Thursday, April 30, 2020

Start a family research project online!

Image courtesy of Ronda Walters.
This photo shows a ticket receipt for 
a family moving from Arkansas 
to California during the Great Depression.
Today’s technology provides a great outlet for people who are curious about how their ancestors dealt with times of crisis, like the one we face now. During this time of social distancing, beginning researchers can learn more about their own genealogy and family histories while staying at home  

Genealogy is defined as a line of descent traced from an ancestor (child to parent, grandparent, great-grandparent, etc.), while family history puts that lineage into the context of history, which consists of local, state, national and international events. 

Much like a detective at a crime scene, genealogists start with known informationThe researcher first documents his or her own date and place of birth, marriage(s)/divorce(s), places of residence, schools attended, occupations and important historical eventsNext, document the same type of information, plus any death and burial dates, for parents, siblings and extended family members. To do this, researchers can talk with older relatives to gain insight into ways family members lived day-to-day. Older relatives often have records, tips or insight into finding other family members who might have been missed. 

Searching for records on extended family members also gives researchers a broad understanding of their family. This is important for discovering how family members reacted and lived within their own historical contexts. For example, during the Great Depression, family members might have moved to different states to find employment. Knowing the historical context can help researchers find out where else to look for more documentation.  

Next, create a timeline for family members, and place each family member within the context of the broader timeline of historical events. There are multiple websites dedicated to world and U.S. historical events that may be useful. For example, the Library of Congress’s World Digital Library allows researchers to navigate timelines by places, dates and topics. Arkansas-specific timelines are available on multiple websites, including sites like the Secretary of State and Historic Arkansas Museum.  

Also, the Southwest Arkansas Regional Archives, a branch of the Arkansas State Archives, provides great resources to help research family lineage as well as placing that lineage within the context of Arkansas historyAlthough SARA and ASA are closed to the public during the COVID-19 epidemic, staff are monitoring email requests to help researchersStaff can perform reference lookups and limited research assistance when provided with names and narrow, specific date ranges. Some research records also are available online at 

Other sites may help get researchers started, including the free, which is a shared resource on family is another valuable free site to use as a starting point to find helpful family history resources 

Not everything on the internet is true, so just like detectives, researchers must verify and interpret clues and corroborate evidenceThere are free sites to help researchers learn more about genealogy proof standards, which should be followed in order to make one’s work credibleCheck out the National Genealogical Society’s website under the Learning Center tab for more informationFor Arkansas specific resources, check out the Arkansas Genealogical Society’s website 

There are a variety of reasons why researching family history is important, and they can depend on the individual researcher. For some, it can create a sense of well-being and pride knowing the struggles and accomplishments of one’s ancestors.  For others, it’s important to know family health history. There also is the joy of reconnecting with long lost family members and bringing about healing and forgiveness for past wrongs or misunderstandings between family members. 

As always, the staff at SARA is here to helpPlease don’t hesitate to send questions to or call 870-983-2633. 

Last Stop: Train Heist Leads to Hangings in Arkansas

Photo courtesy of the Arkansas
State Archives, G5216_2.
The railroads were vital to the development of Arkansas. They brought settlers and supplies to the area and spurred the rise and fall of many towns. As the state developed, railroads allowed goods to be shipped easily from place to place and allowed easier travel.

However, for all of the advantages the railroads brought, there was danger. Train robbers were plentiful and attacks frequent. Trains became targets for robbers who sought easy money, and in 1893, eight farmers, most with no criminal background, decided to rob a train in Jackson County with tragic results. The robbery became the last train heist in Arkansas.

On the evening of Nov. 3, 1893, the No. 51 train pulled into the station in Olyphant, a small, sawmill town on the White River. As the train slowed to a stop, engineer Robert Harriet heard loud yells and whoops and saw a group of armed men rush toward the train. Thinking the men were a group coming back from a hunt, he went back to his duties unconcerned. His indifference quickly turned into panic, however, when men wearing masks and holding guns surrounded him.

“Hands up!” the men shouted. The group forced the engineer onboard and gathered the rest of the crew. Then, the robbers ordered a crew member to open the train’s safe. When the crew member said he couldn’t, the men started firing their Winchester rifles into the train’s roof. The crew member then quickly opened the safe, and the robbers gathered its contents.

Unbeknownst to the robbers, W.P. McNally, the train’s conductor, was in the baggage car. McNally, a veteran train conductor, had often boasted he would never let anyone rob a train he was conducting. Upon hearing the commotion toward the front of the train, McNally loaded his pistol, told the passengers to hide their valuables and took cover. As the robbers proceeded through the train, McNally opened fire. The outlaws shot back, hitting McNally in the abdomen and killing him.

