JOPLIN, Mo. — As we turn our calendars to a new year, you’ll find that many historical anniversaries are set to take place in 2023. In Missouri, several of those anniversaries are associated with county courthouses. However, not every anniversary is a celebratory one. For example, 2023 marks the 160th anniversary of the arson fire that destroyed the Vernon County Courthouse (including the entire town of Nevada).
The damage to Missouri courthouses has a tremendous bearing on families in each and every way. These historic buildings are ripped from our lifetimes and the archives they kept: Marriage, wills, probate, land records, and others. Once destroyed, these paper artifacts are permanently lost.
When you look at the dates, most Missouri courthouses that were lost to the fire took place from 1881 to 1885, and it’s not just a coincidence. This was the time of the US Civil War, and when you have a slave state (Missouri) next to a free state (Kansas), minor skirmishes and battles were quick to break out in nearly every county in the “Show-Me State.”
Thanks to the historical records website, “Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness” (RAOGK), the dates and information surrounding these courthouse fires have been archived for future generations to access and learn about. The following list from RAOGK reveals which Missouri courthouses went up in flames during the Civil War period of April 1861 to April 1865:
List of Missouri Counties with Burned Courthouses (1861-1865)
- Barry County Courthouse – Courthouse burned in 1861, and some records were destroyed.
- Bates County Courthouse – Courthouse burned in 1861, and some records were destroyed.
- Barton County Courthouse – Courthouse burned in November 1862.
- Chariton County Courthouse – A fire in the clerk’s office, apart from the courthouse, destroyed all county court records on November 11th, 1861, and fires set by Confederates on September 20th, 1864, destroyed the courthouse.
- Christian County Courthouse – Arsonists destroyed the building and all court records in 1865.
- Dade County Courthouse – The courthouse was destroyed during the Civil War on October 6th, 1863. Some records were destroyed.
- Dallas County Courthouse – Confederate troops burned the building on October 18th, 1863.
- Dent County Courthouse – Courthouse burned in 1864. The next courthouse, built in 1864, also fell victim to fire in May 1866. The fire destroyed county records.
- Greene County Courthouse – A fire destroyed the courthouse on October 28th, 1861.
- Holt County Courthouse – Courthouse fire in February 1965. Records saved.
- Howell County Courthouse – In the fall of 1863, guerrillas burned West Plains and the Courthouse. Most records were destroyed. The county reorganized in 1866.
- Jasper County Courthouse – Courthouse was destroyed by fire in October 1863. County records were saved by moving them to Neosho, Missouri.
- McDonald County Courthouse – In 1856 a log courthouse, reportedly built in Rutledge, was demolished by Rioters. Bushwackers burned the courthouse in 1863, destroying most records. Deeds before 1863 were recreated.
- Newton County Courthouse – Courthouse burned in 1862, destroying many county records.
- Oregon County Courthouse – In October 1863, this courthouse was burned in a Civil War incident, destroying many county records.
- Ozark County Courthouse – Courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1858 or 1859; all early records were destroyed. The second courthouse was destroyed by fire sometime before February 1864. Some records were lost. The third courthouse was destroyed by fire on November 28th, 1934.
- Reynolds County Courthouse – The courthouse has burned twice. The first time was in December 1863, when the Confederate army burned it. A new courthouse was built in the fall of 1867 on the same foundation as the prior one. This courthouse was burned in late November 1871. Both times all records were destroyed. Temporary quarters again burned on May 27th, 1872, while a new “fireproof” courthouse was built.
- Saline County Courthouse – In August 1864, the courthouse burned due to Civil War activity.
- Stoddard County Courthouse – During Price’s raid in September 1864, some stragglers burned the courthouse, but fortunately, the records had been removed.
- Shannon County Courthouse – Courthouse was burned by soldiers in 1863, destroying this early courthouse along with all county records.
- St. Clair County Courthouse – The courthouse apparently was burned in September 1861 by Gen. James Lane. One account claims that Lane’s raid only partially destroyed the courthouse; by some accounts, it was rebuilt and used until November 1864, when it was again burned in Civil War activity. Probate Court records were destroyed.
- Taney County Courthouse – The courthouse was burned in 1863 by Union troops trying to keep the fortress out of the hands of Confederates.
- Vernon County Courthouse – Both the courthouse and clerk’s office were destroyed when the town was burned in 1863. County Court records are missing from 1861-1865.
- Webster County Courthouse – Courthouse was accidentally burned by troops in 1863.
- Wright County Courthouse – Courthouse was partially destroyed in 1862 and reportedly burned on January 11th, 1863.