Opinion

Recovering records from history’s fires

I think fire is a genealogist’s worst enemy.  Almost all of us have heard the dreaded words “the records were destroyed in a fire.”   

There definitely were a lot of fires where records burned, not only in Maine but all across the country.  In an age of wood stoves, neglected or unswept chimneys, and wooden buildings, it wasn’t unusual for a fire to occur in a town office, a town clerk’s home where records were kept, or a county courthouse. But for a genealogist those words can be heartrending and the loss of priceless records creates an almost impregnable brick wall.  After all, if the vital records are destroyed what can you do?

As it turns out, quite a bit.  When originals are lost, it’s time to search for possible substitutes that can fill the gap created by the destruction of the records you need.  And, there is an almost endless list of places to look in your hunt for missing records.

First, check if the LDS Church microfilmed any of the records you’re missing.  For an example from my own research, the town of China lost their records in a fire but the LDS Church had already microfilmed those records.  These records are accessible through Family History Centers and online. The LDS Church also microfilmed probate and other county records.

Depending on what you’re searching for, you can also try federal records, which include the censuses and the special schedules, including agricultural and industrial.  I’ve recently written about searching passports, but also look for military service and pension files, bounty land records, naturalization records, etc.

State records can be valuable as well.  States sometimes took their own censuses independent of federal ones.  Most states required copies of vital records be sent to their State Archives, though the dates vary.  In Maine the magic year is 1892. In addition, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the 1930s indexed some state records. The WPA in Maine indexed Civil War enlistment records and these indexes are now held at the State Archives in Augusta.    

For missing town records try the LDS microfilms,  search for other local church records, cemetery records or tombstones, local historical societies and libraries, voter lists, tax records, school records, etc.  Don’t forget published genealogies and histories of counties and towns that may include genealogical information. You shouldn’t neglect funeral home records, local newspapers and town reports (births and deaths were sometimes published) as well.

Whatever you do, don’t get too discouraged if you hear “lost in a  fire” as you research. It’s happened to all of us at one time or another.  And, while it means extra work, just roll up your sleeves and begin digging to locate other records that can help answer your question or at least help fill the void in your tree or provide clues where you might find other records.   As you search, you may uncover information on other family members in records you never thought would yield answers.

Good luck and good hunting.

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