Trial by Fire Podcast

Recently, I was left the following comment on my post “The Less Mysterious Life of Amy Willis or Waiter, are there any “Peppers” in this?”. 

You’re stating here that Elizabeth’s daughter, Victoria, died 1871 as a Reynolds, but Victoria is on the 1870-1880 censuses. And shown as such in your article 18 June 2018. The Mysterious Case of Amy Peppers Willis versus Amy Collins Willis.

My first response was “I’ll have to revisit this and get back to you”.  Revisit it I did… 

Victoria Reynolds/Collins is very mysterious indeed!  There are only 2 records that make reference to a Victoria Reynolds or Victoria Collins, and only one website, Find a Grave that mentions Victoria Reynolds: 

Victoria is found in 1870 Census-Carroll Twp., Lincoln County, WV living with an Elizabeth Reynolds. Ezekial Reynolds is the head of the household, with his wife Emma, Ana: 

Victoria Collins is found in 1880 Census-Lincoln County, WV living with an Elizabeth Reynolds: 

Victoria A. Reynolds is found on Find A Grave born 1861 and died 1871 buried at the Curry Chapel Cemetery:

Click the link for a list of Reynolds family members buried at the Curry Chapel Cemetery 

Click the link for a list of Collins family members buried at the Curry Chapel Cemetery 

The mystery of Victoria may never be solved and I’ll tell you why a little later. 

Now we can make the assumption that one of these Victorias is the daughter of Elizabeth Reynolds Collins (1831-1900).  The children of Elizabeth Collins I have discussed in previous posts would be: 

John Henry Collins, Amy Collins, Moses A. Collins, Thomas C. Collins, Victoria Reynolds/Collins, Sarah M. Collins and Blackburn Collins. 

Of all these children, I’ve only found two that have death certificates that mention a parent or parents. Only one that I found had a marriage record that mentions a parent or parents.  A good portion of them are enigmas that I cannot seem to resolve simply due to lack of the records you would think you might find, especially on a website like West Virginia Culture Vital Records Search

So why do some of these individuals seem so mysterious? 

Well, let’s look at the location of the majority of the subject family members of the Reynolds and Collins families in the time period from 1870-1900…Lincoln County, WV. 

As genealogical researchers, there are events in our county’s history that we cannot be aware of unless we research what happened in those locations, specifically those localized events that occurred during the time periods in which our ancestors were born, lived and died.  We always need to keep in the back of our minds when researching, that when records don’t show up for our ancestors, something else or some event may be having an impact on our research. 

The administrator of the Putnam County, West Virginia Genealogy Facebook Group, Melissa Fizer Conley had mentioned a fire at the Lincoln County Courthouse in the early 1900s when I had asked about the Collins mystery.  I immediately went to and did a search for Lincoln County fire between 1900 and 1910, and I found a newspaper article dated 25 November 1909 in the Raleigh Herald, Beckley, West Virginia regarding a Joseph and John Adkins having been arrested, believed to be guilty of starting a fire at the Lincoln County courthouse.

I later found a newspaper headline dated  25 November 1909 from the Independent Herald, Hinton, WV. Lincoln Courthouse of the oldest structures in West Virginia.

I then found an article 23 Dec 1909, The Independent-Herald (Hinton, WV) with the statement that no researcher wants to read. The fire destroyed every public record, including all deed books, mortgage books, chancery records and indictment.

This fire that was deliberately set erased volumes of valuable records and information that can never be brought back. 

After I read these newspaper articles, my first thought was “This is why we can’t have nice things!” 

So based on this one event, with the exception of some land and land tax records that were not in the building at the time, no record survived up to and including the 19th Nov 1909 in Lincoln County, WV.  This information is devastating in so many ways…I immediately thought of my wife’s grandfather, James M. Midkiff.  We believed that there was a birth record left in the Lincoln County Courthouse for him.  He was born in 1905. That record may have verified the name of his father, whom we believe is James T. Lambert (1867-1951). 

I found a listing for missing records in all counties of West Virginia including Lincoln County. 

From the West Virginia Archives & History News, Vol. I, No. 12, February 2001.

The amount of records lost to courthouse fires alone throughout West Virginia is staggering. 

Is it any wonder that any records for anyone, including the Collins family members don’t show up for Lincoln County? 

I still wanted to know why did this happen.  After a little more searching, I found this: 

“Lincoln—one of five counties formed after West Virginia became a state—was always agricultural in nature. In particular, it was one of the state’s most productive farming regions for tobacco. 

The arrival of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in the first years of the 20th century began to change the county’s economy. The C&O led to booms in the oil, gas, and timber industries. Relatively inexpensive farmland skyrocketed in value virtually overnight. Much of this land was owned by poor farmers who had little or no knowledge of real estate law. 

For more than a century, Lincoln Countians have speculated that land speculators and lawyers had the courthouse torched to destroy land records and confuse titles. After the fire, speculators rushed in to file claims on mineral-rich lands as native Lincoln Countians lost titles to land that had been in their families for generations.” 

From the website: WV Public Broadcasting 

Although it’s a hard pill to swallow, you just have to move on from discovering such news.  Some family mysteries may not ever be solved, but I say “never say never”.  There are other ways to prove family member relationships…family bibles, newspaper articles, biographical and genealogical books and other sources.  Try getting in touch with a local historical society.  You’ll be amazed what you may find.  I was able to get a photo of my 2x great-grandfather, Edward Harris from the Lykens Historical Society simply because I got in touch with the curator, and by doing so, I was also able to find out that the curator and I are cousins. 





Putnam County West Virginia Genealogy 

Featured Image: Lincoln County Courthouse, Hamlin, WV – Fire in 1909 (Left) & Rebuilt 1911 (Right) 

Courtesy of Courthouse History 


Melissa Fizer Conley – Putnam County West Virginia Genealogy 

Cheryl, my wife – thank you for your love and support. Love you Sweetie!! I couldn’t do it without you! 

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