Genealogists Mourn Incinerated Records in Franklin County, NC

Genealogists Mourn Incinerated Records in Franklin County, NC

When genealogists talk about "burned records," we usually mean a courthouse fire that happened accidentally or during a Civil War battle. But the term has taken on a new meaning in Franklin County, NC, where thousands of historical records, long-forgotten in the courthouse basement, were systematically incinerated last...

When genealogists talk about “burned records,” we usually mean a courthouse fire that happened accidentally or during a Civil War battle.

But the term has taken on a new meaning in Franklin County, NC, where thousands of historical records, long-forgotten in the courthouse basement, were systematically incinerated last month. As word gets out, genealogists and historians across the country are expressing their shock on social media (see links to bloggers’ reports below).

Here’s the short version of what happened:

Last May, a new county clerk discovered the records in a state of disarray in the basement, along with assorted trash, mold and water damage. The local heritage society formed a plan to inventory and preserve the records, lined up volunteers, and secured the necessary funds and space. Members had started the work when they were ordered to stop and wait for further instruction. At some point officials from the state archives and various county departments were allowed to remove an unknown number of records.

On Friday, Dec. 6, after the end of the workday and without notice to anyone, a crew in hazmat suits cleared out the basement and burned the records in the local animal shelter’s incinerator.

Explanations from local officials have mentioned hazardous mold, privacy concerns, official record retention schedules, and possibly others I’ve missed in reading articles and blog posts. The county manager, who authorized the incineration, has promised a written explanation.

What was lost? No one was able to do a complete inventory of the records, but examples of the basement’s contents include an 1890s naturalization document, 1890s chattel mortgages, post-Civil War to Prohibition-era court dockets, and a letter from a WWI soldier serving abroad asking the court to make sure his sister and his estate were looked after.

Several bloggers are following these events and the backlash in detailed posts:

She’s also posting about media coverage and public response.

  • Renate at Into the Light is a member of the Franklin County Heritage Society who witnessed the records being carried out of the courthouse basement to be incinerated. Read her story and see photos.

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  1. Hello Diane,

    I’m deeply saddened to read about the loss of those records. What a incalculable loss to that community &amp; to all who had ancestry in that area. I was shocked to read how an elected official approved this action. What a lack vision. Are there no laws in place to protect public records?

    As a researcher, this is the kind of thing makes my blood boil. It’s bad enough when these tragedies occur accidentally [think the 1890 Federal Census…. twice!], but when someone willfully destroys these records sadness is overshadowed by anger.

    I look forward to this officials explanation for his actions.

    Thanks for your work on this blog. I come here often…. luckily, I don’t feel this way too often.


  2. Good Morning, Diane,
    We must view this tragedy in a larger light and realize that we are largely to blame. This is but a small example of what awaits us on a national, state, and local level with government run amuck. Our governments at all levels have been broken by the creeping belief that once elected, they know better than the general public what needs to be done to solve most any problem. While it is my opinion that this idea started in Washington, it has crept quickly down the governmental system, until now it has infected our friends and neighbors who are elected to SERVE at the local level. The refusal of the members of the board, and the chair, in the accompanying video to discuss the situation with those who elected them, is absolutely unacceptable.
    Why do I say it is largely our fault? How many write, or better yet, visit those whom they have elected to represent them? We have, as a general rule felt that we cast our vote and that is all that is needed. We can then return to American Idle and feel we have done our duty as citizens. Hogwash! Those people are our employees and must be communicated with regularly, and their performance assessed in no uncertain terms. If we agree with what they are doing, tell them! If not, tell them! Until thousands, no hundreds of thousands, of Americans at all levels PARTICIPATE their government actively, we can expect such actions to become more and more common. A Republic is a participatory sport. It requires an informed and active electorate. Join me in that activity. Writing a letter is good, a phone call is better, but face to face is best!

  3. The letters and emails I have seen written to Ms. Harris, the County Commissioners, etc., have been excellent.

    Thanks so much for your coverage of this, which led me on to other bloggers’ entries on the subject. This is getting a lot of attention – as well it should – from the geneablogging community.

    I just sent an email to Ms. Harris, copying the Chair and Vice Chair of Commissioners of Franklin County. I was not as polite as some of the other writings I’ve seen.

    A copy of the content of that email is posted on my blog, here.

    Dee Burris Blakley