Playing With Fire

By Marsha Hoffman Rising Premium



They’re words every genealogist dreads: “The courthouse burned, and all the records are gone.” For many, especially those with Southern roots, the problem of the burned courthouse can prove a critical one. One minute there stands a beautiful edifice undoubtedly crammed with your ancestors’ records, and the next it’s up in smoke-along with all those documents you hold so dear.

But don’t lose hope if your ancestral county is one of the “burned” ones. Every crisis offers opportunity for growth and progress, and the absence of courthouse records simply forces you to discover new sources. Learning these alternative search strategies may be the only way to find the answers you need.

If you think searching is almost as rewarding as finding, and have a little time to scour unindexed and unusual records, you might just solve an ancestral challenge. It’ll take work, but there’s potential for big pedigree payoffs. I challenge you to find a place in which all the records were destroyed—some records exist somewhere for every burned county. I’ll show you how to uncover them.

1. Don’t panic.

The first step in any crisis is not to overreact. Never make a problem bigger than it truly is. Next, divide the problem into parts. When you face only one aspect of the dilemma at a time, it seems more manageable. Thus, when your research moves into a burned county, you must begin by determining the extent and magnitude of the loss. It’s possible you were misinformed, and there was no fire at all. Or perhaps a county court clerk told you, “I’m sorry we can’t help you. We’ve had a courthouse fire.” You imagine thousands of records in a big ash heap. In reality, the fire occurred last Wednesday afternoon when someone threw a cigarette into a trash can, and it burned for no more than 60 seconds. Your first question should be “Was there really a courthouse fire?” Next, if you find that a significant fire did occur, you need to determine when it happened and what it destroyed.

If there was in fact a fire, only some of the documents may have been damaged. For instance, the Albany, NY, fire of 1911 burned thousands of records, but many have been salvaged. Because old documents often get tucked away somewhere, current staff may not know or care where such records are stored. The vast majority of transactions county clerks conduct concern contemporary documents, and most clerks don’t have the time or interest to deal with older records. But they may be able to recommend a local researcher who’s familiar with the holdings. Almost every community has an expert on its records, although that person might not work for the county.

2. Study the county.

The next phase of your research is to study everything you can find on the county. This means county histories, Works Progress Administration inventories, and published and unpublished research guides. In particular, look for well-documented county histories. A good place to start your search is P. William Filby’s Bibliography of American County Histories (Genealogical Publishing Co.). Pay attention to the footnotes in local histories; these will tell you the sources the author used. You can find other good sources by using a Web search engine such as Google <> to search on the county name. County sites often list bibliographies, source material and inventories.

My research centering on the Yocum family led me to Taney County, Mo., one of the worst-burned counties I’ve come across. The courthouse has endured at least three fires and has no early newspapers or church records. I call it the graveyard of Missouri genealogy.

While reading any articles I could find on the area, I came across a story about an Indian trader, “William Gillis and the Delaware Migration” by Lynn Morrow, published in the Missouri Historical Review. Why would I read something that mentioned neither Taney County nor the Yocum family in the title? Because it’s helpful to read everything you can find on the burned area. I learned John Campbell, who was the Indian agent, ordered two principal lawbreakers, a Mr. Denton and Solomon Yocum, off Delaware land in July 1825. Yocum had settled within the Delaware line and erected a distillery. He was making peach brandy and selling it to the Indians. This happened 12 years before Taney County was formed. Where did the author find this information? The footnote referred to a letter John Campbell wrote to Richard Graham, now part of Graham’s manuscript collection at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis. This find led me to a marvelous source of information on early white settlers of Taney County. Always read the footnotes.

3. Ponder eight key questions.

Next, ask yourself, “To what extent does this loss of records affect my research?” When you learn that the records you intended to search aren’t available, consider your needs more carefully. Answering the following eight questions will help you determine your next step.

1. During what time period did your family live in that county? Narrow your range as much as possible. Did another part of the family move into or out of the county at a different time than your particular branch? Could that branch have left records that might relate to your family who lived in a burned county?

