“Burned County” is a phrase that many genealogists dread running into during their research and is something that many Southern researchers are more than familiar with. Whenever I hear that phrase, the scene of Atlanta burning in the movie Gone with the Wind comes to mind and I picture the ashes of all those records that burned floating around in the air. But the Civil War isn’t the only cause of burned counties.
What does “burned county” mean?
The phrase “burned county” may have been originally used in Virginia to describe counties with significant record loss due to courthouse fires or the Civil War, but in recent years the phrase has been used to describe any county with record loss due to fire, flood, natural disasters, neglect, or theft. And, unfortunately, there are a lot of them. So, what is a researcher to do when confronted with such record loss?
Overcoming the “burned county” obstacle
Many of my father’s ancestral lines have been traced to Virginia and the dreaded “burned county” has become a reality for our family’s researchers. The first line I worked on, Robert L. and Ann Maria Campbell originated in Orange County, Virginia, a county with minimal record loss. I was able to find marriage records, land records, and tax lists in the years I needed- a gold mine for Southern research. There were no church records found for Orange County, though. I later learned that the records for St. Thomas parish in Orange County had been destroyed. The Campbell family I was working on moved to Ohio on a War of 1812 bounty land warrant just after the 1840 census, so I continued researching their parents, although neither set of parents was found in Orange County records.
Incorporating alternative record sources into your research
Fortunately, the father of the bride, Spencer J. Atkins, was listed on the marriage record for the couple and I was able to find him in neighboring Louisa County, Virginia. Louisa County was also a minimal loss record county and I was able to find a marriage record for him that listed his father, Joseph Atkins, and the father of his bride, Stephen Yancey. I was fortunate to find quite a bit of information in Louisa County about Spencer Atkins’ father, Joseph, and his mother, Mildred “Milly” James. And I also found some good information about the Yancey family in Louisa County. A will for Archelaus Yancey proved Stephen was his eldest son.
A newspaper article discussed the murder of Henry Yancey by Stephen Yancey and the subsequent hanging of Stephen. Guardianship papers were found for Rebecca Yancey (Spencer’s wife), who was eleven years old when her father died. There were land records, church records, tax lists, etc. for the Yancey family. I knew that family members suspected that Archelaus was the son of Charles Yancey, Jr. and Mary Bartlett, but I had found nothing definitive to prove that and while I had had success searching both Orange and Louisa Counties, the further back I went, the more difficult and time consuming it became.
I started searching neighboring counties for land records for the Yancey family and eventually found some for Archelaus Yancey in Hanover County, Virginia. I was excited until I discovered, thanks to the University of Virginia library, that Hanover County is considered a “Catastrophic Loss” county; a “burned county!” I was ready to put my head down on the desk and give up.
Finding surviving records
But I didn’t. The first thing I did was check the FamilySearch Wiki for information on burned counties and in particular, Hanover County, to see what records might have survived. I also checked with the University of Virginia (UVA) library to see what resources they had available. I searched their databases. I googled everything I could find on Hanover County records. I talked to other Yancey researchers. I spent hours and hours and hours at the Family History Library. I talked to Virginia genealogical and historical societies. I checked state records and surrounding county records and while some new information was found, there was nothing conclusive showing that Archelaus was the son of Charles Yancey.
I was very frustrated and ready to move on to researching another family. However, before throwing in the towel I began to search Virginia genealogical magazines and hit the jackpot. A 1985 article that appeared in the Magazine of Virginia Genealogy, “Accounts from the Store of Thomas Partridge & Co., Hanover Co, Virginia, 1734-1756,” mentioned the seven Yancey brothers, including Archelaus, and ultimately proved their relationship as sons of Charles Yancey, Jr. It was an incredible find! I have used that magazine to find information on other Virginian family lines as well.
This personal example is designed to give hope to those of you who are still searching or may have given up on your burned county ancestors. There are other ways around the record losses in those counties, but it may take some thinking outside the box and a lot of patience.
If you discover your burned county research needs some professional assistance, give Legacy Tree Genealogists a call. Our researchers would love to help you with your burned county projects. Request your free quote to get started!
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