FACT: 35 Tennessee courthouses suffered substantial records loss.
FACT: Only 6 can be attributed directly to destruction from the Civil War–especially enemy terrorism.
While many records survived and some were literally snatched from the flames, other records were secreted in false floors, hollowed-out fence posts, and spaces between the walls of outbuildings or passageways. Some records were buried in the wet sand along river banks. These records were later retrieved–some forgotten and re-discovered quite by accident when the posts rotted out and the fence collapsed exposing their treasures. Some were moved from harm’s way long before the enemy was sighted and later captured by Army units who carried them to safety in the bottoms of wagons under boxes of ammunition.
The Civil War becomes a convenient excuse for current County personnel who have no clue what became of the records. They just know those records are not part of the inventory they are responsible for.
See Family History For Fun and Profit, 30th Anniversary Edition, by Arlene H. Eakle and Linda E. Brinkerhoff. (Tremonton UT: Genealogical Institute, Inc., 2003), pp. 287-88 for those records that did survive and the years they begin.*
When The Records Are Gone…
- Step One. Collect and summarize family sources. These constitute the beginning facts upon which your genealogy research will be based–these are your “knowns.” Include siblings, parents, spouses, and family namesakes in your collecting, so you can use this “pivotal” data to help0 identify the ancestor you need.
- Step Two. Do a complete census search where family members reside: both where you know they lived and where their places of origin are alleged to be. If census records are also lost, use census substitutes like tax rolls, militia lists and oaths of allegiance, newspaper abstracts, etc. Note which family members are found in specific households or neighborhoods. And who they are associated with.
- Step Three. Draft a time line of residence in each place. Note who else matches those same time periods, so you can research the whole group together. Try out the Google online time line feature. You may be amazed at how much loose information is now retrievable from the internet about individual ancestors.
- 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 or re-recorded records–those richest in proof of relationships and thus, lineage.
- Step Five. SEARCH IT ALL! Surrounding counties, especially those along the borders including parent counties. Privately held collections including title and abstract companies in cities and towns. Other courthouses (some counties have more than one). Other levels of jurisdiction including state and federal records. Appeals courts where local briefs are filed with summaries of the evidence now lost. State legislative sources–watch for private laws that apply to your ancestor only. Records printed before or between fires and other disasters. Records copied for and by genealogists and local historians with grandiose plans to research all the families or all the towns in the county.
Your favorite Tennessee genealogist, Arlene Eakle http://www.arleneeakle.com
* There are more than 50,000 copies of Family History for Fun and Profit in genealogy libraries across the United States and in many other countries which you can consult at your convenience. Or you can order your own copy online using your PayPal account at http://www.researchmyfamilytree.com/