Old Russell County, Va., Courthouse
Jerry and Roy Klotz, MD/Wikimedia Commons

Dear Professor Gates:

My grandfather Charles Richard Jackson was born in Russell County, Va., in November 1870. My father, Charles Daniel O’Brien Jackson, was only about 2 years old when his father died. Story was that my grandfather may have been robbed and murdered. His family lived in Honaker, Va., and in McVeigh, Ky. My grandfather’s death might have been in 1907, but I was told that the death records might have been destroyed in a fire. (My father died on July 28, 1968, in Port Townsend, Wash.) I would like to find out if there is a death certificate or any newspaper account of my grandfather’s death. —J. Jackson Harris

You have come across a problem that many have encountered while researching their family roots: damaged and destroyed vital records. It is not unusual for those in the process of conducting research to come across mentions of destructive fires due to war, accidents or weather events, especially in the Southern and Midwestern states.

Before we address your particular problem, we’d like to point out a resource that can be useful to many: The free, online genealogical resource and database FamilySearch provides excellent educational articles on towns, counties and states across the U.S. that can be accessed and searched by location through its associated Family History Research Wiki page. These articles can provide a number of helpful hints about the availability of records, the institutions in which they are stored, the years in which vital data began to be recorded, border changes over time, and whether or not certain records have been destroyed or damaged.

The Family Research History Wiki can be an excellent jumping-off point for genealogical research in regions with which you are unfamiliar or to which you are unable to travel. They can also help give you a sense of how realistic your goals are for finding certain records.

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Were the Records You Need Really Destroyed?

When we consulted the wiki article concerning Russell County, Va., there did appear to be a gap in the available death records for this time period between 1896 and 1912. This likely reflects the destruction of records that you were advised of, although it does not explain their absence and there is no mention we could find of fire being the cause.

Regardless, Russell County deaths for the year 1907 do not appear to be available in the standard location, thus requiring a little more creativity in seeking out this information. The article does mention other locations to browse for information on Russell County deaths, namely, the Russell County VAGenWeb site. An abstract of early-20th-century Russell County deaths has been created by Jack Hockett from the microfilm at the Virginia Archives. Unfortunately, this list appears to have been taken from the same source as the standard death-record database for Russell County, which does not include the year 1907. Although this new source did not produce any new results, consulting multiple resources like this allows us to confirm the absence of death records for this time period—an approach that you should always take before moving on to other ways to search for data about an ancestor.

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Without Death Records, Now What?

The destruction of death records or other biographical primary sources does not necessarily signal the end of a genealogical inquiry. A number of digital newspaper databases can be exceedingly helpful in providing information on the birth, marriage or death of an individual, as well as providing a more general sense of the circumstances of an ancestor’s life. GenealogyBank, NewspaperArchive and Google News Archive are all excellent databases to search for mentions of your ancestors in publications.

Given that “Jackson” is a common surname, you can effectively narrow your results by searching only for articles published within a certain time span. You might consider restricting your results to newspapers published in Virginia and Kentucky from 1905 to 1910 to provide a buffer for relevant articles falling outside the year 1907.

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GenealogyBank and NewspaperArchive are relatively straightforward search engines, but Google News Archive can be difficult to search effectively if you are not knowledgeable about certain techniques. Kimberly Powell has written a useful article about how to phrase your search terms and restrict your results when you’re using Google’s digitized newspapers.

If a general search of newspaper databases fails to bear fruit, it can also be helpful to research local newspapers and try to search their archives. The FamilySearch articles mentioned above can be helpful starting points, but you can also perform independent online searches.

The Virginia Newspaper Project allows you to search for newspapers by county and city and provides information about their dates of publication and the institutions that house them. When we searched for Honaker, Va., newspapers, we were provided with three results: the Honaker Herald, Honaker Press and Honaker Times. The Honaker Herald is the oldest of the three, dating back to 1909. However, this may be slightly too late if Charles Richard Jackson died closer to 1907.

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When we expanded our search terms to Russell County, Va., we learned that only one newspaper was in circulation in this area during the year 1907: The Lebanon News began publication in 1882 and is still in circulation today. Microfilm collections of its old editions are stored at the Library of Virginia, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and the Virginia Historical Society.

Once you learn which newspapers are relevant for your research and where they are housed, you can contact those institutions about having a search of their archives performed. The Newspaper Project search engine also allows you to see the specific holdings of each institution in terms of publication date, which can narrow the list of organizations that you need to contact. For example, the Library of Virginia does not possess editions from 1906, 1907 or 1909 but does contain those published in 1908. The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech possess the 1908 and 1909 editions, and the Virginia Historical Society only has access to a damaged copy of the 1893 edition.

What if You Still Can’t Find Information About Your Ancestor?

When you’re conducting a genealogy search, it can be helpful to look into individuals related to the person who is proving difficult to locate. In this case, you might attempt to find an obituary for Charles Richard Jackson’s widow. A quick search of U.S. census records informed us that Rosa Dallas Jackson remarried sometime before 1920 and assumed a new surname, Lockhart. She can be found in the 1920 U.S. census via Ancestry.com (subscription required) with her husband, Harry Lockhart, and sons Dan Jackson (your father) and Willard Lockhart.

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According to a search of the Ancestry.com database West Virginia, Deaths Index, 1853-1973, Rosa D. Lockhart died in Prenter, Boone County, W.Va., on Jan. 18, 1960.

Having gathered this information, we were able to restrict our search terms to newspapers published in West Virginia from 1959 to 1961. A search of NewspaperArchive (subscription required) returned the obituary of Mrs. Rosa D. Lockhart that was published in the Charleston Daily Mail on Jan. 19, 1960. Unfortunately, there is no mention of her first husband, Charles Richard Jackson, but performing this search revealed a record of your grandmother that you might not have found through other search methods.

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A final useful approach, unique to your query and others like it, would be to look into local institutions in Russell County to identify contacts that can help direct your research. The Russell County Public Library’s Local History Web page boasts a local genealogist on staff who answers digital inquiries. Next to the library is the Russell County Courthouse, which could also be an excellent resource, particularly given the nature of your inquiry. Your first step would be to contact the courthouse, whose staff will likely be knowledgeable about where their early-20th-century court records can be found and whether or not they can be accessed by the public. Go here and scroll down for the courthouse contact information.

If the records are housed in the courthouse archives, you might simply need to solicit the efforts of a courthouse employee to perform a search for you. You might also inquire about the availability of coroners’ records for this time period. If your grandfather’s death was indeed the result of a crime, a coroner was likely notified and involved in the legal processes surrounding the event. Although these sources are often not as readily available to the public, in the absence of a death record or a newspaper article, legal records might be the only surviving account of the death.

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Grappling with missing, damaged or destroyed vital records when you’re researching your family history can be frustrating and disheartening. There are, however, many approaches to genealogical research that, while requiring a bit of creativity, can indirectly lead to answers.

Good luck!

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also chairman of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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Send your questions about tracing your own roots to TracingYourRoots@theroot.com.

This answer was provided in consultation with Anna L. Todd, a researcher from the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Founded in 1845, NEHGS is the country’s leading nonprofit resource for family history research. Its website, AmericanAncestors.org, contains more than 300 million searchable records for research in New England, New York and beyond. With the leading experts in the field, NEHGS staff can provide assistance and guidance for questions in most research areas. They can also be hired to conduct research on your family. Learn more today about researching African-American roots.