What Happened When the Records in a Courthouse got Destroyed in the Old Days?

Courthouses contain a lot of very important information like deeds, court records, land records, marriage records etc. What happened in the “Old Days” when one of them burned down, flooded or anything else that caused the destruction of those records? That seems like a pretty big deal for the people that suddenly can’t prove basic facts within the legal system anymore.

I am not defining the “Old Days” precisely because that is part of the question as well. It could be 1870, 1970 or last Thursday for all I know. I suspect it is an issue even today for very old records that become legally important like land claims.

How do they sort everything out if the original records gets destroyed? For instance, how would a farmer prove that he is the one that owns that screwy acre of land in the corner of the field and not his ornery neighbor that is now claiming it. How do you prove that you have a judgment against John Smith and he still owes you a lot of money?

Land records, in particular, were so important to the community that the county would try to reconstruct them. For example, they’d ask residents to bring in the original deeds in their possession to be copied anew, and also see if neighboring jurisdictions, the state, or the federal government had relevant copies. Depending on the time period, land title companies and abstractors may also have had copies. For example, in the “burned counties” of Virginia (where courthouse fires, especially during the Civil War, destroyed the records), you’ll often find re-recorded deeds filed fairly quickly after the fire, documenting who owns the land now. Disputes, therefore, can be settled while memories are still fresh.

Other kinds of records were less frequently restored; old marriage records, e.g., were likely gone for good, unless copies can be found at the church. Particularly in the old days, the community knew who was married to who, so having that fact documented at the courthouse wasn’t so important.

It’s less of a problem for modern disasters now that old records are more likely to have been microfilmed or digitized and stored off-site, and not infrequently may exist in multiple offices anyway.

For birth, death and a lot of other various records the fall-back was always the churches. The government would accept baptismal certificates as proof of age and other matters into WW II and in some places well after.

The family Bible, school records, church records, records stored at law offices, bank safety deposit boxes as well as records kept at home were all available: important records were never stored at just one place.

For a passport, baptismal certificates are acceptable now, although you need to have some other documentation to back it up.

The 1890 US census records were almost all totally destroyed in a fire in 1921.

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 destroyed all of Cook County’s land records. However, a couple of title companies had their own copies, and the head of Chicago Title & Trust gave two books to each of a dozen employees and some money to hire a carriage to get them out of the danger zone.

In the months after the Fire, those saved books allowed the county to reconstruct its records, and then the state legislature passed a law making the reconstructed records controlling authority.

Thanks for the replies. Most of it makes sense. However, what do they do with unclaimed ownership of land? That probably isn’t a big deal in a city or actively farmed area but there are a lot of woods out there that people don’t even know that they own.

My family bought a metric shit-ton of land and mineral rights during the 1930’s and 40’s in the corridor between Dallas, TX and northwestern Louisiana (the whole area is scattered over 150 miles in a straight line). We get contacted about it all the time when gas companies want to drill on it. I can’t figure out how they even find us because none of us ever knew we owned a lot of it but how they find us is a separate question.

What if one of the many small courthouses in one of those areas burned down? Those records are very old and nobody alive even knows they exist. I am sure that was the case even during the 1800’s. Reconstructing the ownership or inheritance rights of every inch of a county sounds like a huge chore even if there are secondary records? What if no one claims a huge piece of woodlands or any other piece of property?

I suppose you have to pay taxes on actual land or it eventually goes to the state but mineral rights can last forever legally.

I believe the British census of 1931(?) had the same problem.

I’m not sure what you mean. Every land (and mineral rights) transfer must be recorded in the county records, and probably 30 linear feet of recordation books is sufficient to hold all the transfers ever recorded in Loblolly County, Texas. Meanwhile, the local title and abstract company has its own “title plant,” copies of at least most of those records.

At this point, probably three-quarters of US counties have computerized their cadastral and ownership records, which obviously makes trivial the task of having an offsite backup.

It is actually even sadder then that. The fire itself didn’t ruin most of then, but they were soaked with water (The 1890 records were in the hallway). They got moved and stored again, and over the years no one made any attempt to dry them and recover what information they could. They finally got placed on a long list of records no longer needed in 1934. They were a single line item: “Schedules, Population - 1890, Original”. No one objected (or even noticed), and they were destroyed.

Here is the whole sad story:


I am not exactly sure what I mean either. That is why I am asking. What if those “probably 30 linear feet of recordation books [that are] sufficient to hold all the transfers ever recorded in Loblolly County, Texas” get destroyed by fire, tornado, flood or whatever else?

What if there is no title or abstract company for some of the properties? I am not exactly sure what those are either. I am guessing it has something to do with banks or some other entity that may not exist anymore. What if some ancestor just paid cash for the land 120 years ago? Are there backups of that somewhere?

I have trouble proving that I ever worked for some companies less than two decades ago because they are long gone. I am trying to figure out how very long term records work at all especially during unusual circumstances.