The armed men then marched through the train and ordered passengers to put their valuables into their sack. They ordered the train’s crew to the front, then wished the crew a goodnight before going the baggage car to check for any other valuables. There, they were shocked to discover McNally’s body. Alarmed at what they had done, the men ran down the tracks and disappeared into the woods.

Immediately, authorities began hunting the robbers. Gov. William Fishback offered a $100 reward for each robber caught and convicted. The Iron Mountain Railroad, which the group had robbed, offered a $300 reward. The day after the robbery, a doctor in Jamestown in Woodruff County telephoned authorities in Jackson County to report several suspicious men camped near his home. He contacted Marshall Patterson, the sheriff of Woodruff County, who then organized a posse to investigate.
When the sheriff arrived, the two men in the camp told the posse their names were Bill Lemons and Tom Arnett. After further investigation, Patterson discovered the names were aliases and arrested them. The men confessed to being Tom Brady and George Padgett, two Benton County farmers who had disappeared weeks before.

Under interrogation, Padgett confessed to being in on the robbery, but Brady denied any involvement. In Brady’s possession, law enforcement found a map that showed where some of the other robbers could be found.

Albert Mansker, another member of the gang, was captured in Searcy County. While in custody, Mansker wrote to L.H. Davis, a respected farmer in Missouri, disclosing he was really John Hill, a former justice of the peace and constable from Myatt Township in Missouri. Another robber, Sam Wyrick, was captured within a week. Law enforcement captured a fifth robber, Pennyweight Powell, in Colorado a few months later. Three robbers remained at large: Ol Trueman; Sam Powell, who was Pennyweight Powell’s brother; and Bob Chesney.

With five of the robbers in jail, a grand jury convened in January 1894 to consider the crime. They handed down indictments for first degree murder for Brady, Wyrick, Mansker (Hill), and Padgett and ordered the men be tried. Padgett decided to testify against his accomplices, and as a result, the prosecutor agreed to delay his trial until the trials for the others were finished. The trials for Brady, Mansker and Wyrick were set for later in January.

The first to go to trial was Tom Brady, the presumptive ringleader. The prosecution called George Padgett as star witness. According to George Padgett’s testimony, he lived in rural Benton County, where he worked on a farm for $20 a month to support his wife and six children. One day, Padgett traveled to Oklahoma to buy whiskey. There he met Tom Brady and Jim Wyrick, who told him of a scheme to get rich. Brady and Wyrick told Padgett they were planning to rob a train in Jackson County. The pair said they thought the train would not be well defended in the White River Valley. After the robbery, the men could return to their respective homes, and no one would know.

With dreams of riches dancing in his head, Padgett agreed to participate, and the three set out to organize a gang. The morning of the robbery, the gang met and gathered their guns and ammunition. While together, they drank whiskey to build their courage, and then set out to rob the train.
Brady chose not to take the stand in his defense, and the case went to the jury. After deliberating for over eight hours, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and sentenced him to death.

Wyrick’s trial was next.  Unlike Brady, Wyrick chose to take the stand in his own defense. He testified that he met Padgett and Brady in Oklahoma. The two then convinced him to take part in the robbery, Wyrick said. He claimed on the morning of the robbery, he became disenchanted with the plan and chose to leave, making his way home in Benton County, and that he never took part in the crime. The jury took four-and-a-half hours to return a verdict of guilty and sentence Wyrick to hang.

Mansker’s trial began the same day Wyrick’s trial concluded and ended with the same outcome − a conviction and death sentence.

At trial, the defendants all disputed Padgett’s story. They argued the star witness for the prosecution was actually the mastermind of the plot. Despite their protests, the three convicts were sentenced to hang together. Meanwhile, Padgett remained in jail awaiting his trial.

On April 7, 1894, Mansker, Brady and Wyrick were hanged in front of 25 witnesses. The newspapers covered the hangings in excruciating detail. After the executions, the bodies of the condemned men were loaded onto the No. 51 train, the very train they had robbed months before, and taken back to Benton County for burial.

Pennyweight Powell went on trial in July in the Jackson County Courthouse. Powell’s trial was very different from the previous trials. The courtroom was packed with friends and family, many of whom testified as to his good character. Powell projected  an aura of confidence that was able to sway the jury to acquit him of murder. When the not guilty verdict was read, the audience in the courtroom erupted into cheers. After the gruesome hangings of the previous months, it seemed the jury was not willing to convict and sentence anyone else to death.

Ol Trueman was captured in 1896, but like Powell, he was not convicted, and was set free.

