What to do when the Court House has burned...
and you are all out of marshmallows
from OGS program of 4 March 1985, given by Mrs. Lois M. Copley.
Published in The Oklahoma Genealogical Society Quarterly
Volume 30, Number 3, 1985
To me, the court house is like a Marshmallow
with lots of juicy records there to help me in my research. The first time I
ran into a burned court house I was adrift, but now I would mount an offenseive
just like General McArthur, General Eisenhower and General Patton all rolled
When you go to a courthouse in person or by mail, you must know what you are
looking for. Are you looking for a BIRTH? I usually check the state
records first for births, but if that doesn't work I would try the court house.
Are you looking for a MARRIAGE? record? yes, but first I would check the
state level, especially if it is in recent time.
But none of these is the most important thing you are looking for at the court
house. You are looking for RELATIONSHIP, father to son, father to
daughter, etc. In many cases you may never find an exact birth date or death
date even if the court house has not burned, but if you can get the proof of
relationship you can continue in your research. Many of the items we talk about
in our programs as being in a court house may give you relationship, but few
will give you exact dates. In New York, marriages were not recorded in the
court house until after 1880, so not all of the Marshmallows are in the court
When your research in census leads you to a court house that the Handy Book
says was burned, then you must study harder and work harder but I believe you
can find enough little marshmallows to make up for the big one that got burned.
The first seven items are things you should study in relation to your county.
(1) It may be that not all of the records that were in the court house were
burned. Some of the old records may have been in storage, in an annex or a wing
that didn't burn. And in some cases the books may have been damaged, and then
deposited in a Local Historical Society for care and clean up. In the case of a
flood, the water is bad enough, but mold and mildew may destroy whatever is
left. Check to see if any records survived and where they are housed. Too often
we read the words "burned court house" and presume they were totally
destroyed, when in fact many of the records were saved.
(2) There may be more than one court house. I'm not sure if any of these double
court houses have had a burn-out, but this is part of your study of the county
and its resources.
(3) Some of the records may have been reconstructed or re-recorded, and
remember that deeds handed down in a family may not be recorded for years after
Clerks in court houses are busy and not always sympathetic to our hobby. They
may tell you, "Sorry, no record", because the old records are in
storage since the fire and they don't want to be bothered with getting into the
dirty old books. Or maybe they were re-constructed, but the clerk is new and
thinks they are all gone. There are WPA Inventories which you can check that
may tell you that the records you seek were in a vault at one time.
(4) Check neighboring counties for deeds, probate records, tax records, and
marriage records. In one case I have, the people lived near the county line and
were born and died in Ashland County Ohio, but all of the marriages are in
Wayne County Ohio, since this is where the closest town is located. Also when a
couple elopes, they don't go to their local court house to marry. They go at
least one county away and sometimes two or three counties away. Check a road
map for a likely direction and write those counties. Also, when a family is
living close to the county line, they may have property in more than one county
and pay taxes in each. The census usually gives you a township or other
sub-division within the county for their residence. Find this location on a
map. In the case of Texas, when it says "Justice Precinct 2", there
is a book, "Atlas of the United States, by John L. Andriot (see
review in OGS Quarterly, Vol. 29, #4, page 183), which will give you a map of
the Justice Precinct or any other division used in the United States. This will
help you learn what part of the county in which your family lived. NOTE: Indian
Territory is an exception, as these sub-divisions are not in the book and you
will have to check with the Archives and Manuscripts Division of the Oklahoma
Historical Society to get a better location.
(5) Check everything in the court house where the family moved TO and
the court house where they came FROM. Sometimes, because of census, we
know a family was in County "A", County "B", and County
"C". If "B" was burned, work hard in "A" and
"C". Your ancestor may have gone back to "A" to marry his
childhood sweetheart or he may have married a second time in "C" and
have given a lot of information in that record. Even deeds in "A" and
"C" often tell where he was gone or where he has come from.
(6) Check the parent county/counties' for land records. In the case of land
claimed by two states, check both states' records. If your problem is in the
Fire Lands or a military district, check the parent state's records.
(7) Check the progeny county/counties for land records which may have been
recorded there - even at a much later date.
While you are checking out the above items, do not wait to begin looking into
the items below. Our ancestors lived under a number of recording jurisdictions,
just as we do today. Some of these could provide you with as big a Marshmallow
as the court house and maybe even bigger.
I have divided these into basic types of jurisdictions although there is some
overlap, as you will see.
1. Census. Find your family in every census in which they should be listed, as
these can provide you with your "road map".
2. Mortality Schedules. Although these only cover the one year prior to the
1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880 census, this is 10% of the deaths in that time
period. This may be the only death certificate you will ever get. They are tied
back to the family on the regular census and are certainly worth a try. (A
number of these are now indexed and are on the Oklahoma Historical Society
Library census table.) (Also the AIS Microfiche Series #8, available at most
L.D.S Branch Libraries, covers some of the Mortality Schedules.) In other
states you will have to write to the State Historical Society of the state to
locate them. Although they were Federal Records, they were given to the state
if the state requested them, and many did. (P.S. I have one of these
3. Military Records and Pension Papers from the National Archives can give you
age, marriage dates, death date, and relationship to children. Also dates of
birth for the children.
