South Carolina Department of Archives and History


South Carolina Archives Summary Guide
to County REcords

For over half a century, work has been done to secure and make centrally accessible the county records of South Carolina. Information about slaves, free blacks, debtors, criminals, and other underdocumented groups appear in these records along with that for wealthy planters, merchants, and public officials. County records currently held by the department document the development of both county government and the judicial system, as well as provide information on services performed by county government and the courts.


County Government

Antebellum county government and the original governmental units were quite different from today's county council and landscape of counties. County government was originally created by the General Assembly to be a local extension or branch of the state government. At first, local government had few resources, little regulatory authority, and could only provide limited and basic services, such as justice, roads and ferries, some poor relief, and the supervision of elections. After 1895 legislative delegations administered the majority of the affairs of counties, which were funded through a "supply" or local appropriations bill passed by the state legislature. After 1945 control by legislative delegations gradually gave way to county councils as the county's governing board. Subsequently, a 1973 constitutional amendment and the passage of the Local Government Act (Home Rule Act) in 1975 allowed greater "home rule" or more direct local responsibility for spending decisions and personnel management, thus allowing counties to become significant service providers on their own.


County Formation

Because records are arranged under the county of origin or the county inheriting the record, understanding the development of counties is important. Counties have existed in one form or another since colonial days, beginning with the establishment of three coastal counties in 1682. Prior to 1785, however, most of the records that are now created at the county level were instead maintained by the central government in Charleston. Anglican parishes were used as election districts and had responsibility for road development, care of the poor, and education. Geographic administrative areas were historically tied to the courts. Counties existed from 1785 to 1799 as judicial and administrative units; were changed to districts from 1800-1868, and were finally given the designation of "county" by the State Constitution of 1868. Additional information is provided online in Maps Tracing the Formation of Counties in South Carolina and in the publication, "The Formation of Counties in South Carolina."



Although the State Constitution provides an outline of the courts, legislative action has broadened and defined the judicial system in South Carolina. The department retains records of the circuit court, which is the trial court of general jurisdiction and is composed of the Court of Common Pleas (hears civil actions) and the Court of General Sessions (hears criminal actions). It also holds records of courts with limited jurisdiction, such as the Probate Court (validates wills, handles the administration of estates and the appointment of guardians for minors, and issues marriage licenses), as well as the Magistrates Court (hears cases of law involving claims of not more than $100). Records of the following defunct courts are also available:

  • Court of Equity--decided equitable rights or granted equitable remedies, based on the "rules of equity and good conscience." The functions of this court were transferred to the Court of Common Pleas and the Probate Court in 1868.
  • Court of Ordinary--predecessor of the Probate Court with its duties devolving to that court in 1868
  • County and Intermediate Court--courts existing from 1785-1799, which had jurisdiction over civil actions not exceeding fifty pounds (about $200) and criminal cases where judgment did not call for loss of life or corporal punishment; performed the duties of the ordinary; oversaw the building of courthouses, jails, and the care of the poor, roads, and bridges; and recorded deeds and other conveyances
  • Court of Magistrates and Freeholders--courts hearing criminal cases involving slaves and free people of color and endorsing manumissions
  • District Court--courts existing from 1865-1868 which tried cases involving persons of color

Detailed information on these courts is provided in the publications, "South Carolina Court Records: An Introduction for Genealogists" and "African American Genealogical Research."


County Government Services

Also documented in the records are many of the services performed currently or in the past by county government offices, a number of which are now defunct. Some examples are:

  • recording real and personal property transfers by the Register of Mesne Conveyances or Register of Deeds
  • maintaining records of the court system by the Clerk of Court
  • maintaining tax rolls and keeping records on real and personal property by the Auditor
  • controlling and investing county funds by the Treasurer
  • overseeing county government by the County Council (who also oversaw public works and other activities before the creation of separate departments by the counties)
  • handling law enforcement activities by the Sheriff
  • overseeing financial and administrative needs of the county schools by the County Board of Education (now performed by School Districts)
  • surveying lands for land grants by the Commissioner of Location (defunct)
  • building and maintaining county roads, bridges, and public buildings by Commissioners of the Roads and Bridges (defunct) and Commissioners of Public Buildings (defunct)
  • compiling and approving the list of Confederate veterans or their widows eligible for the state pension by the Board of Honor (defunct)
  • overseeing and managing the operation of the dispensary system for alcoholic beverages by the Board of Control (defunct)
  • overseeing care of the poor by the Commissioners of the Poor (defunct)


Types of County Records

The majority of county records in the holdings date from 1786 to the mid-twentieth century. Although they vary in amount and type from county to county, the following records are generally included:

  • Property transfer records--conveyances or deeds, plats, real estate mortgages
  • Probate records--estate papers; will books; marriage records beginning in 1911; inventory, appraisements, and sale books; accounts and reports of administrators, guardians, and trustees
  • Court records--court journals; judgment rolls; indictments; equity bills, petitions, or rolls; citizenship petitions; coroner's inquisitions; petitions for guardianship of free persons of color; trial papers involving slaves and free persons of color
  • Pension records--Confederate pension applications, rolls, and records; Confederate veterans enrollments; Confederate widows pensions
  • Election records--voter registrations, precinct lists, election files
  • Tax records--tax duplicates, delinquent sales tax records, tax executions, tax returns list
  • Administrative records--minutes, annual reports of officials, ledgers of county governing boards; registers and bonds of county officials
  • Education records--minutes, reports of school superintendents and teachers, ledgers, inventories of schools, teacher's certification records, minutes of Teachers Association Boards
  • Law enforcement records--Sheriff's writs, executions, sale books, jail books
  • Business records--charters, registers of mercantile and industrial establishments other than corporations, private ledgers and accounts generally of unknown origin


Destroyed County

Mandates and instructions on records keeping for courts and local officials have been enacted throughout the history of the state. However, over the years, war, nature, arson, and neglect have taken their toll. No antebellum estate papers survive for Beaufort, Charleston, Chesterfield, Colleton, Georgetown, Lancaster, Lexington, and Orangeburg counties. Likewise, no antebellum conveyances are extant for Beaufort, Chesterfield, Colleton, Georgetown, Orangeburg, and Richland counties. Lexington County has no conveyances prior to 1839 and Abbeville none before 1872. (More detail is provided in, "Destroyed County Records in South Carolina, 1785-1872", a publication in the "Genealogy Starter Kit." Despite these losses, a multitude of records survive today and are invaluable resources for the historian, genealogist, public official, attorney, and general researcher alike.

Local records not retained by the department may be housed in county and municipal offices or in archival repositories and libraries around the state.

For information on our search room services, please contact our research desk at 803-896-6104 or submit a research request.

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