One burning question

Of courthouse construction

Saturdays around The Legal Genealogist are for my family, and today I have a question to pose to my family.

To all those many ancestors who came before me, and who settled down to live, marry, birth and raise children and die, in all those many many counties in so many southern states, to you, honored forebears, there’s a question I want to pose. Just one — shall we call it a burning question? — just this:

Couldn’t you have built your blasted courthouses out of stone?

Let’s see here. A whole bunch of my lines, in particular, my Bakers, Davenports and Wisemans, are out of the Pamunkey Neck region of Virginia — basically the area between the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Rivers. That area was first in New Kent County, then in King and Queen County, then in King William County.

So… what do we know about the courthouses and other records repositories in the Pamunkey Neck region of Virginia?

     • “New Kent: created in 1654, county court records were destroyed when John Posey burned the courthouse on 15 July 1787, and records created after that date were lost to fire in 1865.”1

     • “King and Queen: created in 1691, county court records were lost in fires in 1828 and 1865. One plat book and three mid-nineteenth century Superior Court record books survive.”2

     • “King William: created in 1702, all county court records prior to 1885 (except for seventeen will books) were destroyed in a fire in that year.”3


Okay, then, let me see if I can trace my Cottrell line forward from its origins in colonial Virginia. The family our DNA results tell us we should look at was in Hanover and Henrico Counties before 1700.

Hmmm… And what do we know about records from Hanover and Henrico Counties?

     • “Hanover: created in 1721, most county court records were destroyed by fire in Richmond on 3 April 1865. A few isolated record books that were not sent to Richmond and various scraps of loose papers survive.”4

     • “Henrico: created in 1634 as an original shire, all county court records prior to 1655 and almost all prior to 1677 are missing; additionally, many isolated records were destroyed during the Revolutionary War, and almost all Circuit Court records were destroyed by fire in Richmond on 3 April 1865.”5

The Library of Virginia divides what it calls “Burned Record counties” into three categories: “Hopeless, Almost Hopeless, and Difficult.” Early Henrico joins New Kent and King and Queen in the “Hopeless” category; Hanover joins King William in the merely “Difficult.”6


So, okay, let’s forget Virginia. Many of my related Baker, Davenport and Wiseman families moved to North Carolina around the time of the Revolutionary War and started marrying up with my Joneses and Buchanans and with McKinneys and Greens and more. And they all settled in Burke County, North Carolina.

Burke County. Where the courthouse was burned in 1865, taking with it all extant deeds, will books, inventories — just about everything except (thank heavens for small favors) the court minute books.7

Just dandy.

Okay, okay, forget the Bakers, Davenports, Wisemans and related lines. My fourth great grandparents Boston Shew and Elizabeth (Brewer) Shew migrated with a whole bunch of folks from the area of Wilkes County, North Carolina, and Grayson County, Virginia, to Cherokee County, Alabama. That’s where their children, including my third great grandfather, married and had their families.

Cherokee County. Where the courthouse burned in 1883 and again in 1895,8 taking with it virtually all of the pre-fire records. Except for documents re-recorded after the second fire, there are essentially no wills, deeds, vital records or court records for Cherokee County that pre-date the fires.


Okay, so then, I’ll put them aside and start working on another set of brick-wall ancestors, my Robertson third great grandparents, who both were born in Mississippi, who married there, who had all but the last couple of their children there. Linking them to their parents is a tough battle, and the records I could really really use for that family would be the marriage records from Neshoba County, Mississippi.

Right. Neshoba County. Where the courthouse burned in December 1887, taking some of the earlier records — including all the marriage records — with it.9

Terrific. Just terrific.

So I ask, one more time… one question… just one question: couldn’t you have built your blasted courthouses out of stone?

