Now What? Burning Question

By Lana Taylor Figgs Premium

Q. I’ve traced my family to a county whose records were burned in the Civil War. Is this a brick wall I won’t be able to break through?

A. One of the many losses of the Civil War was the destruction of countless courthouse records in fires. But don’t give up if your ancestors made their homes in one of these burned counties — there’s still hope.

The courthouse might not have completely burned down, or, if you’re really lucky, the county might’ve had two courthouses. If you contact the county courthouse and are told the records were destroyed, don’t stop there. Pounding the pavement could pay off.

“In my experience, I’ve heard a particular courthouse’s records were burned, but when I visited in person, they were all there. It was just a rumor — or an assumption by someone who didn’t know better,” says Family Tree Magazine contributing editor Sharon DeBartolo Carmack. “My advice is to check guides specific to the county or state written by knowledgeable genealogists to learn what records went up in smoke.”

Carmack recommends Virginia Genealogy: Sources & Resources by Carol McGinnis (Genealogical Publishing Co.), which reassures frantic genealogists that many missing or stolen county records resurface in other places. During times of war, records were often relocated for safekeeping in another county or state. For example, some Virginia records carried off during the Civil War later turned up in Pennsylvania. But, McGinnis writes, many county records sent to Richmond for safekeeping during the war ended up being destroyed in that city’s devastating 1865 fire.

In some cases, burned counties rebuilt their records by asking residents to bring in copies of deeds, wills and vital records. Be sure to check neighboring counties’ repositories, as well as those of any parent or child counties.

Sometimes counties put their charred records under the auspices of local historical societies. Contact them to find out more about their holdings. Then do a place search of the Family History Library’s online catalog <> on the county and state. If your county’s records are in its collection, you can order microfilm copies to view at your branch Family History Center. Find one near you at <>.
From the July 2008 Family Tree Magazine