Quick tip – Was your ancestor in prison?

Too often, we think our ancestors were like us. We find it hard to imagine they would break the law and don’t even look for prison records. However, lots of people got in trouble with the law; especially if they were poor. In the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, if people could not pay a fine, they could end up in prison.

Dome prison in Breda

Dome prison in Breda. Credits: Cultural Heritage Service

People could go to prison for unpaid fines given for transgressions we would consider minor today. Here are a few examples from my own research:

  • turning a plow in the road rather than on your own land
  • having a chicken run lose in someone else’s garden
  • emptying your chamber pot in the street gutter rather than in the creek
  • walking around with uncovered fire
  • calling someone a bad name.

Other things that regularly got people in trouble were tax evasion, drunkenness, disturbance of the peace, and fighting.

Many of these offenses would have carried a fine, but if a person could not pay, they would have to spend time in prison instead.

Prison records for several provinces are now available online for you to check whether any of your ancestors appear.

About Yvette Hoitink

Yvette Hoitink, MLitt, CG®, QG™ is a professional genealogist, writer, and lecturer in the Netherlands. She has a Master of Letters in Family and Local History from the University of Dundee, and holds the Certification of Genealogist and Qualified Genealogist credentials. Yvette served on the Board of Directors of the Association of Professional Genealogists and won excellence awards for her articles in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly and the Association of Professional Genealogists Quarterly. Yvette has been doing genealogy for over 30 years. She helps people from across the world find their ancestors from the Netherlands and its former colonies, including New Netherland. Read about Yvette's professional genealogy services.


  1. Jane Kamerman says

    Yvette, Thank you for regularly giving all of us a wonderful boost in our genealogical searches – each of your posts gives me more resources and incentive to learn more! (It doesn’t do much for my housekeeping chores, though!)

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