The courthouse burned. What do I do? Research in â€œburned countiesâ€ that have suffered a record loss may be possible, but it requires persistence and a willingness to turn over as many stones as possible. This week we take a look at some techniques that may be helpful.
Get Beyond the Destruction
Determine exactly what records were destroyed. Was it the entire courthouse? Was it a certain office in the courthouse? Were some records housed offsite and not destroyed? Do not assume that all county records were burned just because someone told you so, or because you read it on a message board or website.
Were any records re-recorded after the incident? Deeds and other records of property ownership may have been recorded again after the fire. (Remember landowners generally kept the original deed; the courthouse has a copy.) For records that were created in the normal course of business after the destruction, keep an open mind. Pay particular attention to deeds and other documents where ownership of property might have been an issue, especially ownership before the fire. These documents may specifically mention former owners or imply who those owners were.
Settlements of estate or some court records may mention events and relationships as they were before the fire. Search carefully for estate settlements of any family members who died without descendantsâ€”even if the death was fifty or more years after the records were destroyed. These records could be located a significant distance from the burned county. The records of the disbursements from their estate may mention heirs and or relationships dating back a hundred years.
Get Beyond the Immediate Family
Researching the complete family becomes even more important during the time period of the fire as well. Some family members might have eventually lived in areas where records were not destroyed or might have left behind records with more detail. These documents may refer to individuals who lived in the â€œburned county.â€ Since our search must necessarily broaden, it is imperative that a research log be kept so that records on a specific relative are not over looked.
Search the Family History Library Card CatalogÂ for information on records in the county. The Family History Library has an extensive collection of microfilm and while they do not film every piece of paper in the courthouse, there may other materials. Look for printed or published materials in their collection and then go beyond that to original records wherever possible.
Get Beyond Relatives
It is not just the extended family who should be researched. Pay special attention to neighbors, associates, fellow church members, and others with whom your ancestor might have been affiliated during his time in the county. Information on where they were from may help you locate where your ancestor was from as well.
Get Beyond the County
Search state and federal level records as completely as possible. Are there any wars that involved family members? Are there pension records from those wars and have they been accessed? They might mention your relative or provide clues as to his or her existence.
Get Help Beyond Yourself
Have local historical societies and genealogical societies been contacted for potential information in their collection? They may also be aware of â€œhiddenâ€ sources that were not destroyed, additional sources that have been located recently, or unique approaches for the area. A posting to the appropriate county message boardÂ or a listserveÂ is an excellent idea.
Have you searched any regional or nearby university archives? They may have unpublished manuscripts or other written material that may be helpful in your search. Try searching WorldCat for the county of interest to see what materials appear in the catalog. Bear in mind thoughÂ that oftentimes a manuscript collection may be incompletely cataloged in WorldCat or not cataloged at all.
Are there any published county histories or scholarly studies of the county that may shed light on certain families, migration patterns, etc.? Search WorldCat and see if local libraries have such materials.
Have all church records been exhausted? In burned record counties, church and other private records become increasingly important and should not be overlooked. Church records should be accessed even if your ancestor was a member of a denomination that typically did not keep excellent records. If contacting the local church is unproductive or impossible, contact the regional or national archive of the denomination.
Do not assume that what you have been told was destroyed was actually destroyed.
- Research the entire family and ancestral associates
- Look for records created after the record destruction
- Learn the county history
- Network with others working in same area
- Contact local organizations and repositories for more information
Research in burned counties is more difficult than in others–no doubt of that. But with an exhaustive search plan, it can be done sometimes. Get beyond the destruction to think of what other records and materials might have been created and learn how to use and access those records.
Michael John Neill is a genealogical writer and speaker who has been researching his or his children’s genealogy for more than twenty years. A math instructor in his “other life,” Michael taught at the former Genealogical Institute of Mid-America and has served on the FGS Board. He also lectures on a variety of genealogical topics and gives seminars across the country. He maintains a personal website