Genealogy Q&A: Courthouse Records Problems and Solutions

By Family Tree Editors 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.

Answer provided by Lana Taylor Figgs

A version of this article appeared in the July 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

Problem: In some counties, courthouse personnel won’t search indexes for genealogists (although they will make a photocopy if you give them an exact citation for a record).

Solution: Hire a researcher to look for your records.

Problem: Most states have closed recent vital records to protect living people’s privacy. To request these documents, you must be either the person named in the record or a close relative or legal agent.

Solution: If you have the person’s consent to get the record, write a letter in that person’s name and have the person sign it.

Problem: Some courthouse employees respond to genealogists immediately; others take several weeks.

Solution: Don’t send requests around election time! Before and after primary and general elections, clerks are busy, and requests pile up.

Problem: A repository that should have a record doesn’t find it.

Solution: There are two possibilities: 1. the record doesn’t exist; 2. the person searching didn’t find it. Did you provide the correct information? Did you request the death certificate of a married woman using her maiden name? If you gave the correct information, unless there’s some urgent reason for obtaining the certificate, wait a few months, then resubmit the request. A different person might be able to find it. But remember there’s no guarantee that a record exists — even for dates when registration was required. Some events were never recorded, and some record books were destroyed in fires, floods and other disasters.

Written by Christine Crawford-Oppenheimer

A version of this article appeared in the June 2003 issue of Family Tree Magazine.

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