Genealogy Myths: All the Records Burned in a Fire

12 Mar 2013

And genealogy myth week continues here at Mocavo. We are working to educate you and break down some of the biggest myths and misconceptions in genealogical research. Today’s myth is a biggie, and it can greatly lead you astray. Today we discuss the great “All of the records were destroyed when the courthouse/town hall/other repository burned down.”

Fires post a dramatic danger to records and repositories. They could be caused in any number of ways. In early times, when buildings were heated by giant fireplaces, stray cinders could easily ignite fires. Burning candles and exploding gas lamps also posed a danger. Perhaps the greatest danger, however, was lightning.

Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity led him to promote the use of lightning rods to ground buildings and keep the lightning from setting them on fire. Even after their use, lightning continued to be a problem. Of course, some of this danger was exacerbated by poor government planning.


Provincetown Town Hall, 1905, form the Provincetown Journal.


The town of Provincetown, Massachusetts, for example, built their first Town Hill in 1853. Because of the significance of the building to the town, they chose to place it in the center of the town, on High Pole Hill. Now, High Pole Hill is not only the highest point in Provincetown, it is the highest point on all of Cape Cod. From the top fof the hill, on a clear day, you can sometimes see the Boston skyline clear across Massachusetts Bay.  Now, one would think that they would have realized that the highest point around for 40 miles is probably NOT the best place to house the most valuable town records.

The building was struck by lightning twice  and caught fire. Both times the damage was repaired and it was business as usual. In 1877, the town hall was struck for a third time and burned to the ground. This time the town fathers finally realized the danger of located the building and that location, and it was moved down to the flat at the bottom of the hill. The building was opened in 1886 and still serves as the town hall. Despite the fires, the town suffered very little in the way of lost records. Quick-acting citizens and fireproof vaults helped preserve  them from the fire.

Not all locations were so lucky. Many buildings burned and huge numbers of records were destroyed. But often, even when a building burned, it did not result in the loss of ALL records. Some were lost in the fire. Some were destroyed in the efforts to extinguish the fire.  But even where there was widespread damage and loss, it was far more common that some records survived. Different departments stored records in different areas of buildings. Fire could damage one section and leave another area unscathed. Sometimes the storage in different areas allowed some records to be removed from the building before the entire building was destroyed.

When you discover that the courthouse or other repository in the area you are interested in researching was the victim of a fire, it means that it is time to expand your horizons. Perhaps the records you were looking for were destroyed, but other records may have survived. Sometimes, when the court clerk says that everything was lost in the fire, they are thinking that everything of interest to genealogists was burned. Unfortunately, court clerks are not familiar with everything that truly is of interest. And other surviving records may help you over the missing ones.

In the end, perhaps all of the records truly were destroyed. But be certain to do all your homework. Do all you can to discover what records, if any, may have survived. You may be able to find everything you need in the records that made it through the flames!