Government Seizes & Destroys 160 Year Old Historical Documents – Outrage among Genealogists & Historians

Last summer, the Clerk of Court in Franklin County, N.C., Patricia Chastain discovered documents dating back to 1840 in their courthouse basement. After organizing a project with the local historical society to preserve these valuable documents, the government intervened. And now the documents have been destroyed. Lost forever.

Some records were ruined by the mold, but most were completely viable.


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The collection of documents reviewed by the Heritage Society of Franklin County included Chattel mortgages, court documents, land transfer deeds, prohibition era-documents, delayed birth certificates, financial documents and county bonds.

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The group’s board member and historian, Diane Torrent told Joshua Cook how excited she was when she analyzed this impressive collection.

“When I saw the Chattel mortgages I thought it was manna from heaven,” said Torrent. “Each book or box opened produced a new treasure.”

Torrent said that people in the community donated to help fund this document project. The donations included office space, computers, scanners, desks and filling cabinets – even a local judge paid the insurance to guarantee the project’s success.  Over 30 people donated their time.

Torrent explained why these documents were so important to genealogists and historians: “The U.S. Census is done every 10 yearsbut in 1890, the census was burned. All the census records for this date was lost. For example, the census records for 1880 jumps to 1900. So for researchers, any document that can fill in that 1890 gap is valuable and precious. It’s another tool for historians and genealogists,” she said.

“Chattel mortgages are not vital records, but they are important because they can show relationships in the community in that period of time. They can show neighbors borrowing from each other. The records also include names and dates, which is very important for researchers,” she added.

Torrent said that they found original immigration papers, which is surprising since the county, which is located in North Carolina, is landlocked. Another unique find was a letter from a soldier from World War I who wrote the clerk of courts to make sure his sister was being taken care of.

“This is extremely valuable to the family. It’s valuable for the community,” said Torrent.

Torrent said that trouble started when she contacted the North Carolina Department of Archives to ask for help with the process. The State Archives asked the Heritage Society about their cursory inventory and asked about the types of documents and dates they found. They told the Heritage Society that they would get back with them with an official assessment.

Torrent continued to work on the records, but after the Heritage Society began to archive the documents in their new office, Angela Harris, the county manager told them to “stand down.”

According to Torrent, the assessment from the State Archives had finally arrived. The documents were worthless and should be destroyed, the state contended.  They claimed that the records could not be preserved by the Heritage Society because of the chance of mold contamination.

The State Archives reportedly came in and confiscated some of the historical records. Torrent asked the State Archives why the documents were being confiscated if they were dangerous and of no value. Their reply was, they’re “clean,” Torrent said.

She said that those “clean” documents were picked up from the floor of the basement and placed into white boxes. Her protests were ignored.

The hazmat team was called by the county manager. All of the documents in the basement, including documents not infected by mold, were destroyed.

“Clean” prohibition files from the 1930s
“Clean” prohibition files from the 1930s


Torrent says they still do not have answers. “None of our questions have been answered, none of our phone calls have been returned,” she said.

Torrent questions why the documents were destroyed and why there was a lack of transparency.

“I think it was poor judgment,” said Torrent. “They did not realize the value of historic documents to the community at large. They don’t know the public. Some people don’t care about history; they just think it’s junk.”

“This to me is a difference of what we hold valuable. I hold this county’s history valuable. These were not mundane records, these were historical documents and now they are lost forever.”

One blogger wrote, “My suspicion is that in and amongst all those now destroyed records, was a paper trail associated with one or more now prominent, politically connected NC families that found its wealth and success through theft, intimidation and outrageous corruption.”

The actions by the state and county officials have angered residents. An online petition was created claiming that Northern “carpetbaggers” ordered the documents to be destroyed.

“Are there African Americans living in Franklin County, North Carolina today whose ancestors owned land stolen by carpetbaggers?” the petition asks.

Land Proceedings Index dated 1852
Land Proceedings Index dated 1852


Some in Franklin County are calling for county manager’s resignation. Watch the video below:

“The tax payers of Franklin paid $8,000 to destroy the documents, including the basement cleanup. I could have laminated every document for less than $8,000,” said Torrent.

Torrent’s advice to other historical societies facing similar challenges is, “get loud now. Get vocal very early.”

We called the county manager’s office but was unable to get a response.

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