Lost records are a major fear of genealogists, especially when they have already spent years trying to find answers to traditional questions of identity for ancestors in the past. And most genealogists encounter record loss at sometime–regardless of where their ancestry comes from.
What to do? One of the most common myths in genealogy, still to day, is missing records in America were lost during the Civil War–a myth that can be perpetuated by government officials who know that their records are gone–they just have no idea what happened to them and the Civil War explanation usually stops further questioning by genealogists.
Let’s look at some actual facts:
FACT: Virginia courthouses, in common with other states in the South (where I do most of my professional research work) have sustained extensive record loss–from fire, storm, flood, official carelessness. and yes, the Civil War.
FACT: Only a few of these courthouses suffered losses during the years 1861-1865. And while almost one-fourth of all courthouse losses were Civil War related, not all of them were enemy caused. The Civil War becomes a convenient excuse for county personnel and others who have no knowledge of what happened to their early records. They just know the records are not part of their current inventory.
FACT: Many records survive–some were literally snatched from the flames. Others were secreted in false doors, hollowed-out fence posts, and spaces between the walls of buildings. Some were buried in wet sand along the river banks. Some were moved from harm’s way long before the enemy was sighted. Some were captured by U.S. Army units who carried them away to safety.
Follow these steps to get your research underway and to achieve success in finding those difficult-to-find ancestors:
- Step One–Collect and summarize family sources. These constitute the beginning facts upon which your research will be based. Include the family records of siblings, spouses, parents, and family namesakes–not just your own. These records may be deposited in archives and libraries all over the country. Or they may still be held by older family members in drawers, cupboards, attics, and garages. You do not know when you will discover just what you need close to your home. Ask specifically for marriage documents or family Bible pages where marriages are written.
- Step Two–Do a complete search of the census records for family members in all the places they reside–where you have already found them and in places of origin they are alleged to be. Look for special census schedules taken on state or local levels. If the census records are lost, use census substitutes like tax records, militia lists, and oaths of allegiance, etc. American census records are among the most detailed and the most extensive of any record category. And they are available, in indexed form, on the internet at several websites–for free or for free access through specific libraries–who often have their own free links t6o online databases.
- Step Three–Who else did your ancestors associate with? Draft a time-line of residence. Note who else matches those same migrations and time periods found in the records you collect. Then research the whole group together. Those individuals and those families who seem to move together were often related by blood or marriage.
- Step Four–Begin your searches in printed sources, with every-name indexes. Those counties that are badly burned often have the most printed records as genealogists strive for access to whatever is left. Then check re-constructed and re-recorded sources. These are usually the property records–those richest in proof of relationships and lineage–or the marriages –reconstructed at the request of the DAR or other genealogists from surviving, personal certificates and documents. .
- Step Five–Search it all! Surrounding counties especially along the borders; privately held collections including title and abstract companies; other courthouses in the same county; other levels of jurisdiction–appeals courts, federal courts, district courts, state legislative records, governor’s files; records printed before the destruction; records copied by/for genealogists and historians with grandiose plans to research all the families or all the towns in the county.
Other successful research suggestions:
Virginia Blog, posted 23 October 2020–“The Downman Daughters, 1778-1852,” http://arleneeakle.com. A description of many copies of essential information left behind for counties where the records are missing.
Marsha Hoffman Rising, The Family Tree Problem Solver: Tried and True Tactics for Tracing Elusive Ancestors (Cincinnati OH: Family Tree Books, 2005 and 2011). Especially Chapter Six: “What to Do When the Courthouse Burned,” pp.110-124.
Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle
PS While most research facilities are shut down and images currently online appear to be restricted, review what works and get your research ready to go, so it takes off, when the restrictions are lifted. You have time to prepare all your “dead ends” and those newly identified ancestors from your last searches.