We’ll get to the question of the wisdom of picking fights with northern cousins resulting in courthouses getting burned some other day…


Image © 2002 jgrussell

  1. Burned Record Counties (VA-NOTES),” Library of Virginia ( : accessed 3 Aug 2012).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid. You’ll notice here that it wasn’t the Hanover Courthouse that was burned but the repository in Richmond where the records were sent “for safekeeping.” Can’t blame the Yankees for this one — the Richmond fire was started by retreating Confederates.
  5. Ibid. And ditto.
  6. Ibid.
  7. See Betsy Dodd Pittman, “What Happened to Burke County Court Records?”, Journal of Burke County Genealogical Society, Vol. VII, No. 3, (September 1989) : 70. See also Betsy Dodd Pittman, “What Happened to Burke County Court Records? (Updated),” Journal of Burke County Genealogical Society, Vol. XVI, No. 3, (August 1998): 4-5.
  8. See the map showing Alabama courthouse fires created by the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
  9. See “Neshoba County, Mississippi Genealogy,” Genealogy Inc. ( : accessed 3 Aug 2012).
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12 Responses to One burning question

  1. I feel your pain … my family is firmly rooted [pun intended] in Virginia, and almost nowhere else. On my mother’s side, we’re from England and then Pittsylvania County; Daddy’s family is from England, and then Nelson County, with Hanover and perhaps a little Charles City County – not sure about that yet. I spend a great deal of time yelling, “What, AGAIN???” Frustration abounds … we should start a club ….

  2. Kay Haden says:

    Oh boy! You are so on target. I share so many of these with you in Virginia – for research on my families AND my husband’s families – his Hadens came out of King & Queen to King William, then thankfully settled in Goochland for a few years …but then moved over to Hanover. Not good. Then there are the courthouses burned in southwest Missouri during the Civil War. And the courthouse in Crawford County, Arkansas – burned in the late 1880′s by a man on trial who thought if he burned the records, he’d get off [he didn't].

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There’s a story I can’t nail down that at least one of the Cherokee County courthouse fires may have been caused by cousins of mine who had exactly the same theory about evidence…

  3. Peggy says:

    Oh, Judy! How well we can all relate to you on this one! In researching one of my Kentucky ancestors, I happened to vent my frustrations to my then-living father. He laughed when I told him the courthouse had burned, and stated that it was his family that had burned it down. They rebuilt it and they burned it down again.

    Allegedly, a member of the family was found guilty. The remaining family didn’t want the court to have a record of it, so they burned it down themselves – twice.

    Ahh, those good ol’ Southerners…

  4. Betsy Miller says:

    Hmm, no one’s mentioned Nansemond County VA yet … 8-)

    In Moore County, NC, the courthouse burned in 1889, taking with it the marriage & land records for the parents/ancestors of James Walter Hayes, born in 1881 (according to his tombstone and later censuses) – haven’t found his parents in the 1880 census, either. The church which they were probably members of, Buffalo Presbyterian in Sanford, NC, lost its historic records in a fire in the 1930s.

    So I have a native-born ancestor whose line dead-ends at his birth in 1881.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I don’t think I have anybody in Nansemond, Betsy, but oh… that Moore County is a pain, isn’t it???

  5. Anne Willson says:

    You hit the nail on the head Judy!

    And we of Southern stock aren’t the only ones…

    My Italian (Sicilian, to be exact) ancestors tried to burn the evidence, too. I don’t know what evidence..but they got a lot of the Civil Registers as well. What a joy! Good news is that they didn’t take out the church records. Bad news is that my ancestors bounced back and forth between the two churches. So until we get a complete set of registers for both churches we’ll never get it all figured out. At least they stayed in the same town for a couple of hundred years…

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thank heavens for options … and ancestors with roots. Now if only I had either of those for some of my brick walls…

  6. Donna Campbell Goodwin says:

    Oh goodness, Now I know why I am having such a hard time finding my Campbells, Forrests and Cantrells. Guess these brick walls will not be loosing to much mortar anytime soon. Great knowledge to have

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