In Search of Your Ancestors?
A column on genealogy by George Farris

February 5, 2008

3. More About Data Sources

County Courthouses - Which County?

For genealogical research county court houses are a primary source for "original source data". But, it's important to look for records in the appropriate county. That sounds simple enough - except that county boundaries have changed over the years and you need to know in which county the documents that you are searching for were recorded. For instance, if you are looking for deeds, wills, or other documents recorded before 1801 for someone living in what is now Anderson County, Tennessee, you will need to know where they lived and what county included that location at the time of the event. It was probably Knox or Grainger County in that example - but other localities can be much more complicated.

If you are researching in Tennessee an important tool to guide you is a county formation map such as the one that you can find on-line at This series of maps shows how the counties of the state evolved over the history of the state. Below is the Tennessee county map for 1819.

There are similar historical county boundary maps for most states. One source for these is at

Where you need to look for records can sometimes be surprising. In Tennessee, not only did county boundaries change and evolve but also the boundary between Tennessee and Kentucky was not firmly established until about 1820. There was also a similar situation along the western part of the southern boundary of Tennessee. A few years ago, while researching one of my ancestral lines in Green County, Kentucky I was looking through some of the early land grants and surveys before 1800 and trying to pin down the exact locations from the general descriptions used in the documents. I found some grants that were clearly in what is now Overton County, Tennessee. Of course Overton County didn't exist at that time - and Green County, Kentucky extended south to the border with Tennessee which, at that time, was assumed to be well south of its current location.

Some of my Tennessee and Kentucky ancestors moved on into the Illinois Territory before that state was formed. Some of them remained in the same places for several decades, but during that time their locations were successively in Gallatin, White, Jackson, Franklin, and Williamson Counties, Illinois. If your ancestors lived in North Carolina , Kentucky, or Virginia you are likely to encounter similar situations. In fact, for any state, you need to be aware of the historical development of the local governmental jurisdictions in order to know where to look for local records.

County Courthouses - Missing Records

So you've done your homework and know exactly which county to look in for the historical records that you need for your research. But when you start looking the records that you want don't seem to exist. Record keeping practices and public record laws have evolved over an extended period and were by no means uniform in the past. So some documents were just never recorded. Some records were simply disposed of after a certain number of years; some were stored in places where they were not protected from the elements and disintegrated over time. Natural disasters and man-made disasters have taken their toll. During the Civil War the State of Virginia instructed the county governments to transfer all of their records dating from the colonial period to Richmond where they would be stored for safe keeping until the war was over. They all went up in smoke as Richmond burned in April 1865. The only such records that still exist are in a few counties that ignored the instructions and kept their records themselves.

Courthouse fires over the centuries have resulted in the loss of many records. Franklin County, Illinois was one of the first new counties formed in 1818 when Illinois became a state. I know that my William Farris and his family were there by 1815 and I know from state records that he was very active there and over a period of 15 years served as a Justice of the Peace, as Probate Judge of the County and as one of the three County Commissioners - and was an unsuccessful candidate for sheriff in 1822. Several members of his family grew up there were married there - and then moved on, all of them having left the county by 1840. In 1843 a courthouse fire destroyed all of the records. There are now no county records to even indicate that this family ever lived in Franklin County. Fortunately, there are some old church records, a few records in the Illinois State Archives, original land entry records for the federal land office at Shawneetown, and documents filed in other counties and states that provide enough information to make a fuzzy picture of this 25 year period for this family.

So, while official county records are important and extremely valuable in your ancestry research, you can't always count on the ones you need being available. Family researchers have to be resourceful in finding as many sources of information as possible for every locality where they search for ancestors.

Previous Columns in this series

1. Beginning your search
2. "Source Data"

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