Why were there so many courthouse fires in America in the 18th and 19th centuries?
Paper genocide: Those “oh so frequent” county courthouse fires in buildings that seem to have suffered from bouts of spontaneous combustion. The same government buildings that contained land deeds, marriage, birth record, and anything on paper that identifies us legally as American Indians in our land which counties claim have been destroyed. North Carolina has had its share of courthouse fires.
Highlighted in this article is the town of Snow Hill, North Carolina which is located in Greene County, formally Dobbs County. Snow Hill is now built on Tuscarora Territory or the land of my Ancestors. Snow Hill, formally known as Neoheroka or Neyuheru:ke’ in Tuscarora is the stronghold constructed by the Tuscarora during the Tuscarora War of 1711-1715.
Aftermath of the Greene County Court House Fire- 1876 From the Carolina Messenger-Goldsboro, N.C. March 16, 1876
“GREENE COURT.- This tribunal is in session at Snow Hill, where we spent a few hours among our friends on Tuesday. The court is being held in the old Academy building.
Judge Seymour presides. Among the many legal gentlemen present we noticed the familiar faces of Messrs W. T. Dortch, A. K. Smedes, W. T. Faircloth, E. A. Thompson, John F. Wooten, Swift Galloway, Col. Yellowly, and others. There are about sixty cases on the criminal docket, and probably the same number on the civil docket.
It is thought that the court will adjourn by Saturday. The burning of the courthouse and destruction of papers may impede the progress of the court somewhat, but no trouble is anticipated.
The destruction of county Records will necessarily involve much litigation. It is hoped that the Legislature will afford all possibly [sic] relief.
The county Register has already ordered a new set of Record books and will shortly commence the work of replacing his Records.
The origin of the fire is still a matter of doubt, with many. There are some who firmly adhere to the opinion that the fire was the result of *incendiarism, while others think it originated from the stove in the Registers office.
Efforts will doubtless be made soon for rebuilding the courthouse. It is thought that $ 4,000 will rebuild the present walls of brick, while someplace the estimate at less than this.
We were surprised to hear the question of removing the courthouse discussed with so much earnestness.
There are some who would like Hookerton to be the county seat, while a number of moneyed gentlemen of the Speight’s Bridge section declare positive that if ever the courthouse is rebuilt at Snow Hill it must be done at the individual expense of the citizens and friends of that town, without expense to the county.
In support of this declaration Col. Owen W. Jones, offers to build a courthouse for the county on his land (which his friends claim is about the center of the county) at his own expense unless the rebuilding at Snow Hill can be effected without expense to the tax-payers.
Of course, the question of removal would have to be decided by a vote of the people, and it is hardly probable [sic] that a removal will be consented to.
At any rate, the proposition of Col. Owens may save the county the expense of rebuilding. As is everywhere the case our Greene county friends complain of stringency in money matters.”
1. the act or practice of an arsonist; malicious burning.
2.inflammatory behavior; agitation.
Many records were also stolen from the courts by court clerks. I don’t believe our Native American Indian people burned down courthouses to destroy their own records. The records were either stolen or destroyed by whites to cover up Indian land thefts by whites.
Many Indian records that were not burned were salvaged after the fires and held by families of the courthouse officials. Some say those records exist to this day under lock and key within those counties. Could you imagine the courthouse fire numbers if we took a look at each state’s record of courthouse fires?
North Carolina Courthouse Fire Records:
- Alleghany County Courthouse – 1932 (fire, record loss)
- Alexander County Courthouse – 1865 (civil war, record loss), 1967 (fire)
- Craven County Courthouse – 1712 (records destroyed by Indians)
- Anson County Courthouse – 1868 (fire)
- Ashe County Courthouse – 1865 (fire, records fragmented)
- Bladen County Courthouse – 1770 (fire), 1800 (fire), 1893 (fire)
- Brunswick County Courthouse – 1865 (civil war, record loss), 1957 (clerk’s office fire)
- Buncombe County Courthouse – 1830 (fire), 1865 (fire)
- Burke County Courthouse – 1865 (civil war, record loss)
- Cabarrus County Courthouse – 1876 (fire)
- Cherokee County Courthouse – 1865 (fire), 1895 (fire), 1926 (fire)
- Chowan County Courthouse – 1848 (records destroyed by acting clerk)
- Clay County Courthouse – 1870 (fire, records destroyed)
- Craven County Courthouse – 1712 (records destroyed by Indians)
- Currituck County Courthouse – 1842 (fire)
- Davidson County Courthouse – 1866 (fire)
- Gaston County Courthouse – 1874 (fire)
- Greene County Courthouse – 1876 (fire)
- Guilford County Courthouse – 1781 (fire), 1872 (fire)
- Harnett County Courthouse – 1892 (fire), 1894 (fire)
- Haywood County Courthouse – 1932 (records destroyed in move to new courthouse)
- Hertford County Courthouse – 1830 (fire), 1822 (fire)
- Hyde County Courthouse – 1789 (fire), 1827 (fire)
- Iredell County Courthouse – 1854 (fire)
- Jackson County Courthouse – 1913 (records lost when county seat moved)
- Jones County Courthouse – 1862 (fire) ‘Courthouse was burned during Civil War battle, many court records destroyed.
- Lenoir County Courthouse – 1878 (fire), 1880 (fire) Most court records were destroyed
- Lincoln County Courthouse – 1797 (records may have been destroyed by fire in private home)
- Martin County Courthouse – 1862 (fire) ‘Courthouse fire destroyed many court records.
- Mitchell County Courthouse – 1907 (some records destroyed in the move to new courthouse)
- Montgomery County Courthouse – 1835 (fire), 1840 (fire), 1886 (may have suffered record loss from courthouse fire.
- The clerk said that he saved the records but that they were “in a state of great confusion.”)
- Moore County Courthouse – 1889 (fire) Courthouse fire destroyed most of the land records and many court records
- New Hanover County Courthouse – 1789, 1819 & 1840 (all 3 courthouse fires may have destroyed some records)
- Onslow County Courthouse – 1752 & 1755 (records destroyed by storm)
- Orange County Courthouse – 1781 (records destroyed when buried in woods to avoid capture or destruction by Cornwallis)
- Pitt County Courthouse – 1857 (fire) Courthouse fire destroyed most of the court records.
- Rowan County Courthouse – 1865 (civil war, record loss) records were destroyed by Federal troops
- Rutherford County Courthouse – 1907 (fire)
- Sampson County Courthouse – 1921 (clerk’s office fire) Some early court records are missing because of Federal sympathizers in 1865; Clerk’s office fire in 1921. Early deed books of Duplin County prior to 1784
- Swain County Courthouse – 1879 Courthouse fire destroyed many records and on January 7, 1908, the Courthouse was burned by rioters. No records were saved
- Wake County Courthouse – Several deed books were destroyed in register’s office fire in 1832.
- Warren County Courthouse – 1935 (Some early County records may have been destroyed) County Court Records from abt 1814 -1823 are missing There is a loss of records for around the 1935 time period. Deed Books 15 and 16, 1799 1803, are missing from the courthouse and from the NC Archives.
- Washington County Courthouse – County records destroyed by bombardment in the Civil War in 1862. Fires have destroyed most of the court records and many of the land records in 1869 and 1881.
- Watauga County Courthouse – Courthouse fire in 1873 destroyed all of the land records and most of the court records.
- Wayne County Courthouse – 1781 (records may have been destroyed in courthouse fire)