17 November 2016

Success in "Burned Counties" --- easy techniques to start with

I was surprised by the popularity of my recent post, "Burned Counties" aren't always "burned." I suspect some people clicked through looking for solutions to working in burned counties (but I was writing a post for beginners that might not even know what a burned county is!). So, this is the post to suggest a few easy solutions.
Easy research ideas for genealogy in a burned county. Burned counties aren't a dead end!

A burned county is not the end of the genealogical world. In the majority of cases, it's not as bad as you might think. There are some locations that really are truly terrible (burned completely and multiple times) but even then a skilled genealogist can keep working.

A burned county is a pain. I won't deny it. But you can handle this, you just may have to handle it in a way you've never tried.


So this is my first "easy technique."

Don't make it harder than it is. Particularly, don't avoid a "burned county" until you check it out.
I stressed in my previous post that not all counties are "burned" and record loss from one county to the next is not the same (I also mentioned counties that are just reputed to be burned but aren't).

You might be making your research harder by avoiding working in a location you think is a burned county. 


Look into the specifics. You might be avoiding research that will break down a brick wall, rather than avoiding difficult research.

However, if you do discover a county is burned and very difficult to research in, it might be a good choice to save that research for later. Particularly if you are an Occasional Genealogist, you may not have the time and resources to do that research, right now.

Make your decision based on facts, not hearsay.

Once you have determined a county does have record loss THAT AFFECTS YOUR RESEARCH, there are several easy techniques to try and overcome the record loss. Make sure you checked your dates and any record loss is pertinent to your research.

You can also use these techniques to flesh out the information about your ancestors so don't just save them for a burned county. Exercise your skills, they'll work better!

Use records from sources that weren't "burned." In the majority of "burned counties," the record destruction is limited, often to the courthouse (or court records in some Civil War cases where the records were moved for safe keeping and then burned).

Look for record types that weren't affected. The two most common suggestions are church/religious records and newspapers. It's possible the destruction affected the entire county area (such as a flood or tornado or even marauding troops). You should still look for types of records that survived.

Look next door. Counties are imaginary lines, people live on real terrain. It's a good practice to check surrounding counties even when records weren't lost.

Here in Georgia, we have way too many counties. That means they kept carving up the counties. My ancestors often ended up in different counties without moving (and once the counties were small, they would make a small move and be in a different county). I find records in all sorts of places even though my ancestors don't seem overly prone to doing business in a county they didn't reside in. Some people routinely do their business in a neighboring county.

If you strike out with courthouse records, the same suggestions for "alternative" record types, church and newspapers, are important when looking in adjoining counties.

Your county may not have had its own newspaper or it was so small, it wasn't the official newspaper for legal notices.

Religion has very little to do with county boundaries in most cases so there's nothing stopping your ancestor from attending church in a different county.

Follow the relatives. This is the easy version of one of the top techniques which I'll mention in a moment. I often do this (even if there isn't any record loss) if a sibling moves someplace with more records, better records, or just records online. If your ancestor lives in a burned county, but a known relative lives somewhere else, look for records on that relative.

Learn more. All the previous suggestions are about looking for alternative records but this is the technique to use when all else fails. Some burned county problems are really hard. You're going to need to use advanced techniques for those problems.

You can learn more by looking for information about working in burned counties. You can also just learn more about genealogy---either techniques, analysis, or the location you are researching.

A really powerful technique is the FAN club principal or cluster research (same technique, different names). This is a more advanced version of following the relatives.

Learning to do advanced genealogical analysis will help you identify small clues in what you do find. This can lead to different records or the clues can eventually be compiled to support a conclusion.

You always have to know what records exist for a location. It's helpful even to know what was created but didn't survive. If you understand why the records were created and what each piece of information given (or not given) means, those often turn out to be clues.

Don't be intimidated by a burned county. Burned county research is hard but every situation is different. It may turn out the famous courthouse fire was decades before your family even arrived.

You never know what you'll discover as alternatives to lost records. You know exactly what you'll discover if you avoid the research.
Nothing.

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