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Monday, March 7, 2016

Record Loss: Alternative Jurisdictions when Records are Lost

File:Cincinnati Riots 1884 Courthouse after riot.jpg

One of the most difficult issues in genealogical research is record loss. This is a random series on that subject.

The concept of a "jurisdiction" is almost foreign to genealogists. There are two common usages of the term. One usage refers to the ability of a specific court to hear a certain type of lawsuit. The other, the one I am referring to here, is applied to a specific geographic or other legally defined area where particular records are kept. For example, Arizona is a state in the United States of America. The government officials of the State of Arizona maintain certain records, such as land and property records of the property within the state boundaries (or jurisdiction). It is not at all likely that documents concerning real property in Utah, California, Nevada or New Mexico would be found in the recorded documents in the jurisdiction of the State of Arizona. It is not impossible, just not very likely. The counties within the state have their own set of records uniquely kept by a specific county. From the standpoint of this discussion, the county is said to have jurisdiction over land and property records, marriage records and other similar documents.

One interesting feature of jurisdictions is that they can overlap. For example, going back to the idea of the jurisdiction of a county; a county is located in the State of Arizona. So, the jurisdiction of the State of Arizona overlaps with the county. Currently, even if you live in county in Arizona, birth and death records are kept on a statewide basis. But if you get married, the record is created by and maintained by the county where the marriage occurred. I have often used the analogy of a pile of pancakes to illustrate how jurisdictions overlap.

Most genealogically important records, preserved in repositories and archives, are organized in a way that is analogous to the organization of the jurisdictions creating those records. A good example is the organization of the FamilySearch Catalog. A default search in the Catalog approaches the records from a geographic (jurisdictional) basis. So, you can search for records such as U.S. Census records, military records and federal tax records at the level of the United States. The catalog then allows you to search for places within the United States and lists all of the states and territories. If you choose a state, then you get a list of all of the records kept at the state level such as birth and death records. Likewise, you can move on to select all the places in the state. This choice shows all of the records kept at the county level such as land and property records. In most cases, the catalog will go down to the local or municipal level and show additional records.

It is important to understand that these different jurisdictional areas can dramatically change over time. As genealogists we deal in hundreds of years of our ancestors' history. Over this time period the United States came into existence and all of the present states and counties were created. At any given point in time, records were created in the particular set of overlapping jurisdictions then in existence. As these jurisdictions changed over time, the records could have moved or even been lost. There are four possibilities:
  • The records stayed in the originating jurisdiction
  • The records moved to the newly created jurisdiction
  • The records were sent to the state archives or other repository
  • The records were lost
Any time you start doing research back in time, you need to do some preliminary investigations as to the locations of the boundaries and even the existence of the various jurisdictions involved in your research as the existed at the time. In the United States, a basic reference for determining the history and boundary changes of the states and counties is the Newberry Atlas of Historical County Boundaries. The Interactive Map on the Newberry website has not been up and working for some time, but it may come up in the Spring of 2016. Another website with an animated mapping program is In Europe and the United Kingdom there are a lot of maps available, but it does take a lot more effort and time to determine the jurisdictional boundaries at any given time in the past.

Now, we have another possibility. The records were lost because of some external reason. Perhaps, the jurisdiction just decided to destroy or throw away the records. Perhaps the records were destroyed in a local disaster such as the proverbial "courthouse fire" scenario. In the jargon of the genealogy world, these destroyed courthouses are called "burned counties." It is a fact that courthouses have burned and some will burn in the future. Often, again from a genealogical standpoint, the fact that a courthouse has burned is viewed as a major disaster and a loss of records. I have heard a number of people comment that they could not find their ancestors because the "courthouse burned." Record loss is a fact of the genealogist's life. There is no doubt that the loss of records can have an effect on the ability of a researcher to find a particular document. But it is rare that the loss of the records in one particular courthouse completely prevents a researcher from finding a family. 

The reasons why courthouse fires may not be the total genealogical tragedy commonly associated with the events can be summarized as follows:
  • Not all the records in a county are or were stored in the burned courthouse
  • Records are mostly redundantly kept, that is, records with similar information may be found in other locations
  • The records you are searching for may never have been kept in the burned courthouse at all
  • The destroyed record were reconstructed from other local records. This is especially true for land and property, marriage and probate records
For more information and resources for finding burned county records see the Research Wiki article, "Burned Counties Research." Here is a map from FamilySearch showing the locations of the burned counties in the United States with record loss:

The Research Wik article will give you some very specific strategies for overcoming a burned county issue.

One of the basic strategies is to look for records in adjoining counties and other jurisdictions. Here are some of the places you might start looking:

  • University libraries especially special collections sections
  • Local, county and state libraries
  • Adjoining counties
  • State and local archives
  • Local and state historical societies
Remember that the same type of information you are searching for may also be in alternative records kept in another level of jurisdiction. A good place to start is a record selection table. See the Research Wiki, "United States Record Selection Table."

Here is a selection of books and other materials that might help with finding records. This list is intended to be an example of the types of books and records you might want to search for.

