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December 24, 2012 / Joanne Yeck

The Burning of Buckingham Courthouse

Buckingham Courthousephoto by Joanne Yeck

There are many so-called “burned counties” in Virginia and Buckingham is one of them.

The courthouse that burned in February of 1869 was doubly precious, not only did it contain virtually all of the county’s records since its inception in 1761; the building was designed by Thomas Jefferson. Ironically, both the structure and the records had survived the Civil War only to be burned by an arsonist.  On February 24th, The Richmond Dispatch reported:

A sad calamity has befallen our county. The court-house was set fire yesterday morning about 1 o’clock, and by daylight was a mass of ruins. The clerks’ offices of the county were kept in the court-house, and there is not a single record left—-everything lost. This county was organized in 1761, and the records relating back to its foundation have also been destroyed. No suspicion attaches to anyone, but the building was evidently fired with a view of destroying the clerks’ offices.

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  1. Joanne Yeck / Dec 31 2012 9:19 am

    Marti — Courthouses burned under various circumstances, most during war, fewer due to arson. When the British burned Albemarle Courthouse, for example, not only was Albemarle’s pre-1781 history lost, but also Buckingham’s history prior to its inception in 1761, when it was “cut” out of Albemarle. “Damn Yankees” are responsible for some of the burning as well. Sometimes early frame courthouses just simply caught on fire, one of the reasons Thomas Jefferson advocated brick structures. His designs for Virginia courthouses reflected this prejudice.

    The Library of Virginia has this to say about the challenges of doing research in so-called burned counties:

    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.

  2. Martha Moody / Dec 31 2012 8:48 am

    Joanne–These ramblings are always interesting and I’m impressed with all your research.
    One thing: I’ve never heard of “burned counties.” What does this mean? Who was thought to set these fires? Was this related to the recent war?
    Your curious friend,
    Marti Moody

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