Genealogists and historians regularly face the problem of record destruction. Few places in the United States feel this type of loss like the state of Georgia. Over its history, 75 of the state’s counties have suffered 109 events resulting in the loss or severe damage of their courthouse or court offices. Many endured significant record loss and its aftereffects. This is problematic because counties maintain three of the most important records for documenting the lives of Georgia’s citizenry: deeds, estates, and marriages.
The purpose of this book is to document the destruction of Georgia county courthouses from 1777 to today, including the date, time, circumstance, and impact on records. Not all of those details could be proved for every courthouse disaster. Because county boundaries change over time, maps are included showing the areas impacted by each fire that destroyed records.
Previously, cursory lists only gave a hint of destructive events and potential loss of records. None were complete, and many included dates of planned demolitions or “fires” that never happened. Through careful research, each event has now been documented using contemporary evidence. If a courthouse disaster does not appear in this book, no evidence was found during the research process.
Like all efforts of this kind, the book does have limitations. It does not address destruction of colonial records during the Revolutionary War, nor does it speak to losses of state records. It does not reflect fires in city halls. Although considered, a full accounting of all surviving county records was not made. That worthy effort will be extraordinarily time consuming. All of these items fall outside the scope of this work. Even the included vignettes are purposely limited and could be expanded with further research. Corrections and additions for the author are welcome, as long as they are submitted with conclusive evidence from contemporaneous source documents.
Undocumented Record Loss
Some record loss events remain unexplained. Two counties with the most undocumented record loss are Bryan and Union. Bryan County probate records were destroyed in 1866. According to a short county history written by Joseph L. Buhler, Sr., the ordinary moved his records to his private residence, which then burned shortly after. No known records mention the event.
Union County is missing numerous pre-Civil War records, including deeds to 1860, court minutes to 1855, and probate minutes to 1851. No mention of these losses has been found in contemporary records. In fact, the county grand jury repeatedly noted the good condition of the records from 1857 to 1865. In October 1865, they reported: “We are happy to say our books are in as good [a] condition as could be reasonabl[y] expected in the present and former distracted condition of the county.”
For areas where record losses affect an area beyond the current county boundaries, maps are included to show the extent of the impact on records. Each map shows modern county boundaries along with areas of maximum impact (boundaries at the time of the fire) and limited impact (areas now part of other counties). This is important for researchers because many fires affect places outside the current county boundaries. The underlying data used to create the boundary maps comes from the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries, published by the Newberry Library. All impact maps are presented at 1:2,000,000 scale, or approximately 30 miles per inch.