Sunday, March 10, 2013

When the Courthouse Burns

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There are many resources out there that will teach you about SUBSTITUTE records you can use in place of the records that were lost due to fire, flood or vandalism but is it possible to find the actual records themselves?

On 08 November 1851, Silas Simmons applied for bounty land based on his service in the War of 1812.1   In the bounty land file there were Perry County court documents dated 03 March 1855 and 31 January 1856,  Silas had to appear in court to prove that he was in fact the same Silas Simmons that fought in in 10&20 Consolidated Louisiana Militia before he could be awarded his land.  So what is so special about that?  The Perry County Courthouse burned on 14 November 1877 with a complete records loss.2  The 1855 and 1856 court documents shouldn’t even exist.

So are there other places you might find county generated documents that should have been lost when the courthouse went up in smoke?

  • Bounty land applications and federal land entry files can contain copies of county generated documents as I have already shown.  You can find court records, deeds and marriage records.
  • The Appellate Court system will have copies of the lower court records for any case that went up the judicial ladder.  I have found all kinds of good stuff in the Mississippi High Court of Errors and Appeals.
  • Court documents can be found in loose probate packets that were generated AFTER the courthouse fire.  The principles in the probate will bring wills, deeds and marriage records to court for the probate proceedings and then those end up in the probate file.
  • Deeds are commonly found in the personal effects of the land or property owners and then those documents get passed down through the generations.  These will be the ORIGINALS.  The deeds you see in deed books are copies that were made by the county clerk.  You can also find marriage certificates and wills (ones that didn’t end up going to probate for some reason) this way.
  • Don’t forget that many county tax records  were copied and sent to the state so there are usually county tax rolls to be had even if the courthouse burns.

One last hint.  Whenever you are working with a “burned” county, contact the courthouse, state  archives, and check the Family History Library’s card catalog.  Many times you will find that there was only a partial records loss, not a complete one. 

1 Silas Simmons (Pvt. 10&20 Consolidated Louisiana Militia, War of 1812), bounty land warrant file 64098 (Act of 1855, 40 acres); Military Bounty Land Warrants and Related Papers; Records of the Bureau of Land Management, Record Group 49; National Archives, Washington, D.C.

2 Martha F. Clark, Perry County, Mississippi Circuit Court Clerk to Michele Simmons Lewis, e-mail, 10 Jan 2012, “Courthouse Records,” Lewis Research Files; privately held by Lewis, Harlem, Georgia, 2012.

Copyright © 2013 Michele Simmons Lewis

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