Search Archives.com Records
SC Genealogy Topics
U.S. Research Topics
South Carolina Court records address a wide range of genealogy subjects that could aid you with your research, for example land ownership, courts, taxes, and naturalizations. Since South Carolina court records cover a wide selection of subjects, they can help you in many different ways. For example, they will often assist you to locate ancestors' residences, identify occupations, locate financial information, identify citizenship status, or clarify relationships between people. Everything depends on the type of court records that your particular ancestors" names appear in. For Definitions of all court trems see the Genealogy Encyclopedia.
South Carolina County records change widely from county to county in both level of quality and volume. One can find four forms of court records that are more than likely to have details essential in your genealogical research.
South Carolina Court Records - Almost all courts in America tend to be courts of record that is they are required by law to keep a record of the proceedings. South Carolina courts are no different. Even nowadays very few people escape mention in a court room records at some time during their everyday lives as witnesses, litigants, jurors, appointees to office or as petition signatories. Even so Americans from a few of generations ago also expected to participate in local court proceedings as long as they were in session. It became a civic duty and then they could possibly be fined if they could not attend. South Carolina court files represent U.S. history. Concealed away in courthouses as well as archives everywhere are the aspirations and frustrations of lots of citizens. The prospects are good that your particular ancestors have left a concise record of at least some areas of life in a court room records.
The South Carolina court system can be quite confusing. However, since court records contain vital information for genealogical research, it's important for researchers to fully understand the court systems and take full advantage of the records that they have to offer. Here is a quick description of the court system in South Carolina:
Grand Council or His Majesty's Council: South Carolina had a centralized system of government, when it was under the British Crown. During that time, Charleston handled all civil administration duties. The Grand Council, which was headed by a governor and made up of various councilors, served as all of the following court officials: General Court, Court of Chancery (Equity), Court of Common Pleas, Court of General Sessions (Assize), Court of Admiralty, Court of Probate, Court of Appeals
Several of those courts received their own judges during a restructuring process that took place in the 1700s. All of those court records were originally created in the city of Charleston and were maintained there for quite a while. Those records that still exist can now be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History
General Court: Any cases that did not fall under the jurisdiction of a specific court were handled by the General Court. For example, headright grant petitions were heard by the General Court. His Majesty's Council Journals (1721-74) and Journals of the Grand Council (1671-92) each contain General Court records. Many of the original records can also be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
Court of Chancery: The Court of Chancery was created in 1721 in order to handle equity cases. Up until 1791, most of those cases were heard in the city of Charleston and the records relating to those cases were also kept in Charleston. Original Court of Chancery records are now held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and have been indexed.
Equity Circuit Court (1791-1821): In 1791, Equity Circuit Court replaced the Court of Chancery. Although, it was still known as the "Chancery Court" at certain times. Equity Court handled cases with no clear or specific remedies, such as complicated land divisions, which might involve multiple factors and variables.
Three equity courts were created, in 1791. First, there was the Upper Circuit, which included the Circuit Court districts of Washington and Ninety-Six, as well as the portion of the Pinckney Circuit Court district in Union County and Spartanburg County. Second, there was the Middle Circuit, which included the Circuit Court districts of Orangeburgh, Camden, and Cheraws, as well as the rest of the Pinckney district. Finally, there was the Lower Circuit, which was made up of the Circuit Court districts of Georgetown, Beaufort, and Charleston.
In 1799, the equity courts were divided again. Four districts were created and each one was split in half. That meant that there were 8 district seats in the state. Then, in 1808, the districts were divided again, into 9 districts. Each county/district had its own equity court, as of 1821, except for the district of Cheraws. Then, in 1868, the Court of Ordinary (Probate Court) and the Court of Equity (Chancery Court) were combined, creating the Court of Probate.
Brent Howard Holcomb, "South Carolina Equity Records," The South Carolina Magazine of Ancestral Research 6 (1978): 235-38 holds maps featuring equity circuits. Understanding the layout of those circuits is essential for genealogical research to be successful.
Known records are located in the following places:
The Upper Circuit records for 1791 to 1799 have not been located. Nor have the records for the Eastern, Northern, Southern, or lower half of the Western circuits for 1799 to 1808. The records for the circuits of Orangeburgh, Ninety-Six, Cheraws, Georgetown, and Washington for 1808 to 1821 are also missing.
Court of Common Pleas: The Court of Common Pleas is South Carolina's version of the civil court. It is responsible for handling any cases in which private organizations or citizens file claims against each other. For most of colonial times, Court of Common Pleas cases were handled by the Grand Council. The Court of Common Pleas was located in Charleston until 1772. However, at about that time, Courts of Common Please were created in all of the circuit court districts in the state. Although, up until 1785, the records for each of those courts were still maintained in the city of Charleston.
