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South Carolina County records differ extensively from county to county in either quality and quantity. Some have already been carefully conserved while some have been significantly abused and mistreated. A certain amount of South Carolina records have merely disappeared. For genealogists carrying out research in South Carolina you will find no effective substitute to have an on-site search of county court house records.
South Carolina is divided into 46 counties. Each county serves as the local level of government within its borders. In the colonial period, the land around the coast was divided into parishes corresponding to the parishes of the Church of England. There were also several counties that had judicial and electoral functions. As people settled the backcountry, judicial districts and additional counties were formed. This structure continued and grew after the Revolutionary War. In 1800, all counties were renamed as districts. In 1868, the districts were converted back to counties.
Generally, county officers in South Carolina didn't have much power. The state legislature more or less governed each county. However, the Home Rule Act of 1975 changed that system. There are four possible types of government that can be used in each county, since that act was passed. There may be just a county council, there may be a county council that is supervised by a county supervisor, the other options are a county council that elects either a county council manager or a county council administrator.
Successful research in South Carolina requires an understanding of the unique and complex development of its local government and jurisdictions. Unlike the other twelve British colonies, South Carolina did not form counties or towns during the colonial period. Dates and Records in the following county pages are quoted from South Carolina Department of Archives and History, A Guide to Local Government Records in the South Carolina Archives.
It is vital that researchers have a complete understanding of South Carolina judicial developments, since they are quite unique. For example, South Carolina is the only one of the original 13 colonies that did not have towns and counties in colonial times.
|County||Date Formed||Parent County||County Seat|
|Aiken||1871||Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington, and Orangeburg Counties||Aiken|
|Allendale||1919||Barnwell and Hampton Counties||Allendale|
|Beaufort||1769||1769 Judicial District||Beaufort|
|Berkeley||1882||Charleston County||Moncks Corner|
|Calhoun||1908||Lexington and Orangeburg Counties||St. Matthews|
|Charleston||1769||1769 Judicial District||Charleston|
|Cherokee||1897||Spartanburg, Union, and York Counties||Gaffney|
|Dorchester||1868||Berkeley and Colleton Counties||St. George|
|Florence||1888||Clarendon, Darlington, Marion, and Williamsburg Counties||Florence|
|Georgetown||1769||1769 Judicial District||Georgetown|
|Greenwood||1897||Abbeville and Edgefield Counties||Greenwood|
|Jasper||1912||Beaufort and Hampton Counties||Ridgeland|
|Kershaw||1798||Claremont, Fairfield, Lancaster, and Richland Counties||Camden|
|Lee||1902||Darlington, Kershaw, and Sumter Counties||Bishopville|
|McCormick||1914||Abbeville, Edgefield, and Greenwood Counties||McCormick|
|Orangeburg||1769||1769 Judicial District||Orangeburg|
|Sumter||1798||Claremont, Clarendon, and Salem Counties||Sumter|
Counties were established in the colonial period primarily for locating land grants, with most other governmental activities being centralized in Charleston. The growth of the backcountry led to the establishment of judicial districts throughout the colony, but low country areas continued to be identified primarily by their Anglican parish names. Following the Revolution, both district and county courts were established, but in 1800 most of the counties became districts. Finally, in 1868 all of the existing districts were renamed counties. New counties continued to be formed until the early part of the 20th century, with the most recent being Allendale in 1919.
Districts/Counties, 1800–present - There were 37 counties and 9 court districts that were all combined into 25 districts in 1800. In some cases, the borders of the new districts lined up with borders of districts that were created from 1785 to 1799. Other districts were completely new. Each of the 25 districts had the power of the highest local government level. They each kept records equally and had an equal status level. From 1800 to 1867, the districts were divided and some of them were expanded, eventually creating 30 different districts. The new constitution, which was created in 1868, changed all districts into counties.
Presently, there are 46 South Carolina counties. They can all trace their origins back to the 1800 district creation. In some cases, either record lineage or geographic lineage, or both, can be traced back to 1785. However, it's very important to note that counties were not the highest local government form until 1800. Prior to that, either circuit court districts or county court districts held equal powers. So, both types of records must be researched.
