Burned Counties, by Michael John Neill

The courthouse burned. What do I do? Research in “burned counties” 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 descendants—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 “burned county.” 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 Catalog 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 “hidden” 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 board or a listserve 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 though 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.

In Conclusion
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.

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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


5 thoughts on “Burned Counties, by Michael John Neill

  1. Another alternate source not mentioned for land records is a land title company. The Dodge County, Wisconsin courthouse “burned,” but I found across the street a title company with duplicate records of those that were “lost.”

  2. The “Burned Courthouse” article was interesting and informative – but what about those of us whose “County Courthouses” were in Romania, Germany, etc. We not only don’t have relatives, but we don’t speak the language or understand the local manners and customs. And, if we are Jewish, probably most of our past has been purposely obliterated. Perhaps, like the luminescence of decades-old fingerprints, there is a way to ferret out hidden information? Thanks – Lois Harford

  3. Hi Michael–

    Something else I would recommend for we unfortunates (my burned courthouse is in Tompkins County, NY, and the family CHURCH burned years after that!)….

    I was checking out the LDS database like you recommended and discovered a wedding date for a couple who would have married in Newfield before the burn. The bride was in my bunch. Where did this date come from?

    Then, I realized that there must have been a family history published for the groom’s side of the family in the late 1800s. I checked at the local Dallas library’s genealogy section, and sure enough, there was an entire published history of this family. I not only found the couple I was originally looking for, but it turns out her sister married his BROTHER, so I unearthed another entire hidden branch of family we hadn’t known about! Now I ALWAYS try to check other families’ published genealogies. So far, I’ve had good luck with two. I’m hoping there are more.

    Laini Giles

  4. Excellent article!

    Research the history of the courthouse before you even look for records. I work in the genealogical room at our local library. A patron came in one day from out of state and was disappointed and bummed because she couldn’t get proof of a couple of marriages. She had gone to the courthouse in the county just south of us and been told the courthouse had burned in the early 1890s and the marriage records before that were lost. Her family had only been in the area a short time so she did not try to look at any other records. She left and came to our library as her people had moved to our county.

    I was very shocked by this information. I had grown up in that county and had never heard of a courhouse fire. I just couldn’t imagine how I had managed to see the exact records she was looking for and had already done 4 books on marriages in that county (starting in 1852) and working on a 5th with no missing days, months or years! I went to our shelf to get a copy of the book and surprise it had been stolen! (Probably by the same people who burned the courhouse!) Nevertheless, I got her the information she needed and she was quite happy when she left.

    The point of all this is, just because someone says the courthouse burned does not mean it did. I have since heard several stories of people being told a courthouse had burned and the records were lost. If a courthouse ever burned, the information is out there somewhere that it did actually burn and what records were lost.

    Happy Hunting!!!

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