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:
- Grace at Stumbling in the Shadows of Giants posted a timeline of events in the Franklin County records destruction, including links to correspondence among those involved.
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.
- One of a group of the bloggers at Bittersweet: Linked Through Slavery posted about the potential (and now forever unknown) value of the burned records, particularly for tracing enslaved ancestors.