Melissa Barker, The Archive Lady, comes to the rescue with tips on how to do genealogy research in a “burned county” and get the records you need!
Bobby from South Carolina asks: “What is your strategy when you encounter a county where the courthouse was burned in the past and you’ve been told there are no records for the time period you are researching?”
Bobby asks an excellent question and one that I address all the time as an archivist. Genealogists everywhere will have this same scenario happen when they are doing genealogy research, they encounter communities where the courthouse has burned or they have been told the courthouse has burned.
Usually when you hear the phrase “Burned County” it can make any genealogist’s heart sink. This can be very frustrating to us as genealogists. but I encourage you to not give up on that burned county!
Have you ever been researching in a county and it seems nobody knows where the records are located or they think they have all been destroyed? Maybe you’ve been told that the courthouse burned and no records survived or that records have been thrown away and no longer exist. Maybe you have gotten the run-a-round from different officials in the county as to where the records are located, if they even exist.
Here are some tips that might help you unearth records that seemingly don’t exist:
- Be Sure to Talk to the Right People: When asking about genealogical records in a particular county, be sure to seek out people who should know if the records exist or not. Contacting employees at the county courthouse may not be your best answer. While these employees are doing a great job with the records they are producing today and taking care of patrons that walk through their door, many times they have little or no knowledge of older records that have been transferred to an archive or other facility. Try to talk to the local archivist, librarian, historical/genealogical society officers and members to get information about records that survive and where they can be located.
- Ask “Who is the Local County Historian”: In just about every county, there is a county historian. Whether or not they have been given that official title, there is that one person that “knows everything” about that county. You will want to talk to that person. They will know what records survive and where they are located. Many times, these local county historians know about most of the surnames that were in the county and can give you information that may not even be written down in a record which we would call oral history or local folklore. That local county historian’s name and contact information may not be listed on a local website. You may have to make some phone calls to track down that county historian. Try contacting the local library, chamber of commerce, historical or genealogical society. These people live and work in that county, they will know who the county historian is and should be able to help you get in touch with them. Ask “Who in the county knows about the history of the county, the history of the people and where to find old records?” I bet you will get a name and phone number!
- Check with the State Archives: Many times local county records are available either on microfilm or in original form at the state archives. It is quite possible that the local county officials don’t even know that those records exist and are at the state archives. So, if you get a “those records don’t exist” answer from someone at the county level, contact the state archives in the state where that county is and ask them what they have for that particular county. Many times the old county records have been sent to the state archives years ago and not very many people in the county know where they are or that they were transferred to the state archives. The locals may even think that the absence of the records means the courthouse burned when it really didn’t. Also, many times genealogists or individuals will donate their family papers to the state archives because there is nowhere in the county to donate them.
So, don’t get stopped in your genealogy tracks when you feel like you have hit a burned county. Try these tips and hopefully you can dig up the records you are looking for.
Family Gatherings: Dragging Genealogy Information Out of Your Family
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Melissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation.
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