Meanwhile, George Padgett walked out of jail a free man, never being tried for the crimes. The judge ordered him released after he testified against the rest of the gang. Upon his release, Padgett, like any good outlaw, bragged to reporters he had been the mastermind of the crime after all. Despite his admission, the man who claimed responsibility for the last train robbery in Arkansas lived the rest of his life in obscurity.

For more information on Arkansas history, call 501-682-6900 or email The Arkansas State Archives is closed to the public as part of a widespread effort to reduce COVID-19. Some research services are available by calling the State Archives or by visiting

From the Director: Journal(s) of the COVID year

Dr. David Ware
In March 1722, a book appeared under the stark title A Journal of the Plague Year. Written by Daniel Defoe, it purported to be an account of one man's experiences of the year 1665, in which the bubonic plague struck the city of London in what become known as the Great Plague of Londonthe last such epidemic in that city. The book was presented as an eyewitness account of the events, but the author was himself only five years old in 1665, when the Great Plague took place. Instead, the book was possibly based on the journals of Defoe’s uncle, Henry Foe, a London tradesman who had lived through the epidemic, augmented by other contemporary reports. 

The book is mainly chronological and has the feel of truth, or at least accuracy: Defoe identifies specific neighborhoods, streets and even houses in which events took place. Additionally, it provides casualty figures and even discusses the credibility of various accounts and anecdotes supposedly received by the narrator. The consensus of scholars is that A Journal of the Plague Year is less history than a good historical novel, based on scholarship; Sir Walter Scott’s judgement that it was “one of the peculiar class of compositions which hovers between romance and history” is a fair one: it is a piece of art that tastes of truth. 

I have Defoe’s historical confection on my mind as I listen to and read coverage of the COVID-19 crisis. I wonder, how will this episode be remembered, 50 years or more in the future? Much of what historians make of our time and our response to this health emergency will depend upon what we decide to collect and preserve now. Archivists, librarians and curators around the nation are already grappling with the questions of what to collect, how to store it and how to organize it for latter-day use. One challenge facing us is that, unlike in the 17th or 18th centuries, we generate not just a few records, but overwhelming numbers of them, almost all existing mainly in digital formats. Much of the record of the COVID pandemic is being written, not on paper or recorded on film, but on servers, flash drives or somewhere in the Cloud. What of it can we save, and how do we save it? Aye, there’s the rub. 

For individuals, families, companies or organizations, deciding to document is the first step.  As for the next one, here are a few ideas, which I have adapted from suggestions compiled by Kathy Marquis, Wyoming state archivist. 

  • Start one or more COVID-19 files for documents specifically related to this time. It can be a folder in your computer’s storage, or a folder in your e-mail or, even, a paper folder for printed stuff. The important thing is, have specific places to save COVID-related documents, and get in the habit of saving things into them. Practice, practice, practice.
  • If you communicate via social media, chances are that some of your posts have to do with or refer to COVID-19. These are worth preserving. One direct way to do this is to take screen shots of your posts or interactions with other posters, then save these as pdfs in your COVID folder.
  • Paper documents to save may include almost any or all “snail mail” correspondence, plus, for businesses or organizations, documentation of in-house remote work, social distancing and health-monitoring plans, plus other printed communication with a bearing on the pandemic conditions.
  • Graphics: photos, videos and other visual documents of life at home, in your street or even at the office, (if you’re not working remotely) are worth saving.  Also worth saving are screen shots of video conference call grids: how many people will look this awkward at once on a single monitor ever again? In addition, closure or reduced-service signs—at your office, or ones encountered—will be powerful reminders in the future of the frustrations of the present.
  • Evidence of outreach: any relief or charitable work during this time of shared vulnerability (for instance, collecting or donating supplies to a hospital or food bank, or making masks for friends) is worth marking and remembering. Take pictures and save correspondence about it.
  • Clippings: Once upon a time, people could clip stories from their daily or weekly newspapers, pasting them into scrapbooks to create a sort of tangible diary of events. The dwindling of print editions has made this less easy than in the past, but it is still a good idea. “Internal” documentation  that is, related to your family, company or office  needs the “big picture” context provided by news reports.  If your clipping takes the form of screen captures from your online daily paper, well, that’s becoming part of the “new normal.” 

Any individual, family or organization’s archive of the COVID pandemic must necessarily be incomplete, but this is not to say that it is unimportant.  Archives are made comprehensive not by having a single great collection, but by collecting and preserving many collections that, together, tell a story greater than their individual ones. The story of the Pandemic of 2020 will be a huge, great one  and by documenting their part of the story, individuals, families and groups ensure that the latter-day successors to the mantle of Daniel Defoe will have at their disposal the raw materials of which both romance and histories are made.