Well, the assumption is that people can be lazy and not work but the assumption is that every inch of land is owned by someone – so the onus is on the person wanting to use that land to find some sort of record or indication that the person they are talking to is the actual owner. What constitutes that proof varies from place to place but it can come down to something as basic as showing “Bob” or his ancestors made use of that piece of ground in some fashion for Y years way back when. Or even more basic; other landowners around there saying “some family named Fafufnick bought that land from Bob 120 years ago.” It isn’t perfect and things can happen in remote regions but it seems to operate well enough that I can’t find any recent cases of a dispute like you ask about hitting more than the lowest levels of litigation.

Indeed it did - For England and Wales anyway:

More recently, in 1973 a fire at the National Personnel Records Center destroyed 16-18 million military personnel files. These included the records of persons discharged between 1912 and 1964. There were no copies and no microfilms of the records, nor any indexes, so nobody knew exactly which records had been lost.

There’s a range of answers to “what is done” depending on the type of records, the local legal requirements, and also whether or not disputes arise. I suspect some types of records have to be kept in some form or replaced, but a huge amount probably don’t… and many types of records are only kept for a certain period of time before they’re deliberately destroyed anyway.

I recently asked my county office for a copy of the building designs for an old house I have (here you need a permit to build and the actual designs are part of it). They only keep them for 6 years, so I was out of luck… and I had no idea how to tell whether the specifics in this house were legal/correct/safe since there’s no way for me to check what was originally approved.

The value of the records probably affects how much effort would be put into replacing them (or doing anything at all). If nobody needs to know or cares who got married to who 80 years ago (since they’re likely all dead anyway) I doubt a lot of resources will be spent on recovering lost/destroyed records. I work in a govt office that keeps all sorts of useless records… like 3 slightly different drafts of the same report from 20 years ago which never was used to make any sort of decision. Truckloads of this type of stuff find their way to the dumpster when nobody is looking despite the fact that they are supposed to be archived.

The point is most records are of limited or no value, and if they got destroyed then basically nothing would be done; that office would just go on as usual without them. What is done about lost records depends a great deal on their value.

One example of a missing record and what happens: My great grandfather was a Civil War vet. Some 40 years later, he committed suicide. My great grandmother filed a claim for his pension, but since she (nor anyone else) had a marriage certificate, she had to be deposed about their life together and provide affidavits from ministers and others who knew them and could attest to their life. I found all of this in his pension file; for a genealogist, it was a goldmine.

An abstract of title is a record of a property’s ownership history; in the U.S., they typically start with the first transfer from the federal government or a colonial proprietor to a private owner, tracing it down to the date the abstract was prepared.

For example, the abstract for a house I once owned started with the General Land Office granting 200 acres to an ex-soldier under a bounty land claim in the 1840s, and then had every subsequent deed tracing the sale and subdivision down to the 50x150-foot city lot I purchased in 1989. Over the course of a century and a half, there were a couple of probate actions, including one when somebody died intestate, and a quiet-title action when somebody noticed a co-owner had mysteriously been dropped from a subsequent deed; the abstract of title included copies or extracts of every relevant record, including deeds, the probate judge’s orders, and portions of the wills.

I got the abstract (a bundle of papers) in conjunction with the purchase of title insurance; they actually precede the development of title insurance policies, and were a way of finding out if there were any flaws in the chain of title before you plunked down your cash. Basically, a trained researcher, often a lawyer, would go through the records in the courthouse, find and copy the relevant records, and render an opinion on the likelihood that somebody could challenge your ownership.

Over time, abstract and title companies tended to accumulate their own copies of the records in the courthouse, because it was easier to look them up in their own office than trot down to the county office. Also, if the purchaser after me had wanted an abstract, the office that prepared mine could have started with a copy of my abstract and confined their research to events and court filings after the date on which it was prepared. Moreover, the abstract of title for the house next to mine would have been identical for the first century, until the farmland was annexed to the city and divided into building lots, so the abstractor working on that property’s chain of title would have a century’s head-start if they had a copy of mine.

Even if your ancestor paid cash for the land 120 years ago, they might well have purchased an abstract of title. Even if they didn’t, an abstract company building up their own library of records might have acquired copies of the relevant paperwork, or have prepared an abstract for the previous owner that shows the ownership history prior to your ancestor’s purchase.

Anybody who cares long-term about who you worked for two decades ago probably has copies of the records. (For example, the Social Security Administration has the names and addresses of all of your employers who paid SocSec taxes on your earnings.) There aren’t many entities that care, however.

People care about land ownership, and so extra efforts tend to be made to preserve or recover records pertaining to that land.

Keeping track of who owns the real estate is usually the second most important thing county governments do. Even prior to the invention of photocopy machines or computers, there were ways to keep duplicate records offsite. And as we’ve discussed, there usually is a private company whose office is a block or so from the courthouse, that has its own copy of the land records.

Any number of us can’t get marriage records for particular ancestors because of a courthouse fire. But the records of who owned the farm were very quickly reconstructed.