African American Genealogical Research at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History
Introduction and Historical Background
Welcome to the exciting and challenging world of African American genealogical research in South Carolina! This guide describes government records and finding aids at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (SCDAH) for locating information about your ancestors.
As one of the original thirteen colonies, South Carolina possesses a rich heritage of African American history. Because Charleston was a major port for the importation of enslaved Africans, South Carolina’s records are significant sources for African American genealogical research. The vast numbers of enslaved people imported into this state led one historian to characterize Sullivan’s Island, the quarantine station at the entrance of Charleston Harbor, as the “Ellis Island of African Americans.”
The Lords Proprietors founded South Carolina in 1670, and within fifty years African Americans outnumbered white settlers. By 1740, African Americans made up two thirds of South Carolina’s population. That year also marked two firsts in South Carolina: the enactment of a more comprehensive slave code, and the enactment of a law curtailing the slave trade. In 1808, the United States Congress outlawed the foreign slave trade, but internal slave trade between the states continued. Although some enslaved persons continued to be imported illegally after 1808, the ancestors of most African Americans from South Carolina arrived before that date.
How to Begin Genealogical Research
In pursuing genealogical research, you will encounter two types of records: public and private. State and local government offices create public records, which have a legal reason for existing. Individuals create private records, which include letters, journals, diaries, newspapers, plantation records and church records. SCDAH is the major repository for public records in South Carolina. The leading repositories for private records are the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina and the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston.
First Steps for Novice Genealogists
- Start with yourself and work backwards.
- Compile family resources such as Bible records, funeral programs, birth certificates, death certificates and marriage licenses.
- Interview older family members and establish the town or county where your ancestors lived.
- Consult online sources available at Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org via your home computer or public library.
- Decide which family history problems you want to research. List records of possible interest and questions you want answered. Know which published and primary sources you have already examined.
- Visit SCDAH to consult colonial, state and county records for information about your ancestors (https://scdah.sc.gov).
Key SCDAH Records to Consult for Family History Information
When researching family history you will need to find records that list different generations living together. As your research approaches emancipation in 1865, you will need to locate records that connect enslaved ancestors with slave owners. The following type of records will help you accomplish these goals.
Census records compiled by the federal government and the state of South Carolina from 1790 through 1940. This includes population census schedules and special schedules, which gathered information about deaths, farms and enslaved people.
Vital records issued by state and local government offices such as birth and death certificates beginning in 1915, marriage licenses beginning in 1911 and divorce decrees beginning in 1949.
County records created from 1785 to 1950 such as estate files, deed books, equity bills, and civil and criminal court case papers.
State records created during the 1700s and 1800s such as tax returns, bills of sale, manumission records, voter registration lists and militia enrollment volumes.
Military records from the Revolutionary War through World War II that document war service and pension applications.
Guide to Records
SCDAH collects the permanently valuable colonial, state and county government records for South Carolina 1671 to ca. 2010. This research guide lists record series arranged in two groups: documents created after emancipation in 1865, and documents created before emancipation in 1865. Since you should begin your research at the present and work backwards, the records listed below should be consulted in that order.
Post Emancipation Records
Federal Population Census Records 1870-1940
Census records are the premier source to consult for family history information. Because the federal government releases census records for public use after 72 years, the most recent census available to consult is 1940. Images of census records 1790-1940 are available at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and SCDAH. A fire in 1921 destroyed most of the 1890 Census.
Census takers visited each county and listed individuals by households. Information they collected varied from census to census, but included name, age, sex and race. Some schedules for this period also list place of birth, parent’s place of birth, number of years married, and month and year of birth.
1870 Population Census
This schedule is of upmost value for African American genealogy because it is the first federal census after emancipation. In using this census, pay particular attention to the names of your ancestor’s white neighbors, as they may have been the slave owner prior to 1865.
Special Census Schedules 1870-1890
1890 Census of Union Veterans and Widows
Because African Americans made up the majority of South Carolinians who served in the Union Army, this schedule may contain pertinent information about your ancestor’s Civil War service. This census lists the name of the soldier or his widow, and gives a synopsis of the veteran’s service and any service-related disability.
1870 and 1880 Agricultural Schedules
For ancestors who worked on farms, these schedules provide information such as number of acres, crops grown, and number and kinds of livestock. The 1880 schedule also indicates whether the individual owned, managed or rented the land.
