Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Police Work of Genealogy
Meets the Genealogy of Police Work

When we research our family history, most of us rely on source documents which find their home either in brick-and-mortar repositories—whether local libraries with pertinent holdings or nationally-respected facilities such as the collections at Salt Lake City or Fort Wayne—or in digital versions found online. We spy all the haunts where we can round up the usual suspects: census records, wills and property records, newspaper collections.

If these resources fail us, though, we’re usually at a loss as to how to uncover the day-to-day details of our ancestors’ lives.

When you think of what a great percentage of a person’s life is given over to his or her career, it would make sense to pursue researching avenues related to our ancestors’ occupations.

Fortunately, while hot on the trail pursuing the details of Officer John Kelly Stevens’ workday, I already had a few clues about police history resources. Thanks to my own husband’s work in a local law enforcement agency, I knew about two trends: individual aficionados of local police history and their self-published resources, and law enforcement related fraternal organizations. Knowing these two avenues helped lead us to the right spot when we traveled to Fort Wayne to do some hands-on genealogical detective work.

Let’s take a look at examples of those two trends, and then see how those clues led to success at the end of the research trail.

People Passionate About Their History Niche

In the local law enforcement agency where my husband worked, there was a man who had applied his personal passion for history to his work world. That led him to create resources allowing him to share that fascination of law enforcement with others.

John Basalto, a long-time deputy with the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office, spent hours researching the news stories of law enforcement from the earliest years of the department. He wanted to know who came before the men and women currently serving in his agency—a genealogy, of sorts, of the preceding generations serving in law enforcement in his city. Eventually, that research culminated in the publication of a book, Beyond the Call: Profiles of San Joaquin County, California, Peace Officers whoHave Died in the Line of Duty, 1850-1997.

While that book is no longer in print, it can be found in many libraries. A handy resource containing twenty nine biographical sketches of peace officers who were killed in the line of duty while serving in San Joaquin County, this volume clued me in to the fact that there might be such a person in other law enforcement agencies smitten with that same need-to-know. Just as we as genealogists feel the call to preserve our family histories, these individuals feel the call to preserve their organizational history.

And those organizations just happen to be made up of individuals. Naming them in books like John Basalto’s publications (he has since published another volume) suddenly became the beacon that lit up possibilities in my mind: I could look for Fort Wayne’s John Basalto. Maybe there was someone there who was doing the same research.

People Passionate About Their Occupation

In addition to searching for Fort Wayne’s equivalent of our local law enforcement agency’s historian, I realized that there were interest groups that focused on the support and encouragement of those in their professional discipline. Many cities boast a Police Officers Association or a Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and I was sure Fort Wayne would be among them. If I couldn’t find one directly, I could even network my way to such a connection by contacting a national organization, such as the National Association of Police Organizations.

In addition, if all else failed, I predicted that a friendly letter to the local union seeking a likely referral might yield helpful results. Sometimes, that link might be close at hand, as it was in John Basalto’s case: his own union published his first volume. Occupational organizations have a vested interest in keeping their history alive and before the eyes of the public. It reminds that public of the details of the long-standing commitment and even sacrifices made by members of the organization on behalf of those they serve.

People Passionate About Their City

As I began seeking out the possibilities that there might be a local repository of police department history, I was referred from person to person to person. I did this long before our present Google-ized era, which in a few seconds effort with minimal keystrokes, one can conjure up fantastic results from seemingly unlimited resources.

In other words, I had to wait for “snail mail” to get back to me. Over and over again.

In the end, this was how I discovered the History Center at Fort Wayne—home of the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society. Coming to the History Center during our first trip to Fort Wayne was like coming home: the History Center itself is housed in the same City Hall building in which John Kelly Stevens reported to work every day.

Touring the museum housed at the old City Hall during our visit was informative, but nothing like the anticipation we experienced while awaiting our appointment with one of the Center’s staff members to explore what—if anything—there might have been about John Kelly Stevens in their holdings. With twenty six thousand artifacts, photographs and documents within their holdings, the Center was sure to have something on hand regarding the police force during John Kelly’s tenure there!

And they did! That was how we stumbled upon a number of department photographs of personnel which included not only John Kelly Stevens, but a possible Kelly relative who also worked there during that same time period. We made arrangements to purchase copies of the pertinent photographs—two of which you’ve already seen—and took notes of documents providing further work information naming these two ancestors.

While a research trail like this may now be traversed in quick order, compared to the snail’s pace of the letter exchanges done months in advance as preparation for our trip over ten years ago, it still presents challenges. It requires patience as you network among the local players who know the ins and outs of their agency, or know the Who’s Who of local history buffs. It can include those disappointing “addressee unknown” error messages and other false leads. But in the end, if you don’t check out these new avenues, you’ll never know what could have been yours at the end of the chase.


  1. Inspired by this post, I went looking for mention of my foundry man g- and g-g-grandfathers in trade magazines and gosh, I found a bunch!

    My g-g-grandfather was one of the first to cast aluminum in the USA.

    "Prior to commercial electrical generation in the early 1880s, and the Hall-Héroult process in the mid 1880s, aluminium was exceedingly difficult to extract from its various ores. This made pure aluminium more valuable than gold."

    In addition to trade magazines, mention of family members can be found in magazines for their hobbies and churches. Cool beans!!!

    1. With all the resources at our fingertips today, there is so much that can be found on specific ancestors via the Internet. It's amazing. Iggy, I'm not surprised that significant professionals like your ancestors would be listed in several trade journals and other publications. You will probably find a great variety of mentions for their business! They were in such a significant position.

      I keep reminding myself that, on account of this very thing, it would be good to periodically go back and search online for mentions of all ancestors in historic newspaper sites and other such resources. The number of digitized collections coming online every day is mind boggling!

  2. So you started this ten years ago? How rewarding that you found so much material. Your post inspires me to focus on organizational history, and the promise that holds. Gena Ortega often suggests organizational history for women, but of course any group could have its John Basalto. Thanks!

    1. There are quite a few organizations that have their self-appointed group historians, Mariann. Sometimes, it takes getting to know which organizations those might be--but once you discover them, those historians can be a wealth of information, even if it is background info only for contextual purposes. That alone can help bring a story to life!


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