4. Federal Land Grants and Homesteads.
5. Immigration and Naturalization, Passenger Lists. Some of these are located
in the National Archives. Also many of the earlier ones have been published.
These may give relationship and ages, but usually no dates of birth, marriage
6. The Decennial Digest. This index covers the years 1658 to 1906 and is found
in most law libraries. Technically, it is two indexes, the CENTURY DIGEST and
the FIRST DECENNIAL DIGEST and they index cases that went to the appelate or
higher courts. My quiet German ancestors spent most of their time on the farm
raising a large bunch of kids so they are rarely in these legal records, but I
have seen some real Marshmallows in the records, giving lots of relationships
and miscellaneous information. If you go to a law library to look into these
records, you should plan to spend at least three hours, as you may need help
the first time. Staff can't spend all of their time with you, so be patient
7. Federal Court Records. Remember that "Federal" records are records
of the Revolution and the records created since that time. Records prior to
1776 are Colonial records and are housed in the states.
8. Social Security. I have never worked in this type of record, but it is
something you should look into if you are having trouble in the last 50 to 100
1. Census. Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin, New York, Illinois, Massachusetts,
Rhode Island, Minnesota, and New Jersey have state census records for years
ending in "5". In Iowa you can search clear up to 1925. New York 1855
census tells the county of birth if born in New York. Territorial census was
taken to show that an area was ready for statehood and may fall in any year
prior to statehood. Again, find your people in every census where they should
2. State Militia and Pension. In the case of military records, I always check
at both the national level and the state level. Send to the Adjutant General of
the state to see what they have. I have been told that if you believe your
ancestor served in the military but don't get the record from the state you
thought he served in, then you should try the surrounding states. I know of
several people who tried this and it worked.
3. Birth and Death Records. Each state has its own idea of Vital Records. In
1852-1860/61, Kentucky had a law that the counties were to record birth, death
and marriage with copies to be sent to the state capitol. Unfortunately for us
it was repealed. Fortunately those records still exist and are available on
microfilm from L.D.S. Kentucky did it again in 1875-78, and again in 1911-1938.
Lucky you, whose people were in Kentucky at those times. Every state now has
some sort of Vital Records, although Oklahoma only has state-wide recording for
births and deaths since 1908 and not very accurate for the first 15 to 20
years. Learn your state's laws and records.
4. Tax Records - Real Estate, Personal, and Poll Taxes. Any kind of tax record
can help you pinpoint a person in a certain location at a certain time. In
Kentucky, tax records are available on an annual basis and are housed at the
capitol. Virginia and Tennessee do this, also. An in-depth study of these
records can show the widow's name, when a man with three horses goes off the
tax rolls and a women shows up on the tax rolls with three horses. This also
gives you a clue as to when he died. Since a male goes on the tax rolls at age
21, you can get an idea of the ages of sons of the family. Skips in the ages
may show there was a daughter born. Couple this with census and a lot can be
5. Land Lotteries, Land Grants, Homesteads. I have not worked these very much
except to place a man in a certain place at a certain time along with others
who came there with him.
TOWNSHIP OR TOWN RECORDS:
Here in Oklahoma we don't even think about township records, but in other
states the township is as important as the county, or even more important. In Ohio
I saw a list of men available and of the right age for military duty which was
compiled in the late 1800's, and this was a township record. Also a list of men
who did road work in lieu of taxes in Ohio and Connecticut. Many eastern states
have town records the same as we have county. Within a TOWN there may be a
number of villiages or a city. Here again you must study the levels of
government and the records under their jurisdiction. (See OGS Quarterly Vol. 29
#3 page 116 and Vol. 29 #4 page 183.)
CITY RECORDS (or village):
1. Birth and Death Records. Some cities are independent of county. The Atlas
of the United States (mentioned above) lists these independent cities.
2. Many cities or towns have also kept records of the marriages, independent of
3. Cemetery Records. On several occasions I have found the town owns the
cemetery, sells the lots and keeps the records of who bought the plot, who was
interred, and even the relationship to the owner of the plot.
4. Tax Records - road repair, etc.
5. City Directory. In some of the larger cities, you will find city directories
which give name, name of wife, residence and occupation. Also, I have found
widows listed with the name of their deceased husband in parentheses. Here
again, he may be listed year after year, then when his widow is listed you have
an approximate date of death for him.
6. School Census. This may help if your problem is recent and if you need age
and relationship. I have never had to resort to these records yet.
1. State Archives and Historical Libraries.
2. County Historical Societies. Many people spend all of their time at State
Archives and Historical Society holdings and overlook the small local
Historical Societies, which may be the only place you will find the family
Bible. Maybe Aunt Betsy donated all of her records to her local library,
including great-grandpa's Bible.
3. College Libraries. I went into a town where I knew my ancestors were buried.
I saw a college and went to their administration office. They had records on
three of the children who graduated from there, including alumni records
showing who they married and where they lived. The college library had the
newspapers for the town (not available in the State Historical Society
collection) and I was able to find several lovely obituaries.
