“Wake swamp and river, coast and rill,” encourages South Carolina’s state song, aptly named “Carolina.” Up Country, Low Country, sea, shore and land—South Carolina’s diverse geography complements its deep history and proud people. Read on for how to research your ancestors who lived in the Palmetto State.
Before contact with Europeans, several Native American tribes lived in modern South Carolina. Notable among them were the Catawba, Cherokee and Creek. The federal government today recognizes just one tribe in the state (the Catawba in Rock Hill), though the state recognizes several others: the Pee Dee Nation, the Pee Dee Indian Tribe, the Waccamaw, the Beaver Creek Indians, and more. Spanish explorers ventured to the region in the 1520s, but colonization efforts by them (and, later, French Huguenots) failed.
The British Crown granted the “Province of Carolina” to a group of eight noblemen, the “Lords Proprietors,” in 1663. The vast swath of land included both Carolinas as well as Georgia, and extended west into modern Tennessee. Charles Town (Charleston) was founded in 1670, and quickly became an important port city for the area’s burgeoning rice, indigo and cotton industries. The slave trade (which dealt in both enslaved Africans and enslaved Native Americans) was especially profitable. Social and economic differences between the two Carolinas led to their partition in 1710, though the Lords Proprietors continued to govern both. Carolinians rebelled against them in 1719, leading the Crown to eventually buy out the Proprietors’ land. Once it did, South Carolina became a royal colony in its own right. Georgia split off a few years later in 1731.
The colony saw considerable action during the Revolutionary War. The British occupied Charleston from 1780 to 1782, and Colonial militias stamped out attacks from both Native American and Loyalist factions. Of note, the Patriots secured an important victory at the Battle of Cowpens in northern South Carolina. After independence, South Carolina ratified the Constitution, becoming the eighth US state. In the 1820s and 1830s, the state frequently butted heads with the federal government. The South Carolina state legislature voted to reject a Congressional tariff in 1833, setting of a “nullification crisis” that threatened the Union.
Congress authorized military action against South Carolina should it not comply—while also negotiating a new, amenable tariff. Armed conflict was avoided for the time being, but the incident set the stage for later trouble. Population growth in South Carolina was slower than in other states, largely due to its focus on the agricultural industry. The state heavily relied on enslaved labor, and as such was among the most vociferous defendants of the institution of slavery. In fact, enslaved African Americans made up the majority of South Carolina’s population from 1820 until the Civil War.
South Carolina’s state government was the first to vote for secession in 1860. And it was at Fort Sumter near Charleston that the first shots of the Civil War were fired. The state fared poorly in the war and its aftermath. Its economy was devastated as a result of abolition, and Union General William T. Sherman’s forces (fresh off the ruinous “March to the Sea” in neighboring Georgia) burned plantations and the capital of Columbia.
1566 The Spanish settle Santa
Elena on Parris Island 1663 King Charles II grants the Province of Carolina to
eight Lords Proprietors
1670 Charleston is founded 1710 The Province of Carolina
splits into North and South 1780 The British capture Charleston as part of the Revolutionary War
1788 South Carolina joins
the Union as the eighth state 1833 The state legislature
approves a measure declaring a federal tariff
unconstitutional, setting of the nullification crisis 1860 South Carolina becomes
the first state to secede from the Union
1861 The Civil War begins
when Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter,
near Charleston 1919 Allendale County is created from Barnwell and Hampton Counties, the last major change to S.C.’s county boundaries
Like many other Southern states, South Carolina has relatively scarce vital records. The legislature first required state-level birth and death registration in 1915, though individual cities kept records earlier (e.g., Charleston’s date to the 1800s). Likewise, the state first required marriage registration in 1911. Earlier attempts to require vital record-keeping were either ignored or quickly repealed; few, if any, records survive. Church registers can serve as substitute records for vital events that took place before mandatory registration.
By law, all vital events—regardless of the participants’ religion—were recorded by the Church of England/Episcopal Church from 1706 to 1778. Surviving parish registers have been published, either in book form or in publications like The South Carolina Historical Magazine. Authorized individuals—immediate relatives of the deceased and those proving a legal need—can request post-1915 birth and death records from the state’s department of health. Those who don’t meet that criteria might only receive the date and county of death, instead of a copy of the record. Death certificates become open to public after 50 years, and are available from the state archives. The department helpfully provides an online index of deaths from 1915 to 1963; listings are organized by era, then surname.
There are fewer restrictions on marriage records, which can be requested from the vital records office from 1950 onward. For pre-1950 records, consult the probate court in the county where the marriage took place. FamilySearch and Ancestry.com each have collections of both civil vital records and church records.
One of the original Thirteen Colonies, South Carolina has appeared in every decennial US federal census, dating to 1790. Records—available at FamilySearch, Ancestry.com, MyHeritage and other sites—are mostly complete, with some omissions for Clarendon County and the Richland District (near Columbia). And, as throughout the United States, records of the 1890 census have been lost.
As previously mentioned, South Carolina was important in both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Find compiled service records of the former through FamilySearch, and consult Roster of South Carolina Patriots in the American Revolution by Bobby Gilmer Moss (Genealogical Publishing Co.) for lists of some 26,000 soldiers who served.
The Lords Proprietors granted land in both Carolinas until they were deposed. FamilySearch has an e-book titled Warrants for Land in South Carolina that covers most of this period, from 1672 to 1711. Later grants were made by colonial and state governments and recorded either in Charleston (1719–1785) or Columbia (from 1786), with deeds kept in county clerk of court offices after Independence. The state archives have various records, including plats for state land grants through 1868; some records have been microfilmed by FamilySearch. Note that the boundary with North Carolina wasn’t finally settled until 1815, so residents of northern South Carolina (or southern North Carolina) might have been recorded in the “wrong” colony/state.
Notices in newspapers can be substitutes for vital records, given the state’s late adoption of civil registration. Publishing in the state began with the South-Carolina Weekly Journal and the South-Carolina Gazette, both printed in Charleston in 1732. The University of South Carolina Libraries has compiled a collection of newspapers dating to 1815, and you can view titles by county. Several subscription websites have South Carolina newspapers: Newspapers.com, GenealogyBank, MyHeritage, and NewspaperArchive.
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