Reborn Records!

by Don Edwards | Feb 21, 2012

Don Edwards

How do you find alternate records for those destroyed by fires, floods, storms, earthquakes or wars? Can Civil War era families' records be reconstructed from burned county courthouses? Can 1906 San Francisco earthquake scattered immigrant families rebuild records from their destroyed homes and government offices? Learn how to find reborn records.

The "burned county" term originally applied to Civil War sparked southern courthouse fires, but now is generally used for missing records due to fires, disasters or inadequate record keeping. Explore alternate resources for burned counties or disasters, from family case studies of two patriarchs, Isaac Edwards (ca 1788-ca 1860) of Greene County, North Carolina and Luca Descalso (1825-1901) of San Francisco, California. The families mentioned gave permission to be in this article.

Where to Start

Start with your own at home records, such as photos, letters, deeds, family Bibles, business records, journals or artifacts, to focus your research. Read family histories, genealogies, and pedigree charts. I used my membership to build my family tree and comb censuses, newspapers, and military records.

Reborn Records

While the Civil War created many of North Carolina's burned counties, Raleigh, the state capital, was spared. The April 18, 1906 San Francisco earthquake and three day fire left about one half of San Franciscans homeless, and most private, business and governmental records destroyed. But wars and disasters also create alternate records, from Civil War military files to San Francisco earthquake survivors' letters and journals. The Civil War and 1906 earthquake anniversaries have created online historical and genealogical sites. Check your state's genealogical resources.

Family Histories and Records

First, I interviewed relatives at Edwards family reunions. Cousins organized family owned antebellum deeds from Greene and Wayne counties for me. I wrote down oral traditions of Isaac Edwards' sons in Civil War battles. I checked records before and after the courthouse fire, then neighboring counties, state and Federal records.

Only two of Isaac Edwards and Ann Carson's five children were known. These were William Frederick Edwards (1824-1880) and wife Zilphia Macklewain Smith (1831-1915), and Isaac Carson Edwards (1830-1902) and wife Victoria Joyner (1842-1887).

County Records

While the Greene County courthouse burned in 1876, neighboring Wayne County records were intact. I checked the North Carolina website for land, probate and court records. The North Carolina Genealogical Society has many helpful resources.

After the Greene County court house fire, residents rerecorded their important papers. In a re-filed 1855 deed, Dempsey Edwards (1823-1888) identified Isaac Edwards as his father. Isaac Edwards and his Wayne County relatives were listed in the Greene County Estate Records book, 1839-1845, one of the few volumes surviving the courthouse fire.

Alternate County Records

The Wayne County courthouse was searched for estate and court records. When Revolutionary War Colonel Thomas Edwards (1753-1816) died intestate, childless, an 1820 Wayne County Equity Court case listed Edwards plaintiffs, including his nephew Isaac Edwards. Because this case went to the State Supreme Court, I visited the state archives.

North Carolina Archives has court cases, wills and Family Bible copies. Many of these are online at the North Carolina State Archives. The Edwards family Supreme Court case was settled in favor of the plaintiffs. Isaac's family was identified, including his father, William Edwards (1757-1815), plus Isaac's eight siblings.

Military Records

The Confederate Compiled Military Service Records of lieutenant William F. Edwards and his brother, sergeant Isaac C. Edwards, and their brother-in-law Benjamin Hardy of North Carolina Company F, 3rd Artillery (40th State Troops) were found in the National Archives. They fought in North Carolina and Virginia battles. Here is the National Archives website.

U. S. Census

The 1850 to 1880 U.S. censuses plus agricultural, industry and manufacturing non-population schedules were checked in These records showed Isaac Edwards died after the 1860 census was taken. After the Civil War, Isaac's sons and grandsons opened a carriage factory, owned general stores, operated a saw mill and switched from cotton to tobacco cultivation.


The Isaac and Ann Edwards family members identified were Jane Edwards (1821-1891) and husband Hardy Ormond, Dempsey Edwards and wife Mary Dixon, William Edwards and wife Zilphia Smith, Christiana Edwards (1828-1880) and husband Benjamin Hardy, Isaac Carson Edwards, and wife Victoria Joyner.

The Isaac Edwards family records were found in county, state and national records, military records, plus church and cemetery histories. I wrote six Edwards family articles for the publication Greene County Heritage North Carolina (Waynesville: North Carolina, Greene County Family Researchers and County Heritage, Inc., 2009).

