Sooner or later, you’re likely to hear that dreaded phrase, “Sorry, but the courthouse burned and the records you’re looking for don’t exist.”
(Variations include “there was a flood,” “there was an earthquake,” and “the records were absconded by aliens.” Ok, maybe not that last one.)
When you hear that the records have been destroyed, don’t lose hope in finding what you’re looking for. Here are four things to do when you’re told that the courthouse burned and the records were destroyed.
1. Get a Second Opinion
The person who told you that the records were lost in a fire might have been mistaken. Yes, there was a fire, but maybe everything wasn’t destroyed. For example, the county courthouse in Newark, Licking County, Ohio had a large fire in 1875 that destroyed the majority of the marriage and probate records. However, most of the land records survived.
County genealogical societies are often your best source for accurate information about the availability of records in an area. Contact the one in the county you’re interested in and ask what survived the courthouse fire. You might be pleasantly surprised.
2. Seek Out Duplicate Copies
The records that were destroyed in the fire/flood/alien invasion might have been only one copy of those records. Sometimes local officials had to send copies of certain records to a state office. Common record types include tax and voter records, but sometimes vital records and military records were also duplicated.
Again, check with the county genealogical society to see if they know of duplicate copies anywhere. The state archive is also a good place to check.
3. Find Alternate Records
Let’s say that worse has come to worse and the record you were looking for really was destroyed and there were no copies at the state level. It’s time to start thinking about what other records you could use to prove the same thing.
Looking for a death record to get a woman’s maiden name? Look for her obituary; it might list siblings as survivors (and maybe even list her parents). Need a date of death? Tombstones are a good source. Looking for birth records? Try baptism records.
4. Dig Deeper With What You Have
There will be times when you’ll need to make do with the records that are available. A marriage record would be the easiest thing to use to prove a woman’s maiden name (or at least the name she was using when she married), but if it no longer exists, you’ll have to find a different way.
It’s always a good idea to incorporate the FAN method (friends, associates, and neighbors) into your research. Who are the neighbors in the census? Who are the sponsors in the children’s baptisms? What records still exist that you can use to piece together these families?
Record destruction – whether by fire, flood, or negligence – doesn’t necessarily mean that your genealogical goals have gone up in smoke. Don’t panic. Stay calm and open-minded about the records you use, and you could see your goals rising like a phoenix out of the ashes.
About Amy Johnson Crow
Amy Johnson Crow is a Community Manager for Ancestry.com. She's a Certified Genealogist and an active lecturer and author. Her roots run deep in the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. She earned her Masters degree in Library and Information Science at Kent State University. Amy loves to help people discover the joys of learning about their ancestors and she thinks that there are few things better than a day in a cemetery. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter, and No Story Too Small.