Burned Counties Research
Strategies for making research progress on families who lived in a place where most of the records are lost.
This is not magic. We cannot make burned records re-appear, but we CAN learn to make progress without them.
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 flood, fire, war, or cleaning-streak clerks are useful in similar situations all around the United States, Canada, and throughout the world.
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- 1 Mental Preparation and Tools Needed for Success
- 2 Find Substitutes
- 3 Think About Your Burned County Research in New Ways
- 4 Continue Your Education and Follow-Up
- 5 Endnotes
- 6 Related Content
Mental Preparation and Tools Needed for Success
Before starting on burned county research, be sure you have these five tools ready and working for you.
1. A positive "track 'em down" attitude is important.2 Avoid discouragement or thinking that genealogical research in a "burned county" is hopeless. The first and most important step to finding ancestors who lived in a burned county is creating a relentless "track 'em down" mindset no matter how hard it is, and no matter how long it takes.
2. Resarch logs are a must. Burned county research is not easy. The more difficult or complex a research problem becomes, the more valuable good research logs are. They are a cornerstone to good research and filing systems. Research logs show what has, and (just as importantly) has not worked. Also, use logs to explain in written comments your thinking about search strategies and what you are trying to accomplish—why you turned to that set of records.3
3. A well-documented family group record is your research road map. Get ready to research a burned county family by preparing a family group record that has source footnotes for EVERY event. Be sure to cite every known source that mentions a member of that family. If a document mentions more than one event in an ancestor’s life, source footnote each event.
Don't stop with just the birth, marriage, and death events for the family. Add ALL events like census, land purchases and sales, military service, witnessing another person's document, or when a will was probated. A well-documented family group bristles with clues hinting where to research for more.
4. A commitment to document AS YOU GO!4 This means keeping your research logs and family group record up-to-date. Fill out the purpose (person and event you want) for each search, and the source data on the research log BEFORE you look at the source. Complete the research log by filling in the results and (if you find something) file number of the photocopy. Documenting AS YOU GO means if you find a new source you do these things before you lay your head on the pillow:
a. Photocopy the new source document.
b. Identify the source (footnote information) on the front of the photocopy.
c. Write your own document filing number on the back of each photocopy.
d. Log the document number, and summarize events-people you found on all appropriate logs.
e. Transfer new family data from the source to appropriate family group records.
f. Enter new source footnotes for every piece of data on a source, even if that event already has a footnote.
g. Add a preliminary assessment of the data and its reliability to each source footnote.
h. Print the updated family group record.
j. File the new family group and photocopy.
5. Write out a thoughtful master research plan.5 Part of the overall goal should involve sharing your research on one or more families in a cluster. Within that goal work on one family at a time. Avoid skipping to a different family until work on this main family is nearly finished.
- Plan to research substitutes for the missing records—research substitute record types, substitute jurisdictions, and substitute repositories. Look for family members in previous and subsequent (hopefully unburned) places they settled using the family group record as a guide. If you still are not finding what you need, study the relatives, and associates to determine who were most closely associated with your ancestor. Be prepared to research those people as substitute kin or associates to find clues about your ancestor.
- Concentrate on documenting one event in one person's life at a time (for example, Ethel's marriage). Research the easiest to find events (sources) first. Stick with that event even if you do not find it on the first few searches. Keep looking for some source that will document that event. Don't move on to another event in the family until you find it, or until all possible documents, jurisdictions, and repositories for that event have been tried.
- Plan to share your research as a way of reaching out for contacts and help.
- Find ways to collaborate with other genealogists, archivists, and librarians on solving the problem. Get help where ever you can.
When a record goes missing, there may be some other records available with the same information.
Record Type Substitutes
Stay focused on one person and event in that person's life, but change the record type you search to find the event. Here are some ideas to help you find good substitutes for missing burned county records.
Record Selection Tables. Use the “Record Selection Table” on the Wiki (or just before the "Map of the United States" in the United States Research Outline) to identify alternative record types you could use to find documentation for various events.
Death records. More records result from death than any other event. Perhaps the event you want to document will be mentioned in a record created at the time of death.
Land records. These records are so important they are usually the first to be re-recorded after a disaster. Local title companies, the state, and feds may have land records too.
Local histories and biographies may be based on sources that were not destroyed in the disaster.
Censuses (federal and state) were rarely stored at the burned courthouse. They show family changes over time.
Tax records show residence and neighbors. If they were not stored at the burned courthouse they may be a source of information about your family.
Newspapers mention our ancestors, and a copy somewhere usually survives a disaster. First see if nearby newspapers have been digitized and are available on the Internet. If not, you can get a microfilm copy of almost any newspaper through inter-library loan at college or public libraries. Use the U.S. Newspapers Program (www.neh.gov/projects/usnp.html) will help you find newspapers and obtain newspaper microfilms.
Legislative petitions were sent to the state capitol and show residence and neighbors.
Collections. Use the Genealogy section of each state research outline to identify important collections in that state to research for your ancestors.
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.
Make friends with librarians and archivists at local repositories and ask where various kinds of records ended up. When hunting down documentation for an event look for it in each of these kinds of repositories;
- 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
Kin or Associate Substitutes
If research on the main family members fails to produce results, try studying relatives and associates. Make a list of people who show up in records of the family and study how closely and frequently they were in contact with the family.6 If necessary, track down the kin and associates to learn more about your family.
Study the family in community context.7 Get to know the neighbors and relatives. This means you 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 patters, origins, or occupations
Think About Your Burned County Research in New Ways
Be innovative. Break out of the box. Force your brain to break old connections and make new ones.
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 (as if you were hired as a professional genealogist) 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?
Create and fill-in new forms to make new brain connections and raise questions:8
1. Follow the family in ALL census years
2. In-Out list to help track each piece of land
3. Holes to fill in an ancestor’s life
4. Source citations that need completing
5. Facts that need better evidence
6. Ancestral associates and their roles
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.
Continue Your Education and Follow-Up
Get an education.
- Read about the area your ancestors settled. Study its history and local genealogical periodicals.
- Take classes, conferences, and institutes.
- Go on a research trip to visit their communities to learn about the local way of life and repositories .
Get help. Reach out to others and collaborate to get help and learn more. Place queries. Hire a professional. Pray for help.
Burned counties do not have to be end of the line research situations if you prepare well, look for substitute records, search a variety of jurisdictions and repositories for the family, approach such research problems in innovative ways, and follow-up well.
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).
2. Elizabeth Shown Mills, “Genealogical Mindset & Principles of Scholarship” (lecture in Course 4 Advanced Methodology & Evidence, Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., 13 June 2005).
3. G. David Dilts, "Research Logs: The Most Important Tool for Organizing Your Family History," Genealogical Journal 30 (2002): 10-11.
4. Carol Harless, et. al., PAF Documentation Guidelines (N.p.: Silicon Valley PAF Users Group, 1993), 1.
5. Elizabeth Shown Mills, "Dissecting the Research Problem” (lecture in Course 4 Advanced Methodology & Evidence, Institute for Genealogical and Historical Research at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., 17 June 2005).
7. Mills, “Genealogical Mindset & Principles of Scholarship.”
8. Mills, “Dissecting the Research Problem.”