South Carolina Court Records

From Ancestry.com Wiki

Jump to: navigation, search

This entry was originally written by Johni Cerny and Gareth L. Mark for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.

This article is part of
the South Carolina Family History Research series.
History of South Carolina
South Carolina Vital Records
Census Records for South Carolina
Background Sources for South Carolina
South Carolina Maps
South Carolina Land Records
South Carolina Probate Records
South Carolina Court Records
South Carolina Tax Records
South Carolina Cemetery Records
South Carolina Church Records
South Carolina Military Records
South Carolina Periodicals, Newspapers, and Manuscript Collections
South Carolina Archives, Libraries, and Societies
South Carolina Immigration
African Americans of South Carolina
South Carolina County/District Resources
Map of South Carolina

Genealogists often avoid searching court records, especially when they have not been indexed. Difficult and complex research problems cannot be solved without the clues and facts contained in court records, especially in the Southern states. South Carolina’s complex court system, explained briefly here, should be studied thoroughly. See also Alexia J. Helsley & Michael Stauffer, South Carolina Court Records: An Introduction for Genealogists (Columbia, S.C.: The Department of Archives and History, 1993).

Grand Council/His Majesty’s Council. While South Carolina was a proprietary and crown colony, its government was centralized, and all civil administration took place at Charleston. The Grand Council, composed of the governor and councilors, sat as the General Court, the court of chancery (equity), the court of common pleas, the court of general sessions (assize), the court of admiralty, the court of probate, and the court of appeals. Eighteenth century restructuring led to appointments of judges for many of these courts. All records were created and maintained in Charleston, and the extant original records are at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

General Court. The General Court handled all cases that did not have a specific court; one of its important functions was hearing petitions for headright grants (see Land Records). The records of the general court are included in Journals of the Grand Council (1671–92) and His Majesty’s Council Journals (1721–74), original records maintained at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

Court of Chancery. Established in 1721, the court of chancery handled equity cases (see Equity Circuit Courts below). Prior to 1791, most cases were tried in Charleston, and all records were kept there. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History maintains the original records of the court of chancery, and there is an index to the extant cases. The court of chancery was replaced by equity circuit courts in 1791.

Equity Circuit Courts (1791–1821). The equity court, also called the chancery court, handled cases for which there were no remedies specified in South Carolina law. For example, the equitable division of a tract of land among heirs cannot be mandated in a law that would cover all cases; each division must take into account many variables, including the quality of the land.

Prior to 1791, most equity court cases were tried in the court of chancery in Charleston, and all records were kept there. An index to the extant cases and the records themselves are housed at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

In 1791, South Carolina was divided into three equity circuits: (1) the Upper Circuit included Ninety-Six and Washington Circuit Court districts and Spartanburg and Union counties in Pinckney Circuit Court District; (2) the Middle Circuit included the remaining counties in Pinckney Circuit Court District, plus all of Camden, Cheraws, and Orangeburgh Circuit Court districts; (3) the Lower Circuit included Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown Circuit Court districts.

Another division in 1799 produced four districts, each of which was divided in half; there were eight district seats. A further division in 1808 produced nine districts. By 1821, all districts/counties had their own equity court, except Cheraws District. In 1868, the equity or chancery court was combined with the court of ordinary or probate and became the court of probate.

Maps of the equity circuits are essential to understanding the locations of the districts. See Brent Howard Holcomb, “South Carolina Equity Records,” The South Carolina Magazine of Ancestral Research 6 (1978): 235-38.

Known record locations include the following: Middle Circuit (1791–99) and Camden Circuit (1808–21) records are housed in Camden County, Lower Circuit (1791–99); Charleston Circuit (1808–21) records are housed in Charleston County; Columbia Circuit (1808–21) records are housed in Richland County; Western Circuit (1799–1808) and Pinckney Circuit (1808–21) records are housed in Union County. The records have not been positively located for Upper Circuit (1791–99); Southern, Northern, Eastern, and the lower half of Western circuits (1799–1808); and Cheraws, Georgetown, Ninety-Six, Orangeburgh, and Washington circuits (1808–21).

