When the Records Are Gone…

Fact: 36 Tennessee courthouses have burned and suffered substantial record loss and destruction
Fact: Only 6 courthouses lost their records as a result of the Civil War

While many records ultimately survived and some were literally snatched from the flames by local residents, the record losses have hindered and even stopped the discovery of genealogy–leaving holes and questions that may never be fully answered. What a feeling of despair this can give you when you really want to know!

As i asked about the records, when I visited libraries and archives, I was told story after story of how pre-Civil War records survived–sometimes whole runs of records, sometimes bits and pieces of documents:

  • Records were secreted in false floors.
  • Documents were pushed into hollow-out fence posts–Some records were forgotten and re-discovered quite by accident when the posts rotted out and fences collapsed exposing their treasures.
  • Pages were slipped between the walls of outbuildings and passageways– Some records 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 hay and forage for horses or under boxes of ammunition.
  • Some records were buried in the wet sand along the river banks with the hope that they could be retrieved later.

The Civil War became a convenient excuse for current county personnel who had no clue what became of the old records. They just knew those records I wanted were not part of the inventory they were responsible for.

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 lists those records that did survive and the years they cover. A more detailed, archive by archive list is published in Tennessee Research, by Afton E. Reintjes, Tremonton UT: Genealogical Institute, Inc., 2010. pp. 96-134.

Records are vulnerable when foreign enemies, mobs, terrorists, and others seek to destroy seats of government–in this case courthouses.  They reason that destruction of the seat of government and its records is destruction of the government authority they despise. The fact that they are wrong in such an assumption, is irrelevant to the loss of records on which you and I are dependent for our genealogy and family history.

As your favorite genealogist, I spend as much or more time seeking information to by-pass the loss of records as I do searching those that have survived. And the fact that the records are old ones does not ensure their survival. With each hurricane, each tropical storm, each riot, each domestic terrorist bomb, each misguided fire, I pray that the records will survive. Your  favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle  http://arleneeakle.com

PS Stay tuned–I will give you the steps that I use to deal with lost records along with some real miracles that saved the records I needed until I could locate them for the genealogy they revealed!

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