Where Do You Search When Church Records or Courthouses Burned?
July 19, 2016
Every genealogy enthusiast will encounter this at some point; you need a record, but that record cannot be found because a church or a courthouse was damaged. All is not necessarily lost! First, determine if the rumors are true that a repository has actually been destroyed and/or damaged. If it turns out that a courthouse burned during the Civil War, there are still ways to access the lost information. You can look for alternative records, partial records, or records that were later reconstructed. After a disaster, there could have been a call to re-record county records. Always check counties for re-recorded records if originals were thought to have been destroyed.
Alternative records can be found in different places and can fill in your missing information. For example, title and abstract companies will have property records. Historical societies might have legal papers as an alternative to probate records, and there may be federal court records that can substitute county court records. In the instance of higher court cases, you may check with law libraries. To substitute missing church marriage records, you might find clues in family Bibles, newspapers, property, immigration, or citizenship records. If there is no county death record, look at historical/genealogical societies, military records, or town records. The Midwest Genealogy Center’s collection contains books that help you access substitutes to lost records. A few examples: the U.S. Federal Census Index Substitute Illinois 1790 and 1800 or Boone County Missouri – 1890 Tax Records: a Census Substitute with Complete Index .
County boundaries also changed over time, so records could have been moved when borders changed. Always check the parent county for duplicates. MGC has lots of resources to help you discover county boundaries. The Historical Atlas and Chronology of County Boundaries, Red Book: American State, County & Town Sources, and HeritageQuest Online are just a few of the possibilities. Remember, there could be more than one county courthouse, so check all possible locations. Don’t forget to check neighboring counties, too. Sometimes a person lived in one county, owned property in another, and died in yet another county.
But what about alternative repositories? If the county clerk comes up empty-handed, try county or state historical societies, land offices, university libraries, or the National Archives. Check with the repository's website or catalog to see what information is available.
So the next time you think a record may have been lost to a fire or some other disaster, don’t be so quick to give up! There may be more available than you might expect. Have you found an interesting substitute record?
Midwest Genealogy Center