All not lost

Survival of records

It is rarely the case, even in the worst of records disasters, that all is lost.

LandscapeYes, the courthouse may have burned, but some records usually survived, and people often came back in after the fire to re-record critical documents like deeds.

Yes, the flood may have taken out everything stored in the basement and first floor, but perhaps those second floor records made it through.

And, yes, there really are San Francisco records from the years before 1906.

From the years before that day, exactly 108 years ago today, when San Francisco was rocked by an earthquake of massive proportions.

The earliest tremor hit the city at 5:12 a.m., and what has been called the Great Earthquake — centering in San Francisco — hit 20-25 seconds later. According to the U.S. Geological Survey:

The earthquake was felt from southern Oregon to south of Los Angeles and inland as far as central Nevada. … The frequently quoted value of 700 deaths caused by the earthquake and fire is now believed to underestimate the total loss of life by a factor of 3 or 4. Most of the fatalities occurred in San Francisco, and 189 were reported elsewhere.1

The city was devastated, and its records seriously damaged.

But even in that terrible disaster, all was not lost.

You will find, today, online at FamilySearch, some records of pre-1906 San Francisco. There are, for example:

• Deed Books 001 (1847) through 226 (1863-1864).2

• Volumes 1-5 of certified land grants, 1847-1850.3

• Bond Book volume 17, 1897-1901.4

• Miscellaneous records, volume 2, 1848-1850.5

• Great Register volume 67, 1867, and 69, 1869.6

There is more — quite a bit more… if you know how to find it.

And for that we can all be grateful as genealogists, because there’s a book out there to answer all our questions about what did, and what didn’t survive, the 1906 earthquake.

Written by Nancy Simons Peterson, CG, the research director of the California Genealogical Society, Raking The Ashes: Genealogical Strategies For Pre-1906 San Francisco Research7 is the one and only go-to resource for those of us who need to research pre- and post-earthquake San Francisco.

It’s a 242-page paperback that takes the researcher through the issues of what did and didn’t survive, what workarounds exist for things that didn’t survive, what additional resources are available, and even what research techniques are particularly applicable to solving difficult problems of pre-1906 San Francisco.

For $25 ($20 for members of the California Genealogical Society ordering through the CGS website), it’d be a steal just for the research techniques discussion by itself.

You can get your copy through the California Genealogical Society website (the information page is here), through the website for the book (here) or even through Amazon (here).

And, by the way, at the book’s website, you will find not only more information about the book, but the author has painstakingly added updates even since the 2012 publication of the second edition.

The book has three parts:

• Original records: What Did and Did Not Survive, with Work-Arounds for Lost Records

• Continuing the Search: Additional Resources

• Research Techniques for Solving Genealogical Problems

And an appendix sets out Pre-earthquake Newspaper Collections: Titles, Local Sources and Dates of Coverage.

If you’re doing pre-1906 San Francisco research, you want this book for what it will tell you about what did and didn’t make it through that earthquake. And if you’re not doing pre-1906 San Francisco research, you want this book for what it will tell you about research techniques useful anywhere there was records loss.

Raking The Ashes: Genealogical Strategies For Pre-1906 San Francisco Research.

Highly recommended.


  1. The Great 1906 San Francisco Earthquake,” USGS, Earthquake Hazards Program, ( : accessed 17 Apr 2014).
  2. See “Land and Property Records,” digital images, “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 17 Apr 2014).
  3. Ibid.
  4. See “Public Records,” digital images, “California, San Francisco County Records, 1824-1997,” FamilySearch ( : accessed 17 Apr 2014).
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Nancy Simons Peterson, Raking The Ashes: Genealogical Strategies For Pre-1906 San Francisco Research, 2nd ed. (Oakland, California : California Genealogical Society, 2012).
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4 Responses to All not lost

  1. Phil Clark says:

    During The War Between the States, General Sherman marched through the southern states, destroying everything. Many city/town Courthouses were destroyed. All Courthouse records prior to 1864 were lost. Are there any known resources for this “lost” information? Thanks.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There are lots of resources, Phil, but no one single source. Every county is going to be a little different. But the research techniques outlined in Nancy’s book can be used anywhere. And, by the way, you can’t blame Sherman — or even the Yankees — for a lot of Civil War records loss. Those of us with Virginia ancestors, for example, can blame the Confederates for setting Richmond on fire (after many counties sent their records to Richmond “for safekeeping”).

  2. Jeanette Hopkins says:

    The great thing about this book is that the research techniques are valuable anywhere there are lost records. I purchased this book when it was first published and its earned a permanent spot in my bookcase!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      That’s exactly why I mention this book as often as I can, Jeanette — the techniques are transferable!

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