2. Have county boundaries changed? You’ve probably discovered ancestors whose place of legal residence changed even though they never moved an inch. Genealogical research often involves areas with disputed land claims, state and county boundary changes, or states carved from territories. The records you need might be safe in the original county, unaffected by a fire in the other one.

John D. Shannon was another Taney County, Mo., resident whose records burned. I wanted to find out where he lived before his move to Missouri, so I looked for his connections with other individuals in the area. A man named Finis W. Shannon died before Taney County was formed from the parent county of Greene. This was early in the region’s history, when few people lived there, so I hypothesized that these two men were related. Finis’ probate file was remarkable. It showed he was John D. Shannon’s brother, and it gave the brothers’ place of origin as Williamson County, Tenn. In addition, it contained records of their father (Finis had been executor of his estate in Tennessee) and their grandfather in North Carolina.

3. Was the record you need stored in the building that burned? Some counties stored early tax records in bank vaults. Many records, kept in a courthouse at one time, escaped courthouse fires because they were moved when storage became a problem.

4. Which court had authority over the matter in which you’re interested? For instance, divorce records you’d expect to find in the courthouse may instead be part of legislative journals from a state’s formative period. Prior to 1774, probate records for Suffield, Conn., were under the jurisdiction of Hampshire County, Mass. Tax records for many Kentucky burned counties are held at the state level and have been microfilmed. Remember, records aren’t always where you’d expect them to be. Moreover, you may be able to find copies of burned documents that were made before the fire and stored elsewhere.

5. Did your family live near a county boundary? Be sure to search adjacent counties just in case the record you need was never touched by flames. People often took out marriage licenses in the most convenient courthouse, not necessarily the one of legal residence. If you’re researching an early period when boundaries weren’t well-defined, someone may have thought he lived in one county when he actually lived in another. One of my ancestors owned land now quite clearly in Laurens County, SC, but he believed it to be in Newberry, so he recorded deeds there—as did several subsequent individuals.

6. What specific records did you expect to search and why? If you own a family Bible that gives contemporary information for all a couple’s children, and you’ve confirmed the information in federal censuses, why did you need to search probate records? Learning all you can about your ancestor is important, but if your ancestor’s records were victim of a courthouse fire, you might not have that luxury.

7. What information did you hope to gain? What did you wish to learn that you don’t already know? You may have to focus on exactly what you need to know and where to obtain that piece of information.
8. How was the information going to affect your line of descent? This is, after all, the critical factor.

4. Play the hand you’re dealt.

Now envision the worst possible scenario and determine how to deal with it. Assume the record you desperately need went up in smoke. You must try to find a duplicate, a substitute or a replacement.

A duplicate is a copy of the original record. A duplicate may exist because the original was copied when a new boundary or jurisdiction was formed, or because your ancestor moved and wanted to establish a previous legal relationship. The law may have required a duplicate, as in the case of probate. A will usually was recorded in every county where an individual owned land. Marriage record duplicates may be in the couple’s home and church, as well as the courthouse. Or a duplicate record may exist because your ancestor submitted it as evidence: For example, a widow had to prove a relationship to her deceased husband to receive his military pension.

You can discover records in the strangest places. I found a will for Jonathan Hopkins with the Revolutionary War pension application of Elijah Curtis of Massachusetts. I haven’t the foggiest idea what it was doing there. It’s not unusual to find Bible records in Revolutionary War pension applications, or marriage licenses and death certificates in Civil War pension records. Virgil D. White’s four-volume Genealogical Abstracts of Revolutionary War Pension Files (National Historical Publishing Co.) has brought a number of these misplaced or misfiled records to my attention.

Published records—provided they’re complete transcriptions, such as Records of the Colony of New Plymouth in New England Court Orders, 1623-1682 by David Pulsifer (Heritage Books)—also are considered duplicates, since they reproduce the original records in their entirety. Microfilmed records also would fall into this category. A courthouse may have lost its records after microfilming was finished.

A substitute is a document that contains the same or similar information as the one you seek, but was produced for another reason. Examples of substitutes include pension affidavits, newspaper articles, church records and tax records.

