Part I: Overcoming Roadblocks: Burned County Research
While researching family records, there is nothing more frustrating than coming to a roadblock in our work. We often can become stumped in our progress when records we need just can't seem to be found. One tragic roadblock occurs when a county has suffered record loss due to fire or other natural disasters, careless record keepers, lack of space, or war. What can we do when a county suffered record loss? These record losses are a large hurdle for genealogists, but with an understanding of substitute records, alternative information can be found to document our families. Part I will focus on genealogy methods to use, and Part II will focus more on substitute records.
Here are a few ideas!
Learn About the Locality
What is the history of the area you're researching? What happened that caused the loss? Here are some resources!
Research online before you contact the courthouse to learn background information. Check the County’s official website and look for historical background.
Check FS Wiki for your county’s wiki page. Also check: https://familysearch.org/wiki/en/Category:Places_with_Historic_Record_Loss
Read County Histories here:
Check Google, the Family History Library Catalog and WorldCat (has digital versions.)
Use William P. Filby’s A Bibliography of American County Histories, (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company, 1985.) A comprehensive list of over 5,000 county histories published.
These county histories usually discuss the churches in the area. This can help you find available church records for the time period.
Boundary lines change over time. Understand the county boundaries at the time your ancestor lived there by using the Newberry Library’s “Atlas of Historical County Boundaries.”
Keep in mind:
Did your ancestors live there before the boundary changed?
The original county often has the originals, and sometimes duplicates were made.
Not every clerk you speak to will know everything about the records. Always ask who else might know something. Local librarians or historical society members can be great resources.
Were all the records lost?
Understand the specific years the records were lost.
Someone at the courthouse might tell you there was a fire or other disaster in a particular year, but if you ask more questions to the right people, you might learn that the disaster didn’t ruin everything.
If the courthouses run out of room, were some records stored elsewhere at that time?
Methods and Strategies to Use
Now that we've learned about our location, what more can we do to jump this hurdle? Here are a few steps to move your research forward!
1. Review Prior Research – Re-analyze your existing records and research.
New research may shed light on previous research and help you recognize new details.
Create a timeline – this helps to visualize gaps and reveal other options for research.
2. Use both direct and indirect evidence – Direct evidence states the information outright, while indirect evidence is information combined together to support conclusions. Indirect evidence needs to be written up into a proof argument. 3. Have a specific research question in mind.
Concentrate on documenting one event at a time in a person's life. This helps you determine specific records to search for.
4. Check the “burned court house” records – usually not all the records burned. Some records were recreated after a disaster, especially the land deeds; sometimes probate, taxes, or marriage records were also recreated. 5. Check thoroughly in the counties where your ancestor lived before and after the “burned county.” 6. Use DNA to provide further evidence.
7. Study migration patterns to identify possible prior residences to search for records.
8. Create a theory and try to prove or then try to disprove it. 9. Research your ancestor’s Family, Associates, and Neighbors (FAN Club) to find other sources which list your ancestor. This step can be especially helpful. (See previous post on May 11th entirely dedicated to FAN Club research.) Here's some additional information on FAN Clubs:
Follow these steps:
Review all your ancestor’s documents - view the original record when possible.
Create a timeline for your ancestor and include all details.
Create a list of all known family members (include extended family.)
Create a list of other persons found in the documents of your ancestor, include their role in the document. Add every detail from each document.
Establish criteria for sorting your list for an order to research – (See Elizabeth Shown Mills, QuickSheet: The Historical Biographer’s Guide to Cluster Research (the FAN Principle)
1. Strength of the connection – potential family members can provide more evidence. 2. Frequency of connections – Start with the people your ancestor would have spent the most time with (usually immediate family) or had frequent interactions with. 3. The quality of the source – how reliable is the information?
Begin researching at the top of your list and work your way down, reevaluating as you research.
© 2017 Julie Stoddard