. Maybe it was that HER family didn’t want their poor daughter to marry this horrible man’s son!

As far as I know, no one else on the Canadian side of my family knows any of this. We never heard any rumours of prison or cons or anything like that. So likely the family came to Canada to escape the father’s reputation and to make a new start.

I had a few thoughts as I was reading all of this.

First, persuasion obviously runs in the family.

My kids are both great public speakers. My dad was a professor. I’m a public speaker. But we can all  use our gifts either for good or for bad; it’s entirely our choice. We’re born with certain talents and predilections; that’s God gift to us. What we do with those talents are our gift to God.

Second, it must have been so hard for my great-great-grandmother.

During William’s first stint in prison, his son, my great-grandfather, the oldest of six children, was only 17. Ellen had to look after six kids while her husband was in prison. That’s horrible. And she had virtually no support, as far as I can see.

So it matters who you marry. Don’t be taken in by charm; really look at someone’s character. It’s funny to laugh about all this now, but how horrible it must have been for her then! Of course, I’m glad they did marry, or else I wouldn’t be here. But nevertheless, it’s a good lesson for young girls: don’t be taken in by the bad boy who sweeps you off your feet. Really look at the good.

Third, we don’t need to hide the black sheep.

Obviously this caused a great scandal in my family, so much so that it wasn’t talked about. But I don’t think the fact that my ancestor was a criminal reflects on me. While my gifts and my talents may be partly hereditary, my character and my choices are not from my family; they’re entirely from God and my relationship with him. No matter who our ancestors are, we make the choice of who we will be now.

My husband has started looking into his family tree, too.

I was talking a few weeks ago about hobbies that you can do with your spouse, and genealogy was one of them. But it’s also a GREAT hobby to do with your children. When I was a young teenager, I really loved this stuff. And now it’s easier than ever.

This Christmas, when you have your extended family sitting all in a room, how about collecting some of those old stories?

Or trying to create your own family tree? Then you can start digging further. Here’s a quick primer on what to do:

  1. Start filling out your family tree on Ancestry. You only have to pay to use Ancestry if you actually want to search the records, like census records, birth records, etc., that they have on file. So just get started by filling in the names you know and see how far back you can go!
  2. Start collecting peoples’ stories from your family. This is a great one to get kids involved with, too. Especially with elderly relatives–it’ can often be difficult for kids or teens to bond with older relatives, so getting them involved can help bridge that generation gap!
  3. Then, if you want to go back further, purchase an Ancestry.com membership that allows you to search records and start tracing back–and learning lots of fun things about your family members, too! You can get a membership specifically for your country or pay a little extra to get one that gives you worldwide access (that’s what I have, since my relatives came from England to Canada, and I needed both Canada and the U.K.)

Right now you can get 10% off of an Ancestry.com membership for Christmas. If you’re stuck on what to get a parent or a sibling who already has everything, this may be a great gift that they could start playing with right away!

I want to share a very different story with you tomorrow about the heritage of faith I found on a different line of the family.  It’s helped me understand more about myself and where I came from, but also shown me the legacy of faith that I never really understood that I had. And I’ll share the best obituary I’ve ever seen, too! (It makes me cry.)

SDB Coming Soon Desktop

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Jodi T

    Thanks for your intriguing story! I think that Ancestry.com should use it, because it has definitely compelled me to look into my own family history!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      HA! I should let them know…. 🙂

  2. Kathleen

    Ancestry.com is a wonderful starting point for family research. I suggest you also get the membership that includes Newspapers.com. In doing our own family research, I found so much more information about family members (and found additional family!) by reading the newspapers of the time. (Newspapers.com is also available separately, outside of Ancestry.com)

    Also, GOOGLE (or other search engine) your ancestors. Yes, you will have to wade through many pages of incorrect “John Doe”s, but you never know what you will find. Many state, county, and even city archives are being digitized every year. Even if you don’t find much right now, come back in a few years. More may have been added.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, it was the British Newspaper Archive that showed me all the stories about my own personal con man! I hope Ancestry gets those up soon. Ancestry.com told me where to look and helped me fill in dates and places, and then the newspapers fleshed out the character. So interesting!

  3. Melissa

    My older brother’s wife has done a TON of work on tracing both our family tree and hers, and she has found some absolutely fascinating things that we never knew. It’s pretty amazing.

  4. Michelle

    Sheila, I know many people are interested in their ancestry, but I’m a bit perplexed by it all. Prior to me becoming a Christian and knowing God and Jesus more, I thought it would be really cool to see who I was related to and learn more about my ancestors. However, now that I consider myself an all-out Christian I no longer understand the point of looking into our ancestry. We all go back to the same people. If I understand correctly, we can all be traced back to Noah and his son’s – or whomever was saved in the ark. If we all essentially come from Adam and Eve through generations on down, then we’re all related. Perhaps I’m not thinking this through entirely. Am I missing something?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Michelle,

      To me, it’s just plain interesting, I think! To know what your ancestors lived through, what they did… remember that genealogies are a huge part of the Bible. And I think God does bless people because of the prayers of those who came before them. So I just find the whole thing fascinating!

  5. Stefanie

    I love researching my family tree. Another great resource is familysearch.org. It has a lot of records for free. Indexing records to make hand written records searchable is another great thing to do alone or with your family.

  6. Jolie

    Word of Caution:

    It can become addicting!

  7. Michael


    You can use the link above to find family history libraries in your area. They are housed in LDS churches but they are a free non-proselytizing service open to the public. They have databases, microfilm collections and volunteers to assist you.

  8. Lisa

    Fascinating story! I love family history.

  9. Nigel B. Cook

    Thanks for this gem of research you have done, on the interesting character William Dalton, who married Ellen Cook (b. Colchester, 1864), a younger sister of George Cook, my great-great grandfather! The Cook family has been in Colchester for over three hundred years. Presumably William Dalton was stationed at Colchester barracks when he first met Ellen?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Nigel, we should talk! Actually, they married in Yarmouth, but maybe they met in Colchester? I’ll email you! So cool.


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