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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Burning Courthouses

One of the benefits of working directly with researchers is the opportunity to hear a lot of stories about families and the difficulties in finding records. This last week, I was helping a lady who was looking for her immigrant great-grandfather. She had already found the family on the 1920 U.S. Census but didn't know where to go to find his parents. I suggested that she look at the Census pages both before and after the sheet she had found. She immediately found a family with the same surname that was very likely her great-great-grandfather. The point of this story is that researchers often look in the obvious location but don't know what to do if the information they are seeking is not immediately available. This researcher's problem was that she did not know how the Census worked. She didn't realize that the enumerators would go up and down the streets and that it is common to find families living in close proximity. The key here is knowing about the records.

Regularly, I run into another problem that has the same set of issues, that is the legendary court house fire issue. My most common initial response when someone complains that they cannot find their ancestor because the court house burned down, is to point out that if the county court house in Maricopa county burned down, I would not lose any records at all. This is the case for the simple reason that Maricopa County does not store its records in the court house. In any event, the only records stored in the court house, even when there were records, were those dealing with court cases. Sometimes, I realize, in smaller counties, many types of records may have been stored in the court house, such as tax and real estate records.

But my comment, though impertinent, is valid. Simply finding out that a court house burned on such and such a date tells us nothing about what records were lost or whether the lost records were ever reconstructed. Let's take land records for an example. Suppose all or part of a county's land records were destroyed. There are a few things that are obvious, first, the loss of the records in no way affects the ownership of the property. The land owners still own their property and if they go to sell their property, then the records will have to be reconstructed, usually from deeds in the possession of the landowner or from substitute deeds. What about court case records. True, a fire may destroy the case records and there may be no need to reconstruct any of the records. What about vital records, birth, death and marriage records? The question is whether or not any of these records were even maintained during the time period the court house burned? To see when and where these records were kept, you can consult a resource like Everton, George B. The Handy Book for Genealogists. Logan, Utah (P.O. Box 368, Logan 84321): Everton Publishers, 1981.The latest version is from 1991, but the information is still valuable. Online, you might try the FamilySearch Research Wiki for the state and county records information. Don't wring your hands over records that are lost that may never have been in the court house in the first place.

In short, a burned court house does not mean that the records you are looking for were burned. The fire did not destroy all of the records in the county, there are still newspapers, private records, church records, school records, town records, directories, and on and on. In fact, many of the stories of burnt courthouses are inaccurate or simply myths. Sometimes the records were transferred to another courthouse or to the state and subsequent staff members assumed the records were lost or destroyed.  Here is an interesting analysis in the West Virginia Archives & History News that talks about the myth of the courthouse fire. Similar articles could be written about every state. For example, see the Tennessee Secretary of State's Lost Records: Courthouse Fires and Disasters in Tennessee. But also look at the Earliest County Records list showing which records are available in which time periods.

Failing to do more research by reason of a courthouse fire ignores the fact that many of the records, even if lost, can be reconstructed from other sources. A courthouse fire does not end your research.


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