Copies of tax records often were sent to the state auditor, so there’s a good chance they would have survived a courthouse fire. Tax records can give clues to descent (follow the land transactions), migrations (when people dropped off the rolls or were first assessed) and even ages (there usually was a defined age at which men began to pay taxes, and often an older age when they became exempt).

You’ll find marriage records or affidavits concerning them in federal pension records. Pulaski County, Mo., has lost most of its records from before the late 19th century, but in a pension application, I found documentation of a marriage that took place there. Rachel Jones, widowed during the War of 1812, reported in her application that she married William McLaughlin in Pulaski County, Mo., on Sept. 21, 1850, and that he died Dec. 21 that year. Divorce records often provide the exact date of marriage and the wife’s maiden name.

A replacement is a record filed to replace a lost one. For instance, the Hamilton County, Ohio, courthouse burned March 28 and 29, 1884, when rioting broke out after a jury returned a manslaughter verdict for someone residents thought guilty of first-degree murder. The county commissioner decided to reconstruct lost marriage and naturalization records by calling in original documents and copying them at taxpayer expense.

Deeds are the most-often-replaced records because landowners are eager to have clear titles to their property. For instance, William Turner filed a deed in Taney County, Mo., July 21, 1886, for land he had purchased March 27, 1861.

Court actions can occur long after an event. Jeremiah Cheek left a will in Bedford County, Tenn., in 1823, but it didn’t survive a courthouse fire there. When Cheek’s heirs quarreled in 1834, they brought a suit in chancery court. The will was produced and recorded in minutes for the proceeding, which did survive the fire.

It’ll take some looking, but you can locate duplicates, substitutes and replacements for many documents you’d normally expect to find in a courthouse. Remember, what you really need isn’t the record itself, but the information it contains.

5. Where there’s no will, find another way.

If your ancestor owned property in a different state or county from the one where he died, it couldn’t be sold until that county recorded a copy of the will or administration. Therefore, the county where your ancestor settled later in life might hold copies of probate records created in a county where he once resided. Keep in mind that if your ancestor lived on the frontier and a new area opened up near his residence, he may have purchased land very cheaply with no intention of living there, but with the hope of turning a nice profit. It doesn’t hurt to check surrounding counties.

You may find a substitute or replacement for your ancestor’s will by locating the will of a relative who lived elsewhere. Records of single people’s estates or those who died without children often name a lot of relatives. Burditt Sams died at age 75 in St. Clair County, Mo., in 1846, leaving no children. The courthouse in St. Clair burned during the Civil War, destroying probate and marriage records. But the circuit court minute book survived, and it details the division of Burditt’s estate among his 21 heirs, most of whom did not live in St. Clair County.

Another substitute for an intestate proceeding (one in which the deceased didn’t leave a will) is a land partition among the heirs. These partitions and other circuit court cases often were published in local newspapers’ legal-notice sections. For instance, on June 5, 1858, the Springfield Mirror contained a notice from the adjoining county of Webster, Mo.:

Phebe Hyden, Simon Lakey, John Pock and Ruth Pock, his wife, Jackson Hodges and Anna Hodges, his wife vs. Jacob Lakey, Levi Davis and Rebecca Davis his wife, John Lakey, Andrew Lakey, Lewis Lakey, Sissial Lakey, Phebe Lakey & Lidia Lakey. Petition to assign the dower of Phebe Hyden and to divide the real estate among the above named plaintiffs and defendants, heirs of Jacob Lakey, deceased.

From legal notices in the newspapers of Greene County, Mo., I documented more than 75 deaths in surrounding counties between 1844 and 1850, even though the original probate records had burned. It’s worth the effort to locate any surviving newspapers in an area where other records were destroyed. The best Web site for 18th-century newspapers is the Library of Congress <>. Printed sources include Clarence Saunders Brigham’s History and Bibliography of American Newspapers 1690-1820 (Greenwood Press) and Winifred Gregory’s American Newspapers 1821-1936 (Kraus Reprint, out of print).