Family Histories and Records

Luca (Luke) Descalso, (1825-1901), from Italy, and Mary Doyle (1832-1900), his Irish born wife, were among San Francisco's first Gold Rush immigrants. Their children and grandchildren survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Their children were Peter Descalso (1857-1900) and wife Julia McCarthy (1858 -1922), Mary Descalso Bolger (1859-1920), Luke Descalso (1861-1928) and James Descalso (1863-1922).

The Descalso family histories, including Luca Descalso (1998) by his descendant William Descalso, highlighted Luca's California Society of Pioneers membership. Oral histories included Luca Descalso's gold mining adventures and the family struggles during and after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Vital Records

No San Francisco City and County vital records survived the earthquake. The 1908 marriage of James A. Descalso (Luca's grandson) and Edna Prosek was recorded among the San Francisco City and County birth, marriage and, death records, in the Department of Public Health, Office of Vital Records.

San Francisco Court Records

The San Francisco Superior Court vaults had the 1906 re-filed Luca Descalso estate settlement, and the re-filed Julia Descalso (Peter's widow) guardianship records. The estate records noted Luca's sons were Luke and James, daughter Mary Bolger, plus grandchildren, Peter, James, Harold, Julia, Walter, Blanche and Margaret Descalso. Although the family's Howard Street home was destroyed on the third day of the 1906 fire, some personal records were saved. The re-filed copy of Luca's estate settlement was a duplicate recorded in Sonoma County Recorder's office five days before the earthquake. Julia Descalso's guardianship papers in the Superior Court were re-filed in 1907. Although the court's originals were lost in the 1906 fire, petitioner Julia rescued her copy inside her partly damaged Stanyan Street home. The estate and guardianship records were found at Superior Court of California website and California Genealogical Society and Library.

Alternate County Records

The Sonoma County Recorder's office had Luca Descalso's 1886 Santa Rosa ranch deeds (paid in gold coins). Although the Sonoma County courthouse collapsed in the 1906 earthquake, all records survived. The California State Genealogical Alliance website, has information on Sonoma County and other California counties.

California Pioneer Records

Luca Descalso joined the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco, and wrote his autobiography in 1901. He worked as a mariner, gold miner, mason, real estate developer and wine maker. Luca was born in Chiavari, (near Genoa) Italy, Jan. 10, 1825, son of Peter Descalso and Marie Merlino. Luca arrived in San Francisco on Dec. 12, 1849, aboard the British Brig Lala from Liverpool, England. His wife Mary Doyle, was born in County Cavan, Ireland. He died in San Francisco, Oct. 11, 1901. Luca's California Pioneers file copy was found at University of California online. Luca's son, Luke M. Descalso, was a member of the Native Sons of the Golden West, another pioneer society. The California Genealogical Society and Library has many pioneer resources.


The Descalso and Doyle families were mentioned between 1849 and 1908 in several San Francisco newspapers. Luca's 1849 arrival in San Francisco was noted in the Alta California newspaper. The births of Luca's and Mary's four children were listed in San Francisco Call, while marriages and obituaries were reported in the San Francisco Examiner. The Descalso Brothers shoe store ads ran in San Francisco Chronicle. California newspaper items are found at SFgenealogy and San Francisco Public Library's History Center and Newspaper films.

City Directories

Luca Descalso and, his sons Peter, Luke and James were listed in San Francisco city directories between 1862 and 1911. In 1905, the Descalso Brothers shoe store was in downtown San Francisco, while the family lived in San Francisco's Mission District. There was no 1906 city directory, due to the earthquake. In 1907, James and Luke's San Francisco store sold produce and wine from their Santa Rosa ranch. Widowed Julia Descalso, moved near Golden Gate Park after the earthquake. Many city directories are found at the California State Library's Sutro Library branch in San Francisco.


Luca Descalso and Mary Doyle were Gold Rush immigrant success stories. The Descalso households changed neighborhoods and occupations after the earthquake, but the family stayed in San Francisco. The family occupations shifted from shoe stores to food and wine companies. The Descalso family records were found in San Francisco City and County archives, Sonoma County, newspapers, city directories and pioneer societies The Luca Descalso biography was updated and presented to his descendants. The reborn records are in print, as books, articles or reports.

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