What to do
if the courthouse burned
Presentation at 2008 event.
Records are not all burned!
Have you ever tried to *gasp* burn a book? If you have, you will know how difficult it is to completely burn a book. While considerable damage does often result from a fire, in many instances, the bulk of the actual records have survived. In more than one county in America where this has happened, the charred remains were deposited with the local historical society or given to some private individual. Our problem is to locate the remains of these records.
Actually, floods often do more damage than fire because of mold, mildew, etc. continue to destroy what remains unless they are historically preserved.
"A new broom sweeps clean" - New personnel are not always a good thing
Sometimes a county clerk will tell someone that no records exist for a particular period of time and that they were presumably destroyed by fire. In some cases, they are merely repeating what they have been told. It could be that the clerk is newly-elected and really does not have any firsthand experience with the old records. Predecessors may have simply "dumped" the old records. This actually happened in Columbiana County, Ohio, where the clerk sold all the loose papers and probate packets! Another possibility is that the clerk has stored all the old records in the attic, etc. and doesn't want to be bothered.
W. P. A. Inventories
Often, a clerk will tell you that the records were destroyed by "Sherman's Bummers", or some similar catastrophe. Do not accept this as the final authority! Many times, this type of story was used as an excuse to discourage researchers. Check the W. P. A. Inventory (either published or unpublished) for that county and you may be able to tell the clerk, for example, that the records you are after were in the basement vault in 1943.
Latter Day Saints Microfilm
If you have checked the W. P. A. Inventory (proving the records you wish were not destroyed in the Civil War, etc.) mentioned above and the clerk you are dealing with still claims they are not in existence, try looking the county up in the LDS Microfilm. The LDS went through all the United State's County records they were allowed to and microfilmed them. If they were located by W. P. A., they may have been located by the LDS on their pass through the state.
Reconstituted or Re-recorded Records
Usually after records were destroyed, the county officials attempted to reconstruct the missing information. In some cases, county residents were urged to bring any documents or evidence of previous transactions and events, into the county office so they could again be recorded. Be sure to ask for these newer records if you are told that the records you are seeking have been destroyed. The officials may not volunteer the existence of these or other types of alternate records.
Title and Abstract Companies
In most states, you may find these companies often have a set of records that are similar in many respects to the property records found in the local county outhouse. While they are usually condensed or abstracted form, they are, nevertheless, a great help to the researcher.
In those counties where the records have been destroyed, there are often alternative or supplemental records in existence. Genealogists need to contact the local researchers and/or organizations in the area of interest to find out exactly what records are available for use.
In many, many counties there is more than one courthouse. This is true all over the nation. For instance St. Louis County in Minnesota has two and Berkshire County in Massachusetts has three. Ancestrally speaking, the county you are after, may have had more than one "shire" town. Be sure and search all the various courthouses in the county.
The average ancestor moved at least six time during his or her lifetime. Seldom did they live and die in the same area. Researchers usually know where people lived after fire and it is very often possible to learn where they lived before coming to that particular county. Search the records of these earlier and later counties.
History has shown that many persons who lived in one county also owned land in one or more neighboring counties. It was often much easier to go down the river 30 miles to another county seat than to go ten miles over a mountain or through a dense forest to the local county seat. Also, remember that state and county lines are not painted on the ground, nor have they ever been. Because of this, especially if an ancestor did not record many records in a particular county, they might have even believed they were in a different county then they actually were! Be aware of these economic, social, and geographical situations.
Whenever a new county was formed, it became necessary for the new county to set up its own record-keeping system. Initially, they might either retain the original records from the parent county, or, more often, they would create a duplicate set of records. Hence, it is often possible to find some of the very early records for the county in its parent county.
Sometimes the original records for a county were literally "carried off," especially in times of war. For example, many county records for Maine were located in Worchester, Massachusetts. Some early Virginia records are located in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Many, many early records for the state of Vermont are located in Albany County, New York. Many southern records have been deposited north of the Mason-Dixon Line and some are even located in Americana, Brazil!
Copyrighted work - reprinted here with permission.
Free information provided for your research knowledge.
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