Probate proceedings may be appealed to an appellate or supreme court, where they’re often published. The decennial digest indexes for each state include appeals to state and federal courts; look for these in law libraries, state libraries and some university libraries. Completed federal court case files (1790 to 1930) are usually deposited in National Archives and Records Administration <> regional facilities.

6. Untie the knot sans marriage records.

When you want a substitute or replacement for a marriage record, look in home sources such as letters, diaries and Bibles. Marriage records frequently remain in families. When reporting events to relatives far away, marriages are among the first communicated, as in the following letter from Monmouth, Ill., dated Feb. 3, 1869: “Kate Wallace and her new husband are here also. Perhaps you don’t know who her new husband is. Well, it’s Joe Brown, half-brother to Aunt Liz and they were married Christmas Eve.” I’ve searched Warren County (where Monmouth is located) and three adjoining counties for that marriage record, but haven’t found it. The letter is the only source I have.

Genealogical journals often publish unusual and obscure family material. Consult the Periodical Source Index (PERSI)—see the October 2004 Family Tree Magazine for details about PERSI, which you can search using HeritageQuest Online <>—and information about your family may surface. In the January 1983 issue of The Virginia Genealogist, Elizabeth Shown Mills, who teaches researchers how to deal with burned counties, describes finding marriage information hidden in a survey book from badly burned Buckingham County, Va. The entry reads, “Capt. Thomas Anderson, deceased … willed to his late wife, now Mrs. Birks.”

Another substitute for a marriage record is a divorce record. Although more-recent ones are filed in courthouses, divorces that occurred early in a state’s history were recorded in published statehouse or senate journals. Divorce records often mention the marriage date and place. Even if your ancestors’ divorce was never completed, it’s possible a petition survived—petitions far outnumber divorces granted. A divorce also may have been appealed to a superior or supreme court.

Dade County, Mo., didn’t keep marriage records before 1863, even though the county was formed in 1841. The petition of Jacob Lakey v. Nancy Lakey appeared in a newspaper published in adjoining Greene County, and was also submitted to the Missouri legislature. The record there gave her maiden name as Cox and reported she was then a resident of Hardeman County, Tenn.

Divorce petitions published in newspapers also may be helpful. On Jan. 7, 1845, the Springfield Advertiser posted the following notice: “Stephen D. Sutton vs. Susannah Sutton. Married in 1831 in Jackson County, Alabama. Defendant deserted plaintiff in 1833 and is a nonresident of the State of Missouri.” Divorces happened more often than you might think, and various courts heard them.

Newspapers also printed jilted spouses’ warnings to the public, such as this one published in January 1857: “Warning not to trade with my wife Nancy Ann Critcher. Signed C.D. Critcher of Wright County [Missouri].” Wright County is partially burned. The surname Critcher doesn’t appear in either the 1850 or the 1860 census there. This type of notice, indicating probable separation without a divorce, appeared in even the earliest newspapers. They at least provide the wife’s given name and a date by which the marriage must have occurred.

Churches also provide substitutes for county marriage records. Although church records can be hard to locate, they’re often still available at the local level. Check local libraries, historical societies and archives, then move to state and national repositories. Examine church newspapers as well as records of church historical societies and church-supported colleges and universities. Churches frequently turn records over to such institutions, so you may need to look in unexpected places. For instance, the Baptist church records for Middletown, Orange County, NY, are at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) may help you locate these records. Volumes since 1986 are online at <>; look in libraries for printed copies of earlier ones.

When looking for replacement land records, don’t neglect deed books created long after the originals were destroyed. It wasn’t uncommon for a father to give property—including the family’s slaves—to his daughter when she married. As any real property would automatically go to the husband, sometimes the bride’s father would sell her share to his new son-in-law for an unusually low sum of money. If the father was concerned about his son-in-law’s profligate ways, he may have made his daughter a deed of gift to be held in trust and not subject to her husband’s control. The following deed from Cooper County, Mo., illustrates that situation:

On July 9, 1836, Benjamin Porter of Robertson County, Tennessee, for love and affection for daughter Mary Thompson, wife of Thomas G. Thompson, now resident of Cooper County, Missouri, gave to her and the legal heirs of her body a negro woman slave Philes, about 18 years of age, and her boy child, Henry, aged about 7 months. These slaves are not to be subject in any way to pay her husband’s debts.

