Do you have ancestors who worked for the police department or other law enforcement agencies? You might be surprised. Sometimes police departments were preceded by other organizations that may have left records that you might not expect to find. My hometown is a good example of what you may discover.
Boston was founded on the Shawmut Peninsula in 1630. The Puritans who settled there set up a night watch in 1631. In 1636 it was institutionalized in the Town Meeting. The watch, in various forms, protected the town for the next two hundred years. The town became a city in 1822. By the 1830s it became apparent that the city had now outgrown the watch, and a new system had become necessary. In 1838 six men were hired as the first members of the Day Police, reporting to a city marshall. The much larger night watch of 120 men continued to operate until 1854.
In that year the Boston Police Department entirely replaced the watch. It was expanded to 250 men. In the years following the Civil War, a number of towns were annexed to Boston, including Alston, Brighton, Dorchester, Roxbury, and West Roxbury. By the end of the century, the BPD included 1,000 patrolmen. Today the BPD employs more than 2,000 officers and almost 1,000 civilians.
Through the years, the members of the BPD have dealt with tragic events large and small (the Molasses Flood, the Coconut Grove fire, anti-war protests, forced busing, and in 2013 the events of the Marathon Bombing).
In December 1825, sixty-one-year-old Jonathan Houghton was on patrol as a member of the watch. He was attacked ay an axe-wielding man and died a week later, the first person to be killed on duty. At 5:15 a.m. on October 18, 1857, officer Ezekiel W. Hodsdon was on patrol in East Boston when he tried to arrest two people suspected of burglary. During the ensuing struggle, Ezekiel was shot in the head and died 5 hours later. He was the first of seventy-five members of the watch and the BPD who have died of injuries received on duty.
Just last month, descendants of Jonathan Houghton were present when the BPD added his name to the Wall of Honor remembering the departments fallen membrs, along with those of seven others: David Estes (the second Watch Officer to die in the line of duty, died 1848), Michael Brennan (died 1918), John Condon (died 1927), John Lynch (died 1944), and Walter Harris (died 1906).
These are not the only stories of the brave men and women who have served in the Boston Police Department. The BPD operates an archives that maintains information on records dating back to the earliest days of the department. The staff there does a wonderful job, not only in preserving the records, but working to make sure the stories are told.
If you come across ancestors whose occupations were watch, patrolman, police officer, or any of a number of other terms, check with the police department in the area. Find out if they maintain an archive, or if the records are at some other repository. And remember, as demonstrated with Boston, sometimes the police department may extend back years or decades (or even centuries) earlier than you think, albeit in a different form. You might be surprised at the treasured stories you might find.