What to Do If You Believe Records Have Been Destroyed

Fourteen years ago, “September 11” stopped being an everyday kind of day and became a national tragedy. Four coordinated terrorist attacks killed almost three thousand people and changed the landscape of New York City.

Although nobody will ever forget the events of 9/11, what you might not realize is that a number of historical records were also lost on that day. The World Trade Center and the area of the Pentagon that was affected were home to security documents, active federal cases, American artifacts, and a bank with safety deposit boxes full of treasured family items. The list of what was lost is too long to summarize easily, but notable losses include letters written by Hellen Keller, U.S. trade documents, C.I.A. files, and thousands of photo negatives from John F. Kennedy’s personal photographer, Jacques Lowe.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that, at some point, some of your genealogical records have been destroyed. Between courthouse fires, downtown floods, poor management, acts of war, and other tragedies, there are thousands of reasons why the birth record you’re looking just isn’t out there to be found. So what do you do?

  • Consider alternate sources for the same event. Although it may be disappointing to settle for a secondary record when you really wanted to hold a birth certificate or immigration document in your hand, remember that most major milestones are recorded in a number of ways. Alternate sources can at least provide a bit of evidence to substantiate the family story by telling you if the names/dates you’re looking for are correct. For example, in addition to marriage licenses, you can find marriage information in census records, newspaper announcements, and probate documents.
  • Think of who might have made a backup copy. If the record you seek was destroyed relatively recently (in the last hundred years), it’s possible that you’ll be able to find a scan, photo copy, or written transcription residing with another interested party. Think of who would have wanted that information and follow the trail. For example, would the state office have a copy of county documents? Would a local university have transcribed immigration records or personal letters for their archives? Do you have a distant cousin who might have a copy of your 4th great grandfather’s will if it refers to land they still live on?
  • If you can’t find additional direct sources or copies of the records lost, construct as much context as you can. Looking into the history of an area often reveals stories about the people who lived there during the periods that would have affected your family and you might be able to find references that hint to the records you’re seeking. Collect enough hints and you’ll be able to create a shadow outline of your missing data! When you’ve got nothing to go on, this can be the next best thing.
  • If you have nothing, can find nothing, and can’t figure out where to begin constructing an outline around your nothing, reach out. This is what’s known as “hitting a brick wall” and there are genealogical societies all over the Internet full of people who have a passion for knocking those walls down. Share the information that you have and see if someone can come up with a creative solution you haven’t thought of yet. You might be surprised!
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