Burned Counties Research

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Below are lists strategies for making research progress on families who lived in a place where most of the records are lost.


The phrase "burned counties" was first used for research in Virginia where many county records were destroyed in courthouse fires, or during the Civil War.[1] The strategies for researching places where a local courthouse or repository was wiped out by fire, tornado, war, flood, hurricane, earthquake, insects, rodents, mold, neglect, foxing, theft, tsunami, or cleaning-streak clerks are useful in similar situations all around the United States, Canada, and throughout the world.

"Burned counties" do not have to be end of the line research situations if you: prepare well, look for alternatives, search a variety of jurisdictions and repositories for the family, kin, and associates, and approach such research problems in innovative ways.



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Burned County Research Strategies[edit | edit source]

  • Verify Loss of Records: Every courthouse with record loss has a different story. Some lost all records in the court house, some only lost some of the records. It's essential to determine exactly what records were lost and the year it happened. Contact the local county genealogical society, public library, and the courthouse to verify the years and type of records no longer available.
  • Research logs: As you research in the county, keep a research log or calendar listing all the resources searched. This includes websites, online databases, books, microfilm, and onsite records at a repository like an archive or courthouse.
  • Understand the Whole Family: Research all members of your ancestor's family including parents, siblings, in-laws, children and their spouses, etc. The more you find out about family members, the more clues to other records you will find.
  • Friends and Associtates: Research the lives of all known associates including extended family members, witnesses on documents, and neighbors. Search for them in all records available - see list below.
  • Write a Plan[2]: You should have a research goal formulated as it will help you determine what records to focus on and search for.
  • Surrounding Counties: Search surrounding counties and those records for your ancestor and family members. You may find them listed in other records because of associating with others over the border of the county. Exhaust these records.
  • Search Courthouse of Record Loss: Search the courthouse for records AFTER the record loss. If your ancestors and their extended family stayed in the area during the time period, you should look in records up to 100 years after the record loss. Records of children and grandchildren can give information about their ancestors. Search in all the court records mentioned below.
  • State Repositories: The county may have sent copies of their records to the state archive and/ state library. Search all the record types listed below at these repositories.
  • Federal Repositories: Some record types in a county were copied and sent to the Federal Government and are now housed at the National Archives. Records include, military, land, immigration, naturalization, and other government programs. Search the National Archives finding aids and catalog for possible records to search.
  • Jurisdiction Alternatives The county records may have burned, but the town, state, or federal governments may have similar records. Do not forget to check in neighboring towns and counties too. Try an area search. Draw a circle around the home of your family and search all the jurisdictions with the circle. Slowly expand the circle searching the area farther and farther from home.
  • Search Online Trees: You can sometimes find clues to other researchers' work found on differnet online trees. Always look for supporting documents for claims of vital events and information.

Substitute Records[edit | edit source]

  • Substitute records are essential in overcoming county courthouse record loss. Some records were not kept at the courthouse and maybe located at other archives and repositories in the county or state.

List of Substitute Records to Search[edit | edit source]

Do not stop with birth, marriage, and death events when looking for information on the family. Substitute records can include vital information and other clues about relationships.

Search for the records listed below:

Other Repositories for Researching[edit | edit source]

Utilize these repositories for research:

  • Neighboring county repositories
  • 2nd courthouses (or other repository) in the same county
  • County clerk's office
  • County historical library
  • County genealogical society
  • State genealogical society
  • State library and archives
  • Law libraries
  • Government documents library (usually at a prominent university in the state)
  • Land offices
  • National Archives branches

Study the Family in Community Context[3][edit | edit source]

Research the lives of neighbors and relatives. Use the census and land records to:

  • Extract full information on people in the area with the same surname
  • Extract full information on people by another surname living in same household
  • Identify census neighbors, at least 12 before/after—note who owned land
  • If near a state or county line, study people with the same surname in nearby areas
  • Comb the neighbors for families with similar naming patterns, origins, or occupations

Other Tactics[edit | edit source]

  • Create a time line and/or map:This helps clarify thinking, identify gaps, and raises questions that may help resolve the problem.
  • Organize, review, and re-evaluate the evidence: Summarize the problem. Rearrange relevant documents in a different logical order. Review old sources for overlooked clues. Separate what you assume from what you know. Sort and weigh the evidence. Analyze information for relevance, directness of the evidence, and consistency with other facts.
  • Write a formal research report: Writing a genealogical research report helps to clarify your thinking. For this formal report:
1. Create a well-documented family group record.
2. Write a narrative report explaining:
a. Why did you search where you did?
b. What did you find or not find?
c. What do your findings, or lack of findings mean?
d. What sources should be searched next?
e. How long will it take to search those sources?
f. What is the likelihood those sources will work?
  • Use logic, deduction, inference, and inspiration:
1. Correlate records of neighbors to infer relationships.
2. Study migration patterns to infer where the family’s place of origin.
3. Try to disprove uncertain connections.

Further Suggestions and Articles[edit | edit source]

For further suggestions about research in places that suffered historic record losses, see:

Related Content[edit | edit source]


Sources[edit | edit source]

  1. An example of relatively early use of the phrase “burned counties” is found in a regularly featured periodical article which first appeared as “Records from Burned Counties,” Virginia Genealogical Society Bulletin, 4, issue 3 (July 1966) (FHL Book 975.5 B2vs v. 4) (WorldCat entry).
  2. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Dissecting the Research Problem” (lecture in Course 4 Advanced Methodology and Evidence, Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., 17 June 2005).
  3. Mills, “Genealogical Mindset and Principles of Scholarship.”