Burns, Annie Walker. Maryland Colonial Statistics and Indices. (Contains Wills from All Maryland Counties, 1686 to 1744). Annapolis, Maryland, 1938.

———. Maryland Will Book, Contains Wills from All Maryland Counties ... Number 24-[38] Number 24-[38]. Annapolis, Md., 1937.

Burns, Loretta Elliott. 1860 Madison County, Texas: Formed 1853 from Leon, Grimes, and Walker Counties, TX. Pasedena, Tex.: L.E. Burns, 1982.

Fisher, Therese A. Vital Records of Three Burned Counties: Births, Marriages, and Deaths of King and Queen, King William, and New Kent Counties, Virginia, 1680-1860. Bowie, Md.: Heritage Books, Inc., 1995.

Hopkins, William Lindsay. Some Wills from the Burned Counties of Virginia and Other Wills Not Listed in Virginia Wills and Administrations, 1632-1800. Richmond, Va. (P.O. Box 7254, Richmond 23221): W.L. Hopkins, 1987.

Johnson, Nellie E, and Anne Johnson Burns. Early Facts about Montgomery and Wheeler Counties. Mount Vernon, Ga.: Courtesy of Mount Vernon Bank, 1976.

Little, Edith B. Blount County, Tennessee Cemetery Records: Including Blount Section of Louden [i.e. Loudon] & Monroe Counties. [Maryville, Tenn.]: [E.B. Little], 1981.

———. Blount County, Tennessee, Cemetery Records: Including Blount Sector of Loudon and Monroe Counties, Tennessee. Evansville, Ind.: Unigraphic, 1980.

T.L.C. Genealogy (Organization). Cumberland County, Virginia, Deed Book No. 2, 1752-1760. Miami Beach, FL (P.O. Box 403369, Miami Beach 33140-1369): T.L.C. Genealogy, 2000.

———. Middlesex County, Virginia: Deed Book 1 (1687-1750) and Miscellaneous Records (1752-1831). Miami Beach, FL: T.L.C. Genealogy, 1992.

Virginia Genealogical Society. Some Marriages in the Burned Records Counties of Virginia. [Richmond], 1972.

Weisiger, Benjamin B. Burned County Data, 1809-1848: As Found in the Virginia Contested Election Files. [Richmond, Va.]: B.B. Weisiger, 1986.

Woodson, Robert F. Virginia Tithables from Burned Record Counties. Richmond, Va.: Isabel B. Woodson, 1970.


  1. I had a very nice comment that I accidentally erased. Please post your comment again. Sorry :-(

  2. The comment was by Guy Etchells. Thanks. Sorry.

  3. Sorry I cannot re-post my comment as I write them off the cuff and do not keep copies, but I can make a similar though not identical posting.

    Here in England and Wales we have almost the opposite problem with jurisdiction.

    Our “Vital Records” civil birth, marriage and death registers are required to be copied and archived centrally at the General Register Office (GRO) and our Church of England parish registers were required to be copied and sent to the Diocesan Archive which may or may not be in the same county as the parish.

    As a result errors and omissions may and do occur in the transcripts this problem is even worse in the case of parish registers.

    Parish registers were supposed to be transcribed and copies sent annually to the Bishop but there was no guidance as to what was to be done with the copies or how they were to be stored (some were simply dumped in a cellar or attic and are lying in rotting piles of parchment to this day).

    That is not the only problem for the genealogist as some vicars and clerics interpreted the order to make copies in their own way.
    Some made faithful accurate copies of the complete register including any marginal notes, others simply transcribed a précis giving just the bare details and others took the chance to improve their register and made a copy but sent the original pages of parchment to the Diocese.

    This means that where two copies of the registers civil or ecclesiastical exist they may or may not contain identical information. In the case of the church registers the researcher may not know, without careful inspection, which is the original record and which is the transcript.

    1. Thanks for re-posting. I agree, this is a common problem around the world. It is especially true when officials try to reconstruct lost documents.

    2. It's even worse than Guy implies. There are actually multiple stages where a game of Chinese whispers can cause errors.

      With respect to marriage registers you have the original in either the church or the registered venue for civil marriages. The Anglican churches needed to make the Bishop's transcripts for diocesan purposes, although that died out as civil registration became entrenched and I don't know if Bishop's transcripts are actually legally required anymore. Beyond that the venue needs to make a copy for the relevant local superintendant registrar every so often. From those copies sent to the superintendant registrar the local BMD indices are compiled. Each county and unitary authority jurisdiction has its own BMD indices. From the copies sent to the superintendant registrars further copies are made and then sent to the GRO. From those further copies the GRO indices which cover the whole of England and Wales are created. So the GRO indices are based on a copy of a copy of the original registers which means that naturally mistakes creep in!

      However what it also means is that local and national indices can be compared and more information can be gleaned than from having on single, national index alone. For example some local indices show the mother's maiden name for births earlier than it was introduced in the national index and local indices can be used to tell multiple events for surnames like Smith apart because they often include the sub-district the event was registered in. However we are a long way from having all of the local indices available and searchable online. Some local authorities are positively archaic in their processes in that respect whilst others have had largely or even totally completely searchable indices online for years.