In the Sims Brown Family genealogy, James Alvan Brown writes, “Richard S. Brown m. (2) Elizabeth Parham. Richard d. 16 March 1841. Nothing is further known about Elizabeth Parham Brown. A supposition is that she remarried and moved west.” South Carolina didn’t begin recording marriages until 1911, but a May 24, 1852, deed in Newberry County, SC, deed book EE (pages 117 and 118), states “Eliza Tranum of Macon County, Alabama, sold land which had belonged to the estate of her husband R.S. Brown, deceased, and that she had since intermarried with Joseph Tranum, who has also died.” Thus, we have record of the residence of Richard Brown’s widow and her subsequent marriage. A deed also might contain a record of a marriage contract. Check cemetery records and tombstones, too, where you can find “wife of” and sometimes “daughter of” notations.

If county land records have been destroyed, don’t neglect the federal land entries for public-land states where the US government owned the land before it was settled. All of the land records I’ve obtained for Pulaski and Taney counties in Missouri came from federal records. Yet, I know exactly what parcel each early settler owned. The Family History Library <> in Salt Lake City has microfilmed copies of all public-land states’ records except Alaska’s; you can borrow the microfilm from a branch Family History Center. Also try searching the database at <>, though this General Land Office Web site has been offline intermittently for security reasons. For more information about federal land records, see Patricia Law Hatcher’s Locating Your Roots: Discover Your Ancestors Using Land Records (Betterway Books).

Although a burned courthouse may seem tragic at first, it offers you the opportunity to explore unknown genealogical sources and methods. Creativity, persistence and endless optimism are the keys to doing this type of research. I can’t guarantee you success, but I can promise you’ll learn about sources you never dreamed existed.

Research Reignitors

These 16 record types would have survived any courthouse fire, given that they’re actually housed elsewhere. Turn to these substitutes for common courthouse records, and your genealogical luck just might change.

? home and family sources

? town and state vital records

? census records (all types)

? bounty-land records

? military records

? pension records (state and federal)

? church records

? newspapers

? manuscripts and diaries

? cemetery records

? business and employment records

? federal land records

? biographies, genealogies and local histories

? school and college records

? court of appeals records

? records of lodges, fraternal orders and other societies

Keeping the Law on Your Side
When your family history research leads you to the halls of justice, heed this advice to ensure a successful trip:

1. Maintain professional dress and decorum. Your demeanor should be purposeful and businesslike.

2. Know the state law regarding public access to county records. Be able to cite chapter and verse. Be courteous, but persistent.

3. Be prepared to climb ladders, venture into dusty basements, haul heavy books and squeeze into tight spaces.

4. Never expect the courthouse clerk to know more about how to locate your ancestors than you do. You can expect only that he or she may know where to find the records you seek. Ask for assistance only when absolutely necessary.

5. Know when the courthouse opens, closes and breaks for lunch. Always leave at least 10 minutes before closing time. This is very important if you expect to return to that courthouse and be treated cordially. Ask permission to work through the lunch hour if this is your usual method. Work quietly and diligently. Hope the clerks will forget you’re there.

6. Know specifically what records and information you seek. Move from the simple to the complex. Once you’ve located the material you set out to find, you might have time to check other available sources and do some browsing.

7. Be familiar with the indexing system of that particular state or county.

8. Always ask to see the probate packets as well as loose papers, not just the record books.

9. Find out where any other records are stored or if they’ve been moved to a state archives, historical society or other repository. If they’re stored at the courthouse, ask if you may see them, then replace them in the exact order you found them.

10. Use the appropriate legal terminology when requesting records.

Excerpted from The Family Tree Problem Solver by Marsha Hoffman Rising (Family Tree Books). This book is available from bookstores, by calling toll-free (800) 448-0915 or by visiting <>.
From the January 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.