1870 and 1880 Mortality Schedules
These schedules list those persons who died during the twelve months preceding the census year. They list the name of the decedent, age, sex, race, marital status, birthplace, occupation, cause of death, and month of death.
State Census Records 1868-1875
Population Schedules 1869 and 1875
These schedules name only the head of household and list other occupants in age categories. SCDAH has the 1869 census for all counties except Kershaw, Oconee and Spartanburg. For the 1875 census, there are complete schedules for Clarendon, Newberry and Marlboro counties and partial schedules for Abbeville, Beaufort, Fairfield, Lancaster and Sumter counties.
Agricultural Schedules 1868 and 1875
These schedules list information about crops grown, types of livestock, and the number of acres under cultivation. SCDAH has the 1868 census for 26 counties and the 1875 census for 8 counties. For a list of these counties, see our brochure Census Records at the Archives.
Vital Records: Death & Birth Certificates, Marriage Licenses and Divorce Decrees
Death Certificates 1915-1970
South Carolina began recording death certificates in 1915. State law closes death certificates to the public for 50 years. Death certificates often contain the following information about the deceased: dates of birth and death; cause of death; occupation; marital status; names and birthplaces of parents; place and date of burial; and name of the informant. Images of South Carolina death certificates more than 50 years old are available at Ancestry.com, FamilySearch.org and SCDAH. For access to death certificates less than 50 years old, please contact the Vital Records Office at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Birth Certificates 1915-1919
South Carolina began recording birth certificates in 1915. State law closes birth certificates to the public for 100 years. Birth certificates often contain the following information: child’s name, sex and date of birth; parents’ names, race, age, birthplace and occupation; and name of doctor or midwife. Digital copies of birth certificates 1915-1919 are available via our South Carolina Electronic Records Archive (http://e-archives.sc.gov).
For access to birth certificates less than 100 years old, please contact the Vital Records Office at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. In 1939, the state began issuing delayed birth certificates to people who could document their birth before 1915. Applications for these delayed certificates of birth for people born 1766-1900 are available on Ancestry.com.
Marriage Licenses 1911-1950
South Carolina began recording marriage licenses on 1 July 1911. From that date to 1950, these records were filed only with the probate judge’s office at the county courthouses. Copies of marriage licenses after 1 July 1950 were filed with both the probate judge’s office and the Vital Records Office at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. The Archives houses marriage licenses for over half of the 46 counties. For a list of these marriage records, please consult our Summary Guide to County Records (www.archivesindex.sc.gov/guide/countyrecords/ctyguide.htm).
Divorce Records 1868-1962
Before 1868, the state rarely granted divorces. From 1868-1878, when an act of the General Assembly outlawed the practice, county courts of common pleas could grant divorces. In 1949, divorce became legal again and these records are filed with the county clerk of court’s office. On 1 July 1962 the Vital Records Office at the SC Department of Health and Environmental Control began getting statewide copies of divorce decrees. For a list of divorce records, please search SCArchCat the online catalog to our records collection (https://scdah.sc.gov/research-and-genealogy/online-research).
State Records 1865-1869
If your research is to progress, you must establish where your family members lived when they were emancipated in 1865 or as close to that date as possible. These three record series may help you with that task.
Militia Enrollments 1869
These volumes list male citizens in each county between the ages of 18 and 45. The information recorded includes name, age, race, occupation and place of residence. Digital copies of these volumes are available via our Online Records Index (www.archivesindex.sc.gov).
Voter Registrations 1868
These volumes record the name and race of each voter, arranged first by county, second by precinct, and thereunder by polling place. The names appear alphabetically by the first letter of the surname, with African Americans and whites grouped separately.
Tax Return and Tax Record Books 1865-1867
These tax records are one of the first postwar sources to list names of recently emancipated African Americans. The returns are arranged by county or parish and then alphabetically by first letter of the surname. In many cases the abbreviation P.C., or person of color, follows the names of freedmen. White men listed with the same surnames as freedmen may have been slave owners prior to 1865. A list of the yearly returns that survive for each county or parish is available at our Research Room desk.
County Records 1865-1950
County records make up a major part of the Archives holding and are a rich source for family history research. A list of records for each county is available on our website (www.archivesindex.sc.gov/guide/countyrecords/ctyguide.htm). County records that most often contain information about family members are listed below.
