Dusting The Ash Pile: Creating Ancestor Profiles From Burned Counties

by Heather Kramer | Sep 13, 2011

Heather Kramer

When conducting research many genealogists encounter burned counties which can make it difficult to locate ancestors. Burned counties are counties that had some sort of disaster (such as a fire) where county courthouse records were lost. Other disasters include floods, tornados, building collapses, etc. When these events occurred the primary result was the loss of a natural accumulation of unique records pertinent to a geographic area. The records were used to document a governing body and the administration of laws. In addition, these records contained evidence of normal every day activity of individuals in a community. The secondary result was a loss of personal, community, and in some cases national identity.

When confronted with the dilemma of a burned county, many genealogists face the challenge of a brick wall. However, there are methods and other resources available for the genealogist to use in order to dust off the ashes of burned county court house records. Much of this involves creating an ancestor profile through surviving records and documents housed in different locations.

Creating An Ancestor Profile

Ancestor profiles are more biographical in nature than a lineage recording of birth, marriage, and death dates. Profiles can be used to create min-biographies that are critical in understanding how an ancestor thought and behaved. Understanding the world in which an ancestor lived and how he or she interacted with others and the environment around them can provide clues for which records to search and which repositories to visit. Similarly, understanding how and why records were created when an ancestor is noted on them can give important clues for additional research.

Records document events, dates, places, and people. The natural creation of records is important to genealogists as they provide authenticity and accuracy to a well-developed family narrative. The records and documents provide a historical justification for an ancestor's participation in specific events on specific dates. The genealogist will also need to understand the profile of a collection of records and their historical importance in order to understand how an ancestor's placement on a record is unique to the study of their family history. This is the beginning of creating an ancestor profile.

Adding to the ancestor's profile is accomplished through searching existing resources and records. Records involved in building upon an ancestor profile are numerous. Most important are local records usually maintained at the county court house. Such records include court minutes, probate records, vital records, and tax lists. The collections contain names of individuals and portray communities and family groups. They are essential in documenting people. But what do you do when the court house has burned?

Dusting The Ash Pile

When county court houses burn and the records housed within them lost, genealogists are left trying to piece together a puzzle with fragments. However for many of these documents, the county court house is not the last the stop. Understanding how some of these records are created, what they documented, and what they were used for can assist in knowing where copies may be located to create an ancestor profile. The three most important collection of records used in creating ancestor profiles from burned counties are tax lists, deeds, and newspapers.

Tax Records

Important information about how an ancestor lived is recorded on tax lists. Originally recorded through the county courthouse, tax lists recorded a variety of facts. Most often the tax lists record property belonging to an individual, including livestock, structures, and wagons. In addition, the original land grant or watercourse may be included. Poll taxes are also noted, which were paid for the ability to vote. After the tax records were processed through the county tax collector, most were forwarded to the state government for record keeping purposes.

In some cases, tax lists will record the estate of a deceased individual or the administrator of an estate is recorded as paying taxes for the property. Some individuals only paid poll taxes, indicating that they were living with someone or had land elsewhere. Each scenario contains vital clues for the year the ancestor died and who was legally responsible for the property. Tracking ancestors through tax records can also reveal when one moved into the county, when they moved out of the county, or if they have property in other counties.

When an ancestor has property in a different county, it is beneficial to look for additional records in that particular county. When estates are probated, a copy of the will or probate record may have been filed in the additional county. As probate records and wills contain much genealogical information, this is a record that is worth an attempt to locate. Even if these records cannot be found, searching the tax records provides the genealogist with a concept of how an ancestor lived and if there was migration in and out of a county.


After a county court house burned, some families re-filed their deeds with the new county court. This was to protect their interests in their property and to provide legal authority over the land. Searching the deed indexes of the court house for the years directly after the disaster may prove advantageous. Locating re-filed deeds may contain useful information added to the court record since the initial filing. For example, family members moving away, legal guardians of minor children, lawsuits, and if an individual died during the time period before the re-filing.

Deeds also record the sale and re-sale of land. If an ancestor is found to have land in a separate county in the tax lists, a deed may be found in the other county. More information about the ancestor may be recorded in other collections of that county.


Items of interest to local residents were frequently noted in the newspaper. Articles, announcements, and obituaries provide detailed information about ancestors not found in other resources. News items could include military service, estate sale, and wedding announcements among a variety of others. Since newspapers were not normally kept at the county court house, they would be the next best alternative for finding facts about ancestors.

Public libraries from the area in which an ancestor lived may have a paper or microfilmed newspapers for genealogists to use. However, many times a newspaper changed names or merged with another. To check the previous names of a current newspaper and where newspaper holdings may be located, WorldCat. As an international database of library holdings, WorldCat may be used to discover the extant of collections.

Locating Records

Each family's history has left a unique imprint in the historical record. In order to find records to use for creating ancestor profiles, it is necessary to determine where records are currently being kept. Surveying collections through other repositories and library holdings may help in the discovery of supplementary or similar records.

State Library Or Archive

Some counties sent duplicate records to the state government and copies may be found in the state library or archive. Many state repositories keep finding aids or electronic catalogs of county records on their website. Some state repositories have microfilmed many of the county records and have the microfilm available for Interlibrary Loan. Many newspapers have either been digitized through state agencies or microfilmed and available through Interlibrary Loan.

Each state has its own retention schedule concerning which records are to be kept at the county level and which records should either be transferred or duplicated for the state to maintain. So some records maintained at the state level in one state may be kept at the county level only in another state. Also, some state repositories may maintain facsimile copies rather than originals.

Each state has a designated agency to care for and preserve vital record certificates such as birth and death certificates, including delayed birth records. Some early birth and death filings at the county court house may have been transferred to the state agency.

National Archives

Some county and state records may also be found in duplicate, facsimile, or original form at the National Archives. As the repository for the United States government, the National Archives has many locations across the country that houses many records that may prove supplementary to information normally found at the county court house. For example, military service records and pension records for the United States may include genealogical information about an ancestor's death that would normally be found in a probate file at the county courthouse. Although the forms for these records were completed at the county court house, they are considered a federal document and housed at the National Archives accordingly.

To find out more about the many records of the National Archives, visit www.archives.gov.

Public Libraries & Heritage Organizations

Many records created by families may end up at the local public library or heritage organization, such as a historical society or museum. These records could include photographs, letters, manuscripts, or diaries. In fact, a good way to find out about the daily life of an ancestor is to find letters or diaries of those with a similar background that lived in the same area. Not only would a researcher find out facts about a given occupation and a parallel individual, but the ancestor in question may be mentioned in a letter, diary, or other manuscript.

Public libraries also have interlibrary loan available. Interlibrary loan is a useful tool in viewing records of another institution, such as a state library, archive, or another library.

Family History Re-Discovered

Burned counties are often a stumbling block for genealogists intent on adding to the family's historical narrative. Analyzing non-traditional records to document an ancestor's life allows the genealogist to dust off the ashes of the court house and navigate unique records and collections to create an ancestor profile. The mini-biography of an ancestor's movement and interactions with others provides genealogists with another perspective about personal identity and the re-discovery of a family's history.

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