There is an existing District/Counties chart/list that includes every county and district that has existed from 1800 until the present day. It also lists the circuit court districts from which each district was created. Some counties were functional before 1800. In those cases, the date of county formation has been noted. Each county's courthouse may contain early records, but the starting dates for the records are the first marked for that record type. Record types include probate, court, and land records.
It is worth noting that the Civil War caused the complete destruction of many of South Carolina's records. In other cases, only parts of certain records still exist. So, although a beginning record date may be listed, that doesn't mean that all records from that time period still exist. Up-Country county residents often recorded records before local governments were established. So, some early records are still extant today.
Counties in Districts - The Circuit Court in South Carolina originally had 7 districts. However, those districts were divided, in 1785, into 33 counties. Some counties established interior courts at that point, and then they began keeping local records. It's important to note that both the district seats and the county seats existed for an overlapping time period and each of them could perform actions on a local level. County government formation was temporarily put off in Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort. They never functioned as counties at all. It is also worth noting that, between the years of 1791 and 1799, the court system in 3 of the 4 counties in Orangeburgh District did not function either.
Many of the counties that still exist in South Carolina were geographically established from 1785 to 1799. However, they didn't all have the same system of local governments, or the same system of record keeping. It took until 1800 for counties to become the highest local government level in the state. The chart called Counties in Districts, 1785-1800 lists all counties abolished and formed between 1785 and 1800.
Circuit Court Districts, 1769-1800 - In 1769, Circuit Court districts were created. Around 1772, they began holding actual court proceedings. To begin with, 7 districts existed. They were: Beaufort, Camden, Charleston, Cheraws, Georgetown, Ninety-Six, Orangeburgh. In 1791, Washington and Pinckney districts were added.
Townships - The provincial (royal) government created several acts. One of its acts was the 1731 Township Act. In 1761, authorization was given to create more townships. Eleven townships of 20,000 acres apiece were created by the act. Families from Europe were recruited by agents to come and settle in the newly created townships. Free transportation, free land, free provisions for a year, and other incentives were offered to get European families to come to South Carolina and settle. No records were created by the townships at all. However, townships were used in order to locate conveyances and grants. They were also occasionally used as tax districts.
Parishes - The Church of England became the official church supported by South Carolina in 1706. From that point on, 25 parishes were created in the state. From that year until 1778, they formed districts for the purpose of taxation and each district also kept vital records. From 1716 onward, those parishes were also used for the purpose of determining elected representatives. Although useful as conveyance and grant locators, parishes didn't always replace counties for that purpose. So, some records of conveyances and grants mention one, some mention the other, and some actually mention both.
Proprietary Counties - In 1682, South Carolina was first divided into proprietary counties. Those counties were Colleton, Berkeley, and Craven. In 1685, Carteret was added. However, in 1708, it was renamed Granville. These counties were created for geographical reference only. They didn't keep any records. They were used as reference points for land grants, and used to determine militia duty. Until 1716, they were also used for the purposes of determining elected representatives. In 1769, circuit court districts took priority over proprietary counties for judicial purposes. However, the counties were still used as reference points on maps and grant-like documents until they were completely replaced by other counties in 1785.
South Carolina has counties that no longer are in existence. They were organized by the state, provincial, or territorial authorities. A lot of these counties were established and disbanded within the Nineteenth century; county boundaries have modified very little since 1900 in the vast majority of states. These counties should be checked out when doing genealogy research. Pay close attention where the courthouse records went to if the county was abolished or consolidated with a different county.
The harm to South Carolina courthouses drastically has a impact on genealogists in almost every way. Not only are these kinds of historic structures ripped from our lifetimes, so are the records they kept: marriage, wills, probate, land records, among others. Once destroyed they're destroyed forever. Even though they have already been placed on mircofilm, computers and film burn as well. The most heartbreaking aspect of this is the reason why virtually all of our courthouses are destroyed at the hands of arsonist. Although, not all records were destroyed. Many South Carolina counties have dealt with a loss of records due to courthouse fires, floods, and theft.