Probate Court Records
Probate court records are wills, inventories and other documents pertaining to the distribution of the deceased person’s estate. In many cases, these documents record the names of family members. Alphabetical indexes by the last name of the deceased are available for each county.
Deeds of Conveyance
Conveyance books record the transfer of land between individuals. If the parties are members of the same family, the relationship is often given. Alphabetical indexes by the last name of the grantor (seller) and grantee (buyer) are available for each county.
Court of Common Pleas
Records from this civil court are good sources of information for litigants in cases involving debt and sharecropping contracts. Judgment rolls are the papers filed in these cases and are indexed by the surnames of the plaintiff and defendant.
Military Records 1917-1945
The Official Roster of South Carolina Servicemen and Servicewomen in World War II, 1941-1946 contain the most comprehensive listing of veterans for this conflict. These five volumes, arranged alphabetically by surname, give a brief synopsis of the veteran’s service. A similar publication, the Official Roster of South Carolina Soldiers, Sailors and Marines in the World War devotes one volume to African American veterans of World War I. Copies of these books are in our Research Room library. Another source to consult is World War I draft registration records, which list date of birth, occupation and next of kin. Copies of these draft registration records are available on Ancestry.com.
Reconstruction Records 1868-1877
The South Carolina Land Commission 1869-1890
In 1869, the state established the commission to give freedmen the opportunity to become property owners. The commission bought large tracts of land throughout the state and then sold small tracts to freedmen. County deed books record these sales. The Land Commission’s two plat books and annual reports are also valuable sources. For more information about the commission, please consult The Promised Land: The History of the South Carolina Land Commission, 1869-1890 by Carol Blesser.
Freedmen’s Bureau Records 1865-1874
In 1865, Congress established the Freedmen’s Bureau to help newly emancipated African Americans transition to freedom. Two valuable record series from this agency held by the Archives are Marriage and Divorce Records from Beaufort and Charleston 1866-1868 and Registers of Depositors in the Beaufort and Charleston Branches of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874. These bank records, which are available on Ancestry.com, often list names of family members and the plantation of previous residence.
Additional State Records 1865 to ca. 2000
For additional state government records in our collection please consult the Online Records Index (www.archivesindex.sc.gov); our online catalog SCArchCat (https://scdah.sc.gov/research-and-genealogy/online-research); and the South Carolina Electronic Records Archive (http://e-archives.sc.gov).
Federal Census Records 1790-1860
The federal government has compiled a population census every ten years since 1790. When researching these schedules please remember that while some ancestors may have been enslaved, other may have been free. In 1860, the enslaved population in South Carolina numbered approximately 400,000 while the free African American population numbered approximately 10,000.
The pre-emancipation population schedules list free African Americans by name, but between 1790 and 1840, they record only the names of heads of household. Antebellum schedules do not list enslaved persons by name, but by number in households of owners. To make the most of these census records, you must determine the name of the slave owner. Copies of federal population census records are available on Ancestry.com and FamilySearch.org.
Slave Census Schedules 1850 and 1860
In 1850 and 1860, the federal government conducted a separate census of enslaved people. These schedules list the enslaved person by age, sex and color under the name of the slave owner. Census takers did not record names of the enslaved for this schedule.
Mortality Census Schedules 1850 and 1860
These schedules list the names of both free and enslaved African Americans who died during the twelve months preceding the census year. They also record age, sex, color, status (free or enslaved, married or widowed), place of birth, month of death, profession, occupation or trade, disease or cause of death and the number of days ill.
County Records 1785-1865
Probate Court Records
Probate records include estate files, will books and inventory volumes. Estate files contain original papers that document the distribution of the deceased’s property. They often contain wills that may name family members, list the distribution of enslaved people and provide information about manumissions. Estate files may also include an inventory of personal property listing the names of enslaved people. Will books and inventory volumes are recorded copies of original documents from the estate packet. Indexes to these records are arranged by the surname of the slave owner or free African American.
Equity Court Records
This court frequently heard contested estate cases and enforced pre-nuptial agreements. As a result records from this court (bills, petitions, reports and decrees), may contain information about the distribution of real and personal property and the names of enslaved people. Indexes to these records are available by surname of the litigants.
