Genealogy research in a burned county is difficult, but not impossible. Tips to find your ancestors when many records have been lost.
The courthouse suffered a fire. Records were lost. Evidence of your ancestors was destroyed. Sigh….
Is all your genealogy hope lost?
Is your research at a dead end?
Genealogy researchers often struggle with performing genealogy research in a burned county. I’m no different!
In 1889 the Moore County, North Carolina court house burned.
Very few records survived that court house fire, and Moore County became a “burned county” in genealogy research terms.
My ancestors arrived in the 1840’s.
How can a researcher find ancestors when the county records for that time period did not survive? When a fire or flood or hurricane destroyed the county’s records?
The #1 thing a genealogy researcher can do is:
Determine what types of records your ancestor created that were NOT kept at the courthouse.
Performing genealogy research in a burned county requires thinking “outside of the traditional research box”. Consider what your ancestors did in terms of occupation and worship that created other types of records. (Be sure to read through to the end to get your Burned County Genealogy Research checklist.)
Tips For Successful Genealogy Research In A Burned County
1. Search every record that DID survive. Do NOT assume all county records were lost.
We often assume when we hear a county is a burned county that all records from that time period were lost. We fail to check if that is the case. In a courthouse fire or other cause of record loss, not every record is always a total loss. Review what did survive the fire/loss and search those records thoroughly.
For instance, in Moore County, NC one tax book from the 1850’s survived the 1889 fire. My Harward ancestors are in it! [This find might have caused a genealogy happy dance in the archives search room.]
Another example would be the 1890 U. S. Census. Now this is a federal record and not a county record, but it illustrates the point as well. Researchers commonly assume ALL of the 1890 census was destroyed. However, there were a few fragments that did survive. Not many, but if you ancestors were on the few surviving pages, you can do the genealogy happy dance!
2. Take your burned county research up a government level.
State records are not housed at the local court house, but in the appropriate state government offices. Most of the records genealogists typically use are now in state archives. If a county courthouse burned in 1855, the state level records pertaining to that county still survived.
Examples of state level records include:
- Land grants
- tax records
- Military action papers
- Immigration records
- Divorce degrees – Can be found in legislative records
- New County Proposals – Local residents can be listed in a new county proposal
- State military pensions
Look at what state records are available for where your ancestors lived. Your state archivists and state librarians will be invaluable resources to you in finding these records.
The same principle applies if you are researching overseas or in another country. If the records at the local level did not survive, move your research up a governmental level.
3. Research the Higher Court Records.
When county court records did not survive, research the higher court records such as the district and supreme court records.
I’ll be the first to confess this type of research can be a bit tedious and time consuming. It is still worth your time to check these records out in the absence of the county court records. If your ancestor(s) appears in a higher court, this places him/her in a specific time and place.
Typically, you will not find specific relationship information in these higher court records, but you do find who your ancestor(s) associated with in the community, and that is important. Make note of who these people were! Your ancestors’ associates may become important as you progress in your research.
4. Read the Newspapers.
Local and state newspapers document a community and events that impact the community. Grab a up of coffee and start reading the newspaper!
Newspaper research can be time consuming, and there is often no short cut. In the absence of courthouse records, newspaper research becomes critical to finding your ancestors.
There is no one central location for newspaper research which makes it difficult at times to know where to find smaller newspapers especially. Local libraries are often the best source for smaller community newspaper, so be sure and contact the reference librarian. Additionally, check the major genealogical databases such as Ancestry.com, MyHeritage, GenealogyBank , FindMyPast, or on Chronicling America. Chronicling America is free and one of the first places I look!
5. Search out Church Records, Family Bibles, Religious Periodicals.
Your ancestors’ religious lives created their own unique set of answers and records. As researchers, we are familiar with the importance of Family Bibles. Look beyond these to church histories, church minutes, church directories. On a broader level, look at denominational records and periodicals. Often death announcements and obituaries are listed. Information on women’s groups activities can also be found, too, making church records important in the search for female ancestors.
A couple of tips for finding church records:
Tip #1: If a church no longer exists, check with the denomination to determine where the records are currently stored. Many faiths have their own archives, too. For example, if your ancestors were Presbyterian, check out the Presbyterian Historical Society.
Tip #2: Find religious periodicals by searching Google with search terms such as “[denomination] newspaper”. For example, search “Methodist newspapers” to find Methodist periodicals.
6. Research Your Ancestor’s Collateral Lines
Thoroughly research your ancestors’ family lines that migrated elsewhere or were living in the next county over. Within their records, you may find references and information about your ancestor in the burned county. One example of this I’ve seen a number of times, is when an estate is being settled and heirs live another county and/or state. Information on the “burned county” heirs may be detailed in those estate records in another location.
Additionally, reach out to the researchers of those collateral lines and network genealogy style. They may have come across pertinent information in their research that will benefit you.
7. Search for Private Collections of Papers.
Special collections and private papers are often overlooked by genealogy researchers. We are often not sure what is in them or how to search them, but if we do not include special collections in our research, we are missing out on a valuable resource.
Often private or special collections of individuals’ papers are donated to libraries and archives. The information contained in these is quite varied by nature and include personal letters, county tax lists, wills, business papers, photographs, etc all within private collections. Talk with your state archivist and/or local librarian on available finding aids for their specific collections.
Did your ancestors live in a burned county or its equivalent?
Yes, my ancestors lived in a burned county, but….I can still be successful in my research.
You can be successful, too!
It’s not easy, but it’s worth the search.
Watch the Facebook Live replay on Burned County Research!
Other posts of interest:
- How To Research Your Illegitimate Ancestors
- Tutorial: How to Research Your Ancestor With a No-Surname Search
- Genealogy Research Tip – Create a Location Guide (video)
- Genealogy Research Tip – Read the Census Forward & Backward (video)
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