Monday, June 18, 2012

Genealogy disasters, a new record type for me

You know how birders have "life lists"? Well, I just added a record type to my genealogy "life list."

I was examining a manuscript collection left by a descendant of a prominent Gibson County, Indiana, politician to whom I am not related (but who is in the FAN club of a mysterious collateral). He was evidently an attorney for my great-great-grandfather's sister-in-law's sister, Mary [Balentine] Taylor. How else would some correspondence about her $54 premium note no. 2699 to the Illinois Mutual Fire Insurance Company show up in his papers?

I do not yet understand all the details of how a mutual insurance company worked in the mid-1800s, but it was such that the company sent out an annual list of the fire losses its policyholders had suffered and then assessed others (such as Mary) for an amount calculated to keep the company afloat. In any case they did send her and others a list of several dozen fire losses they suffered between April 1851 and March 1852 -- including the names of policyholders, locations, kinds of property lost, and the dollar amount of each loss.

Googling revealed a much shorter 1842 list of fires they insured, and WorldCat shows that the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library holds several annual reports (but not this one), including one that apparently lists all their losses from 1839 to 1868!

In the past I had used my grandfather's insurance-policy applications for research, but I love the idea that another kind of insurance company record could be good for another purpose: to serve as a kind of statewide dragnet for locating and learning more about people, including additional information published in local newspapers in the aftermath of the fires. (I also love the idea that a key record from an Illinois company headquartered in Alton, Madison County -- near St. Louis -- shows up in an archive in Indianapolis.)

In a perfect world I would now jump whole hog into "insurance disaster genealogy":
* study how such companies worked;
* look for formal or informal histories of the company;
* investigate its fate following the Great Chicago Fire (which destroyed many an overextended insurance company without ever touching their offices);
* visit Springfield and consider indexing that 1839-1868 list, and
* look for more records or similar companies in other states and other archives. (If you get to do any of these things, let us know!)

But in this world I have impending deadlines, so for now I leave you with the wonderful list.

Illinois Mutual Fire Insurance Company, schedule of losses, fiscal year 1851-1852; Box 4, Folder 1, Lucius C. Embree collection L52, Indiana State Library, Indianapolis.

Harold Henderson, "Genealogy disasters, a new record type for me," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 18 June 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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