Magistrate and Freeholders Court Records
This court tried criminal cases involving enslaved persons and free African Americans. Cases heard ranged from vagrancy, petty larceny and disorderly conduct to more serious crimes, which could incur the death penalty. These records contain court testimony, proceedings and sentences. Trial papers from this court are indexed on our Online Records Index (www.archivesindex.sc.gov).
Guardianships for Free Persons of Color
Because of the attempted slave revolt by Denmark Vesey, the General Assembly passed an act in 1822 that prohibited free African Americans from returning to the state. This law required every free male of color over fifteen to obtain a white guardian, who was to appear before the county clerk of court, attest to the free male’s good character and accept the guardianship. The Archives holds records of this court for the following counties: Anderson, Chester, Fairfield, Greenville, Kershaw, Lexington, Marlboro, Pendleton, Pickens and Union.
Other County Records
Conveyance books, manumission books and sheriff sale books hold information about free and enslaved African Americans. Conveyance books record transfers of real (land) and personal property (bills of sale for enslaved persons). In most cases, the grantor and grantee indexes to conveyances only list real estate transactions and not personal property transfers. The Archives has manumission books for two districts: Barnwell and Charleston. For additional information about documents recorded at the local level, please consult South Carolina Court Records: An Introduction for Genealogists by Alexia Helsley and Michael Stauffer.
Colonial and State Records 1671-1865
Online Records Index 1675-1925
This finding aid (www.archivesindex.sc.gov) is an item level index to 54 colonial, state and county record series. Researchers can search by name (last name, first name), places (district or parish), topics (slavery or slave, rebellion), and document types (manumissions or bills of sale). In addition to index data, this database contain more than 100,000 document images. Pertinent record series to check include Bills of Sale, Miscellaneous Legal Records, Will Transcripts, General Assembly Petitions and Magistrates and Freeholders Trial Papers.
Miscellaneous Legal Records 1729-1865
These documents, recorded in the Secretary of State’s Office, include bills of sale, mortgages, deeds of trust, manumissions, certificates of free status and marriage settlements. Indexes to these records are available in hardcopy and online formats and should be searched by name of the slave owner or free African American.
Before 1800, owners freed slaves at will or the enslaved purchased their freedom. In 1800, the General Assembly regulated manumissions by passing a law that required endorsement of manumissions by a court of magistrates and freeholders. In 1820, the General Assembly passed a more restrictive law that enslaved people could be emancipated only by an act of the General Assembly. Slave owners circumvented this law by either freeing their slaves and paying for their emigration from the state, or by selling them to a trustee through a deed of trust. The terms of the deed allowed the enslaved to live as a free person. In 1842, the General Assembly passed an act, which curtailed manumission by deed of trust. The best sources to check for manumissions are Indexes to Secretary of State, Miscellaneous Legal Records 1729-1865 and General Assembly Petitions 1782-1865 on the Online Records Index.
State Free Black Capitation Tax Books, City of Charleston
From 1811 thorough 1864, these tax volumes record names of free African Americans living in the city of Charleston. Arranged alphabetically, most of the names are listed with an address, and the volumes for 1822 and 1823 show occupations.
Both free and enslaved African American men served in the Revolutionary War and Civil War. To check for Revolutionary War service and pensions please search the Online Records Index and records for the Commissioners of the South Carolina Navy. Copies of service records for South Carolinians who served in the Union and Confederate armies are available on the Fold3 website. Copies of pension applications for the enslaved who served the Confederate army are also available via the Online Records Index.
Other Colonial and State Records
For more information about enslaved people, free African Americans and slave owners please consult the South Carolina Statutes at Large, South Carolina Legislative Journals and the online finding aids to our record collection (https://scdah.sc.gov/research-and-genealogy/online-research).
Additional Antebellum Records
Prior to 1865 many African Americans, both enslaved and free, attended white churches. The Archives holds published histories of major South Carolina denominations, some individual church histories, and a small collection of church records on microfilm (www.archivesindex.sc.gov/guide/PrivateRecords/privatelist.htm).
There are two types of plantation records: private and public. Private plantation records consist of personal papers and business records of the slave owner. Two repositories in the state, which hold large collections of plantation records, are the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina and the South Carolina Historical Society in Charleston. Information about plantations can be located in public records such as agricultural and slave census records, deeds and plats, wills and inventories, and equity court cases. The Online Records Index can be searched by plantation name and owner’s name.