4. Local Libraries.
5. Private Libraries. These include D.A.R., S.A.R., Railroad, and L.D.S., with
the L.D.S. records being the greatest genealogical collection in the world. (If
you don't know the resources available at L.D.S., make this your next project.)
In all of these libraries, be sure to check the vertical files. This was where
I found the center pages of a family Bible in a small local Library. To locate
these libraries for your area, check the Directory of Libraries. The
American Library Directory (Z731/A53/1980) is a reference book and is
housed behind the desk in the Oklahoma Historical Society Library.
1. County Histories.
2. Town and City Histories.
4. Genealogical and Historical Society Quarterlies.
I have found that the old histories are pretty good for accuracy, and if your
people were early residents you may get whole chapters on your family, with
dates and places not available through public records any more. Also, these
histories can give you an insight on the life and times when your people were
1. Church Records, Church Historical Libraries. This is a source I have used
recently. The Baptist Historical Society of Rochester, New York, has records
showing where my preacher ancestor was assigned for a period of more than 30
years, and had a marvelous obituary from the Illinois Baptist Annual.
Church records such as the Lutheran, Catholic, Moravian and Mennonite keep
records of baptism's, marriages and burials. These go back into the 1700's. If
you know what religion your ancestors were but don't know where to start, try
your telephone book for the church denomination and keep asking questions until
you find where to write for more information. Quakers also have good records in
which you can trace generation after generation. While I was in Syracuse, New
York, I checked a phone book for a church listed in an obit from the 1860's. It
took a number of calls to track down the records, as the church had gone
through about four name changes, but I did locate the home church.
2. Newspapers. Small home town newspapers may have all sorts of Marshmallows
for you about your ancestors, such as who came to visit, when someone had
measles, as well as listings of births giving the name of the new baby, obits
giving the next of kin, etc. A 50th Wedding Anniversary announcement may give
dates of birth, marriage, and locations of residences through their marriage,
as well as a list of children and maybe grandchildren. The smaller the
community and the paper, the more likely you are to get a big write-up.
3. Funeral Home Records. I have found more information in the records that I
got from the funeral home (a 1918 death) than showed up on the death
certificate or in the obit. The Funeral Director told me that they made many
notes from the family and then used that to write their part of the death
certificate. They also provide the information to the newspaper for them to
write the obit. In my case, it gave me a more exact place in France for her
4. Cemetery Records, Sexton's Records, and Transcripst of Cemeteries made yars
ago. In several cases the cemeteries no longer exist but the transcripts do. Sometimes
I have had to ask a gardner, or worker, or neighbor, where the records are. In
Oklahoma City, Fairlawn and Memorial Park Cemetery records are fully indexed
and have much more than the stones (if there was a stone). Oaklawn Cemetery,
Syracuse, New York, even has the date of birth (where known) and place of
birth, name of Funeral Home, and the next of kin. If the cemetery is next to a
church, try the Sexton's records for the church. I tried one in Missouri and
although the records were poor, it was proof that she was buried there. We knew
she had married a second time and this record gave us his first name, as he was
also buried in the family plot.
5. School Records - College or Grade School records may be church related,
private school, or public school on a number of levels.
6. Title and Abstract Companies. This is worth a try when the court house has
burned. However, one I tried needed to have the legal description of the
property to look up the property record. This was one of the things I didn't
have. If you know where the property is, you may get just what you need.
7. Private land Company, such as Holland Land Purchase in New York.
1. Bible Records.
2. Photo Albums. Don't forget to read the back of the old pictures even if in
an album or a frame. I took one out of the frame at an aunt's house to I could
make a copy of the picture and there were dates of birth and death for the lady
in the picture and a complete list of her children. Also the name of the
photographer was on one picture, which turns out to be the only proof my
grandmother was born where she said she was.
3. Baby Books. I saw a baby book filled out in 1924, giving parents,
grandparents, great-grandparents of the child and it included many dates and
4. Insurance Policies. Some old policies asked all kinds of things including
birth dates and place. If you are lucky enough to find one in great-aunt
Margaret's papers, look them over closely for clues.
5. Family letters, Diaries, Ledgers. Letters may tell of births, deaths and
marriages. I have one written in 1894 telling of the death of the honored
father. It corrected a five-year error in another family record and also told
me where to look for proof. A diary of an aunt told of a visit to relatives in
Ohio and gave many relationships.
1. Lineage Societies. Some of the application papers give many references and
can be most helpful as a road map.
2. Masonic Records.
3. Fraternal Records.
I have not explored some of these records; by the time I had done the other
items, I had what I needed. I intend to check into Railroad Records some time
but only because I would like to know more about my railroader ancestor. If I
had a sheriff, I'd like to know more about his service and life.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Analyze your problem and decide:
1. What information you really NEED
2. What types of documents may provide that needed information.
3. Then analyze the locality or localities where that proof may be found.
Sometimes it will take a lot of little Marshmallows to make one big
Marshmallow, but plan your attack and you will bridge the burned court house
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