Updated January 19, 2009
Several Virginia counties, most of them in the eastern part of the state, have suffered tremendous loss of their early records during the intense military activity that occurred during the Civil War, and others lost records in fires. At some point, almost everyone conducting genealogical or historical research will face the problem of finding information from a so-called "Burned Record county."
Burned record counties might be grouped into three basic categories: Hopeless, Almost Hopeless, and Difficult.
Included in the Hopeless category are James City, New Kent, Buckingham, Nansemond, Dinwiddie (before 1782), Appomattox, Buchanan, King and Queen, Warwick, and Henrico (before 1677).
Almost Hopeless are Hanover, Prince George, Elizabeth City, and Gloucester.
Difficult counties are Caroline, Charles City, King William, Mathews, Prince William, Stafford, Rockingham, and Nottoway.
The Burned Record Counties
Appomattox: created in 1845, county court records were destroyed by fire in 1892.
Buchanan: created in 1858, county court records were destroyed by fire in 1885; records created after that date suffered extreme damage in a flood in 1977. A few re-recorded deeds exist.
Buckingham: created in 1761, county court records were destroyed by fire in 1869. One plat book survived and some wills and deeds were later recorded.
Dinwiddie: created in 1752, county court records prior to 1833 were destroyed in 1865. One plat book, one order book, and one judgment book survive.
Elizabeth City: created in 1634 as an original shire, records were damaged and/or destroyed during the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, and the Civil War. A few early deeds, wills, orders, and guardian's accounts survive.
Gloucester: created in 1651, all county court records were destroyed by an 1820 fire, and most of the records created after that date were destroyed in Richmond on 3 April 1865. Six minute books from the nineteenth century and two surveyor's record books survive.
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.
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.
James City: created in 1634 as an original shire, all county court records were lost in 1865.
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.
Nansemond: created in 1652, county court records were destroyed in three separate fires, the earliest of which consumed the house of the court clerk in April 1734 (where the records were kept at that time), and the last on 7 February 1866. A few fee books have been found in the records of Sussex County.
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.
Prince George: created in 1703, most county court records were burned during the Civil War. A few record books survived and, proving that there is always hope, the volume in which deeds and wills were recorded between 1710 and 1713 was found within the last decade.
Warwick: created in 1643, county court records were destroyed at several times with most destruction occurring during the Civil War. A seventeenth century livestock registry, one order book, and one minute book from the eighteenth century survive.
Other Counties with Losses
Twenty-five other Virginia counties have suffered some loss of county court records, some to a greater degree than others:
Albemarle: created in 1744, all order books except the first and all loose papers were destroyed in Tarleton's raid on Charlottesville in 1781.
Bland: created in 1861, all but a few record books and some chancery papers were destroyed by fire in 1888.
Brunswick: created in 1732, the first pages of a number of early record books damaged by time.
Caroline: created in 1728, most records prior to 1836 were destroyed during the Civil War. Some deeds and wills are recorded in extant Chancery Papers, and a considerable number of order books and loose papers survive.
Charles City: created in 1634 as an original shire, records have been destroyed at various times. The most damage occurred during the Civil War when the records were strewn through woods in a rainstorm. Many fragments of records exist, so many, in fact, that there is something for almost every year.
Chesterfield: created in 1749, lost one marriage register and some loose court papers during the Civil War.
Clarke: created in 1836, had pages cut from several record books during the Civil War.
Craig: created in 1851, lost the first deed book and most of the loose papers during the Civil War.
Fairfax: created in 1742, original wills and deeds as well as many other loose papers were destroyed during the Civil War; deed books for twenty-six of the fifty-six years between 1763 and 1819 are missing.
Greene: created in 1838, lost the first deed book during the Civil War when it was removed from the courthouse; no records were lost, but some suffered extreme water damage in efforts to put out a fire in the 1970s.
King George: created in 1721, had one will book, an early marriage register, and an order book "carried away during the Civil War." A few years ago the will book was deposited in the Virginia Historical Society.
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.
Lee: created in 1793, lost the oldest marriage register in an 1863 fire.
Louisa: created in 1742, lost one order book in Richmond in 1865.
Mathews: created in 1791, all county court records were burned in Richmond on 3 April 1865. At least two bond books, one plat book, and a number of fee books survive.
Northumberland: created in 1645, suffered some loss in a fire in the clerk's office on 25 October 1710.
Nottoway: created in 1789, many county court records were destroyed or heavily mutilated in 1865.
Prince William: created in 1731, many county court records have been lost, destroyed, or stolen at various times. Scattered years of deeds, wills, and orders, as well as various bond books and a plat book, survive.
Richmond: created in 1692, has some record books damaged and mutilated due to unknown causes; additionally, the will books prior to 1699 were missing as early as 1793, and order books for the period 1794-1816 are also missing.
Rockingham: created in 1778, many pre-Civil War records were lost during the Valley Campaign of 1864. In an effort to safeguard the records, they were loaded onto a wagon that was subsequently set afire by Union troops. Records that were saved include: administrators, executors, and guardians bonds.
Russell: created in 1786, the first marriage register and all loose files were lost in a fire in the clerk's office in 1872.
Stafford: created in 1664, many pre-Civil War county court records were lost to vandalism during the war. Scattered years of deeds, wills, and orders have survived as has an old General Index.
Surry: created in 1652, has lost deeds for 1835-1838 and order books for 1718-1741 and various other early record books are fragmentary. Court house fires in 1906 and 1922 did not result in loss of records which were then housed in a separate clerk's office.
Washington: created in 1777, lost a minute book for the period 1787-1819 and many loose papers in a fire in the clerk's office on 15 December 1864.
Westmoreland: created in 1653, lost an order book for the period 1764-1776 to theft, and many loose papers were damaged during both the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
- Library of Virginia. VA NOTES: Burned Record Counties