South Carolina Family History Research
This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
History of South Carolina
English claims on the area date to 1497 when John Cabot visited the New World and claimed the area for King Henry VII. These claims were the basis for Charles I’s 1629 grant of “Carolana” to Sir Robert Heath, who failed to settle Carolina before the execution of Charles I in 1649. During the Commonwealth period in England, many citizens remained loyal to Charles II. At his ascension to the throne of England in 1660, eight men pressed their claims for a reward: Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon; George Monck, Duke of Albemarle; Lord William Craven; Lord John Berkeley; Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury; Sir George Carteret; Sir William Berkeley; and Sir John Colleton.
Charles II granted Carolina to the eight Lords Proprietors in 1663. After the claims of Heath’s successors had been disposed of, the grant was revised and extended in 1665. The Great Plague of 1665, London’s Great Fire of 1666, and war with the Dutch and French probably interfered with immediate settlement plans. Finally, in August 1669, three ships with over a hundred colonists sailed under the temporary command of Captain Joseph West and reached Barbados by November. Two of the original ships were lost in storms, but on 15 March 1670, the Carolina and a replacement ship anchored in what is now called Bull’s Bay. Permanent settlement of South Carolina had finally begun.
The first settlement, called “Old Town,” was on the western side of the Ashley River at its mouth. The original settlers were entitled to headright grants: 150 acres for each male over sixteen and a hundred acres for each female and each male under sixteen. Instead they chose security over land, surrounding their houses with a palisade and confining themselves to ten-acre plots. Their precaution proved wise when three Spanish frigates attacked the town in August 1670; fortunately, bad weather forced the Spanish to withdraw.
A new town was laid out at Oyster Point on the neck of land between the Ashley and Cooper rivers, with streets intersecting at right angles. One of the first pre-planned cities in North America, Charles Town was settled in 1680. Renamed Charleston in 1783, it was the only repository for South Carolina’s public records until 1785 and remained the capital of South Carolina until the legislature moved the capital to Columbia in 1790.
South Carolinians first found economic stability in the deerskin trade, but the resulting encroachment on the territory of the Yemassee Indians led to war in 1715. South Carolina also was a leading producer of naval stores, such as pitch and tar. A welcome trade in the seventeenth century, it became a serious problem after the Yemassee Indian War since it attracted pirates to South Carolina’s shores. Blackbeard, the most notorious pirate in the history of seafaring, sailed four ships toward Charles Town in June 1718, stopped ships at leisure, and took hostages whom he traded for medical supplies. The South Carolina assembly had repeatedly requested the crown to protect the province, and about half of the free white men—nearly 600 individuals—signed a petition to that effect in 1717. The ineffectual policies of the Lords Proprietors and their apparent inability to defend the colony led to further disaffection. When a rumor reached Charles Town in 1719 that the Spanish were readying a fleet to attack the city, revolution broke out. While not bloody, the revolution of 1719 nonetheless effectively ended the rule of the Lords Proprietors, and the crown established a provisional royal government in 1721. When the crown bought out seven of the eight proprietors in 1729, South Carolina became a royal colony.
South Carolina is divided, culturally and topographically, into Up Country and Low Country. The topographical division runs along the fall line, from approximately Aiken to Columbia to Camden to Cheraw. Culturally, Charleston and the surrounding Tidewater region is the Low Country. Residents of the Low Country tended toward large rice or indigo plantations with great numbers of slaves. Residents of the Up Country tended to work small farms and in general had few slaves. The government was seated at Charleston, and residents of the Up Country often complained of unfair representation. This was based at least in part on the lack of local government.
During the three decades from the 1730s into the 1760s, the frontier families of the Up Country frequently rebelled against the provincial government. The Low Country elite promised representation, protection against outlaws and Indian attacks, and churches and schools, but they neglected to deliver on their promises. As a result of isolation, hardships, and a growing divergence from the Low Country, residents of the Up Country seldom bothered to travel to Charles Town, except to petition for land. The Stamp Act of 1765 imposed taxes on many official and unofficial papers—including not only legal documents but also playing cards—which greatly affected the pocketbooks of the Low Country planters. While they had the political power in South Carolina, residents of the Low Country needed the support, and numbers, of the Up Country frontiersmen to resist the Stamp Act. Some autonomy was granted in the District Circuit Court Act of 1769, which divided the province into seven judicial districts. About 1772, the first courts were held outside of Charleston. (See South Carolina County/District Resources for a full explanation.)
The Revolutionary War found a deeply divided South Carolina. Charlestonians planned to resist the importation of tea, and the Boston Tea Party strengthened their resolve; Up Country Loyalists were equally resolved and attacked a fort at Ninety-Six in November 1775. The war raged throughout South Carolina for seven years. The British attacked Charleston in June 1776 but were forced to withdraw. Then, in July 1776, the Cherokee War broke out in the Up Country. Militia from South and North Carolina, Georgia, and Virginia defeated the tribe, and the northwest corner of South Carolina was ceded by the Cherokees in the treaty of May 1777. Between 1776 and 1779, Patriots and Loyalists fought skirmishes and continued marauding attacks on each other in the Up Country, although the Loyalists were largely suppressed. In May 1778, the British once again moved against Charleston, laying siege to the city. Charleston capitulated on 12 May 1780, and the British began moving into the Up Country, establishing a series of outposts. Meanwhile, the suppressed Loyalists began guerrilla raids on Patriot farms, and local civil war broke out in several areas. The Patriots also formed guerrilla bands and harassed both the Loyalists and the British. Finally, the Patriot partisans began driving the British out of the Up Country, with major battles at Camden (May 1781), Ninety-Six (May–June 1781), and Eutaw Springs (September 1781); the British were so weakened that they and the Loyalists were forced to withdraw to Charleston. When the British finally evacuated Charleston on 14 December 1782, more than 4,000 Loyalists went with them.
Rice and indigo provided economic stability to South Carolina during much of the eighteenth century; the debts accrued during the Revolutionary War and the loss of bounties to support indigo production threatened to ruin the economy. Loyalists returning from exile in the Bahamas brought a new strain of cotton that thrived in the southeast. Then, in 1793, Eli Whitney improved the cotton gin. Within a decade, short-staple cotton transformed the Up Country into a prosperous region.
Like rice and indigo before it, cotton was a labor-intensive crop. A shortage of laborers led South Carolina to temporarily reopen the slave trade in 1803; 40,000 African Americans were imported in five years. As cotton pushed its way westward, political and journalistic battles over the slavery issue divided the United States into increasingly antagonistic factions. South Carolina and its neighbors felt threatened by the North’s abolitionist movement, and when Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency, South Carolina called a secession convention on 17 December 1860. As the first state to secede, the first state to ratify the Constitution of the Confederate States of America, and the first state to fire shots during the Civil War, South Carolina received particularly harsh treatment when Union General William T. Sherman and his troops subdued her in 1864. Virtually destroyed, South Carolina faced difficult decades of racial and economic strife, but she recovered and today is a prosperous and healthy state.