Part II: Overcoming Roadblocks: Burned County Records

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 alternative information, and Part II will focus more on substitute records.

Here are a few ideas!

“Plan to research substitutes for the missing records – research:

  • substitute record types

  • substitute jurisdictions

  • and substitute repositories.”

-FamilySearch Wiki “Burned Counties Research”

Substitute Records to Use

Vital records

Town or state vital records, church records, newspaper announcements, Bible records, tombstone inscriptions and other cemetery records can give birth and death information and can say “wife of” or “daughter of.”

Census records – Check both federal and state censuses.

Use special census schedules: mortality, slave, veterans, non-population schedules, etc.

Tax records often were recorded by the county, but the state may have a duplicate copy.

They can show residence for a specific year and indicate land ownership and when it was acquired. Indirectly it can show age, relationship, move to a new location, or death. Widows are often listed on tax rolls.

Land Records - Federal or state land records for original grants and patents

Remember that land records were often recreated in the county after record loss.

Probate Records - Check legal notices in newspapers.

Court Records - Check chancery, district, superior, or appeals court records.

WPA inventories for ideas of other records available in a county.

Use the United States Record Selection Table on the FamilySearch Wiki to identify what other records can be used to find specific information.

Substitute Jurisdictions to Consider

What happens when county records we need are simply not available? We can shift our focus on records that were created by other jurisdictions such as federal and state agencies or private records. Understand the court jurisdictions for your location and time period. Who handled divorces, guardianship, etc.?


  • Federal census

  • Military records - pension records, bounty land, etc.

  • Land records – original land patents and grants for federal land states

  • Records in the National Archives – What’s digitized on Ancestry, FamilySearch and Fold3

  • Immigration and naturalizations

  • Southern Claims Commission records


  • State census

  • Land records – original land patents and grants for state land states

  • Military records - pension records, bounty land, etc.

  • Tax or other financial records could have been duplicated and sent to the state

  • Legislative Papers – can include divorce records

  • Petitions

  • Colonial Papers – earlier records often mention regular citizens


  • School records

  • Militia records

  • Marriage returns or banns

  • Cemetery records

  • Road taxes or assignments

  • Town histories

  • Poor records

Private Records

  • Home sources and records from other living family members

  • Church records

  • Newspapers - for birth, marriage, death, legal notices, local articles, ads

  • Cemetery records and tombstone inscriptions

  • Local and county histories

  • Business records, professional directories, volunteer organizations, merchant accounts, etc.

  • Societies, schools, and other groups

  • Manuscript collections, especially at major libraries or universities

  • Use the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), ArchiveGrid, and the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)

  • Manuscripts can be located in states other than where your ancestor lived.

Substitute Repositories to Check

  • A second courthouse (or other storage location)

  • Neighboring court houses, especially if your ancestor lived near the county boundary

  • Parent county courthouse if the county boundaries changed during your ancestor’s lifetime

  • County and local libraries

  • can have manuscripts, family records or Bibles, cemetery records, unpublished histories

  • Sometimes local librarians know where records in the county are located

  • State or county historical society or genealogical society

  • The state archives or library

  • Regional Libraries: Allen County Public Library, Mid-Continent, DAR, Newberry Library

  • See collections:

  • University libraries

#BurnedCounties #BestMethods

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