Even though every county was given a Court of Common Pleas as of 1785, the courts in the Orangeburgh District counties only functioned until 1800 and the courts in the counties of Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort never functioned at all. The Court of Common Please operated on a district level and a county level between 1785 and 1800. So, it's important for researchers to examine both types of records. In 1800, districts (counties) were created and a Court of Common Pleas was assigned to each one.
Court of Common Pleas records may include any of the following items: Guardianship Records, Petitions, Orders, Reports, Dower Renunciations, War Pension Applications
All of those records and more can be found in the office of the court clerk. Most of the records from prior to 1865 can be obtained through the FHL or the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and have been placed on microfilm.
Court of General Sessions of the Peace, Oyer and Terminer, Assize and General Gaol Delivery: Generally known as the Court of Assize or the Court of General Sessions, this is the court responsible for trying criminal cases in the state of South Carolina. During colonial times, for the most part, those functions were performed by the Grand Council. Charleston was the home of the Court of General Sessions until 1772. By that point, each circuit court district was given its own Court of General Sessions, but Charleston held those records until 1785. The Courts of Common Pleas and Courts of General Sessions were each run in similar ways, with the Orangeburgh District county court only functioning until around 1791 and those in Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort not functioning at all. Both county and district records must be examined during genealogical research.
Court of Ordinary: In colonial times, South Carolina was a province. It had a governor, who acted as ordinary for the province. The governor held both administration power and probate power. From 1692 onward, the Secretary of the Colony also began acting as ordinary. Circuit court districts were given Courts of Ordinary in 1781. In 1787, functioning counties in each district also received Courts of Ordinary. In 1800, districts, or counties, were formed, and each one was given a Court of Ordinary. The Court of Equity and the Court of Ordinary merged and became the Court of Probate in 1868.
Circuit Courts (1769-1800): In 1769, the South Carolina Assembly created Circuit Courts. Every circuit court district was given a Clerk of the Crown and a Clerk of Common Pleas for its Court of General Sessions and Court of Common Pleas, respectively. Circuit Court records were kept, until 1785, in Charleston. All records were transferred to the district, or county, where the district seat for the Circuit Court was, as of 1800, which was when the Circuit Court system ceased to exist.
Precinct Courts: Precinct Courts were created in 1721, and they were also known as County Courts. There were 5 of them outside the city of Charleston. Minor civil suits and minor criminal cases were tried in those courts by justices of the peace. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History states that no records for the Precinct Court system still exist today.
County Courts: In 1785, a new system of County Courts was established. They were each required to record renunciations of dower, conveyances, levy taxes, and tavern-keepers licenses. Some County Courts functioned from 1785 until 1791, while others didn't function at all until 1800. County Courts became the primary judicial bodies, when districts (counties) were established, which was in 1800. County Courts of the time had three offices. They were the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of General Sessions, and the Register of Mesne Conveyance.
The FHL and the Charleston Department of Archives & History each have microfilmed copies of the following court records on file: County Court, Court of Common Pleas, Equity Court, District Court, Court of General Sessions, Probate Court, Court of Magistrates and Freeholders
South Carolina Court Website Links
South Carolina Tax Records - One tax list from 1733 is still extant, as are a few random tax collectors. However, most South Carolina tax records no longer exist. Up until 1800, the tax districts were defined by the townships and parishes. Circuit Court districts and the counties within those districts were also considered tax districts. That lasted from 1785 until 1800. The following are extant tax lists covering the years of 1783 to 1799:
Although those tax lists still exist, several of them do not contain all of the original information. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has each of those tax lists on file.
The majority of the counties/districts have some extant tax records on file from 1865 onward. Some of them have records dating back to 1800. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History has a nearly complete 1824 series on file and indexed. That series mostly focuses on the districts in the Low Country. Also on file at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History are original copies of most tax lists that still exist for the state. Several county tax records have also been microfilmed and are available there, as well as through the FHL.
Jury lists can sometimes be good genealogical substitutes for missing tax lists. Those jury lists were originally created using tax lists and they listed any men that were eligible to serve as jury members.
Tax record information can also be somewhat extrapolated from voter registration lists for the years of 1867, 1868, and 1898. Since slaves were freed at the time, the 1867 and 1868 voter registration lists can be especially useful for pinpointing information about African American ancestors. Each county kept copies of the voter records, but they can also be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
There are existing directories for Charleston that begin in 1782. Ancestors living in Charleston may be traceable through those records. The Charleston Library Society has those directories on file.