Court of Common Pleas. This is the civil court of South Carolina. A civil court handles all cases involving private citizens or organizations against private citizens or organizations. The court of common pleas was one of the functions of the grand council during most of the colonial period. Until 1772, the court of common pleas was held in Charleston, but by 1772 courts of common pleas had been established in each of the circuit court districts (see South Carolina County/District Resources), with records maintained in Charleston until 1785. Each of the counties within the circuit court districts formed in 1785 was authorized a court of common pleas. The counties in Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown districts did not function, and the counties in Orangeburgh District only functioned until about 1791. From 1785 until 1800, courts of common pleas operated at both the county and district level; extant records of both must be examined. When districts (counties) were formed in 1800, each was authorized its own court of common pleas.

The records of the court of common pleas generally include guardianship records, such as petitions, reports, and orders; renunciations of dower; and Revolutionary War pension applications. The records will be found in the clerk of court’s office. Most pre-1865 court of common pleas records have been microfilmed and are available at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and The Family History Library (FHL).

Court of General Sessions of the Peace, Oyer and Terminer, Assize and General Gaol Delivery. This is the criminal court of South Carolina and is generally called the court of general sessions or court of assize. The court of general sessions was one of the functions of the grand council during most of the colonial period. Until 1772, the court of general sessions was held in Charleston; by 1772 courts of general sessions had been established in each of the circuit court districts (see South Carolina County/District Resources), with records maintained in Charleston until 1785. Each of the counties within the circuit court districts formed in 1785 was authorized a court of common pleas. The counties in Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown districts did not function, and the counties in Orangeburgh District only functioned until about 1791. From 1785 until 1800, courts of general sessions operated at both the county and district level; extant records of both must be examined. When districts (counties) were formed in 1800, each was authorized its own court of general sessions.

Court of Ordinary. During the colonial period, the governor acted as ordinary for the province of South Carolina, with power to grant probates and administrations; the secretary of the colony also began acting as an ordinary by 1692. Courts of ordinary were established in the circuit court districts in 1781 and in functioning counties within the circuit districts in 1787. When districts (counties) were formed in 1800, each was authorized its own court of ordinary. In 1868, the court of ordinary was combined with the court of equity (chancery) and became the court of probate.

Circuit Courts (1769–1800). Circuit courts were established by the South Carolina Assembly in 1769. Each circuit court district (see South Carolina County/District Resources) was authorized a clerk of common pleas for its court of common pleas and a clerk of the Crown for its court of general sessions. Records of the circuit courts were maintained in Charleston until 1785. When the circuit court districts were abolished in 1800, their records were transferred to the district (county) with the circuit court district seat.

Precinct Courts. Precinct courts, also called county courts, were established in 1721. The five courts were held outside Charleston and staffed by local justices of the peace who tried minor criminal cases and civil suits. There are no extant records for the precinct courts according to the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

County Courts. County courts were first established in 1785. The county courts were directed to maintain records of their proceedings, prove and record conveyances and renunciations of dower (see Land Records and Probate Records), license tavern-keepers, and levy taxes. Many county courts did not function until 1800, and others functioned only for a few years from 1785 to 1791. When districts (counties) were established in 1800, the county court became the primary judicial body in the district, with three offices: the register of mesne conveyance (see South Carolina Land Records), the court of common pleas, and the court of general sessions.

Court records created by the County Court, Court of Common Pleas, Equity Court, District Court, Court of General Sessions, Probate Court, and Court of Magistrates and Freeholders have been microfilmed and can be searched at the Department of Archives and History in Charleston and the FHL. See www.state.sc.us/scdah/guide/ctyguide.htm for a list of all county level records available at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. Most libraries and archives with genealogical collections have some printed abstracts of court records.

Personal tools