I Was Told All The Records Were Destroyed In A Fire

Have you heard this or something similar to the records were destroyed or thrown away?  GenealogyChris has heard this and more often than not it just isn’t true.  Here is a story from my own research.

About 30 years ago, I was interested in obtaining a few baptismal records from a church in central Pennsylvania.  There was only one problem…  The church burned down about 15 years earlier.  The fact that the church burned down wasn’t the only issue.  Two family members who were parishioners of this church also supported the idea that the records were destroyed when the church burned down.  Coincidently, I was trying to obtain the baptismal records for both of these family members.

I dismissed any hope that these records still existed.   That was until I was driving through the this small Pennsylvania town.  I stopped at the church and knocked on the rectory door.  The parish secretary answered and I explained that my family was parishioners at the church over 80 years ago and I was told that any records relating to them were destroyed in the fire.  The secretary gave me a puzzled look and asked which records I was specifically trying to locate.  I said baptismal records and gave her a list of five names with birth dates.  In less than 5 minutes she came out with the original registry book and showed me the entry for the first person, which was not in English.

As an additional bonus, the parish was just sent a pastor from Eastern Europe, who could translate the entry.  The parish secretary asked me to come back and she would have all the records.  When I returned an hour later there were not only the five baptismal records I originally asked for but a map of the church cemetery with all the family plots indicated.

I gave a donation to the church for the time they spent conducting this research.  Remember, it’s always a good practice to make a donation to a place where you are doing family research whether or not the information is found.  Why?  It’s good karma!  A few days later, I received in the mail a photocopy of an entry from the church’s funeral registry for another family member.

When I left, the secretary asked how I was related to these family members.  I explained and we discovered that we share a common cousin through completely different family lines.  We may not have been related by blood, but sometimes the connections are real.

There are two major examples of records used in genealogy that was destroyed by fire.  The first was the 1973 National Personnel Records Center fire in Saint Louis, Missouri, where a large portion of Military Service Personnel records was destroyed.  The second was the 1921 Department of Commerce Building fire in Washington D.C. that held the 1890 U.S. Census.  But don’t just assume that a fire destroyed all of the records.  Even though a fire may destroy large portions of record collections, there may have been records that were not destroyed or saved through preservation efforts after a disaster.

Sometimes in genealogy, we have to confirm if a record would be or has been created.  In my own example, I knew the baptismal records were created and existed up until at least the church fire.  The moral of this story is… Be persistent, be friendly, and don’t assume that a record was destroyed because of circumstances or a story.  Did you give up looking for a genealogy related document because you were told they were destroyed or just having trouble finding that document?  A genealogist can help answer these questions or find that document if it exists!