Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Burned Counties, Record Gaps and the End of the Line

Every so often, I get a comment from a researcher that their search for a certain ancestor has been frustrated by the fact that the courthouse in the county where the family lived had burned down. In other instances, I hear complaints about record gaps. The most common of these complaints deals with the inability to find an ancestor in a particular year of the U.S. Federal Census. Both of these types of complaints highlight the fact that genealogical researchers are generally extremely nearsighted in their research efforts.

My off-hand comment to the burned county folks is a question. Oh, I guess your family must have lived tax free in that county since the courthouse burned? Obviously, if the records were destroyed, the county could not have had any basis for collecting taxes! I would realistically venture to say that this was very highly unlikely. So what happened to enable the county to continue to collect taxes and manage its affairs? In short, the records were reconstructed from other sources.

The example of the inability to find a family in a particular U.S. Census record is trivial in the extreme. Yes, people did get missed. But the real reason is usually as simple as the fact that the indexing was not done accurately. A search of the entire record for a given locality, will sometime reveal the missing family. But the real answer is so what? The fact that the issue is even raised points out a situation in common with the burned county issue. Focusing on one category of records is usually fatal to genealogical research.

We have a multitude of classes taught every year about breaking down genealogical brick walls. All of those classes have one thing in common: they preach about expanding your research into a variety of records, rather than relying on the old and sometimes weary core of overused and overrated genealogical records.

If you find yourself moaning or groaning about the loss of a certain class of records, I suggest starting with the FamilySearch Research Wiki article entitled, "Burned Counties Research." This is also good reading for those who are suffering angst because of their inability to find an ancestor in any particular record. The statement made on the first page of this series of articles is important:
We cannot make missing records re-appear, but we CAN learn to make progress without them.
On the Burned Counties Research Wiki page there is a list of the "Mental Preparation and Tools for Success." I think this is a helpful list of suggestions, although I take serious exception with some of the items on the list. In fact, my own list would be considerably differently structured. However, I hesitate to re-write the Research Wiki with my own ideas, because they vary so much from what is normally taught by other genealogists.

The main reason for my departure from the "standard" method of approaching these problems is the obvious "paper-based" bias of the article. But the fundamental differences are based on the fact that the concept of a "research log" needs updating. This comment will be expanded in a subsequent post. The discipline outlined in the "traditional" approach to loss or unavailability of records is focused on becoming more detail oriented. My focus is on expanding your awareness of the types of records that are available. From my viewpoint, the methodology outlined misses the entire issue. For example, I suppose the courthouse contained all the copies of all the newspapers printed in the county?

Years ago, there was a cartoon by Gary Larson of the Far Side that shows a boy pushing on the door of the Midvale School for the Gifted when right above his head there is a sign that says "PULL." This cartoon was prominently displayed in our home for about thirty years. It represents a very real condition and one of my recurrent disabilities: our inability to understand the obvious. The most important statement on the Research Wiki Burned Counties page is the following:

When a record goes missing, there may be some other records available with the same information.
That is my mantra.


  1. It would be really helpful if you posted an example of how you worked around the problems presented by a burned county and what you were able to glean using alternative avenues.

  2. I was in Midvale's school for the gifted ha ha, and always enjoyed that cartoon. I think discovering more record possibilities and learning the nuances of what those records will likely reveal vs. the time it will take to search them is something that comes with a lot of experience, though of course lists of additional records (such as newspapers), and what they often contain, is very helpful.