Although Charleston, SC, is in the spotlight now for its pivotal role in the start of the Civil War, its history stretches back far before the April 12, 1861, firing on Fort Sumter. Spanish explorers first visited the coastal plains of what would become South Carolina in 1521. After the Spanish departed in 1587, the English moved in. In 1670, they named a colony at Albemarle Point in honor of King Charles II — Charles Town. From that early settlement to the Civil War and beyond, use these tips and sources to shed light on your Charleston roots.
The English began a series of efforts to attract settlers to the Carolina colony by renting land for a half-penny an acre and offering monetary incentives to those who imported healthy British servants. Lords proprietor representing the crown kept land records until 1719, when provincial secretaries took over land grants and began public registers for deeds. Carolina began to split shortly thereafter, and South Carolina became a crown colony in 1729.
After 1785, counties recorded deeds. You can find land plats from 1731 to 1861 and grants from 1784 to 1882 at the state archives and on Family History Library (FHL), but most pre-1800 files are incomplete. Nearly 52,000 plats for state land grants, covering 1784 to 1868, are in an online database.
Other early groups attracted to Charleston included British colonists from Barbados (who brought that island’s slave-labor plantation system with them), Germans and Dutch from New York. Settlers taking advantage of South Carolina’s religious tolerance included Catholics (who made Charleston the seat of the diocese) and Huguenot Protestants. Charleston is home to the fourth-oldest Jewish congregation in the United States and the oldest Orthodox synagogue in the South, founded by Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Central Europe.
As South Carolina’s chief port, Charleston was a hub for immigration. Many of the earliest of these records have been lost, but you can find a collection of passenger lists dating as far back as 1669 here. The state archives and the FHL have fragments of Charleston’s custom lists from the 1820s. You can find passenger lists for Charleston, 1890 to 1924, at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the FHL and subscription site Ancestry.com .
Before its key role in the Civil War, Charleston was equally important to the American Revolution. Thanks in part to the thick palmetto-log walls of Fort Sullivan (now Fort Moultrie), then under construction, colonists successfully repelled a British invasion under Gen. Henry Clinton in 1776. But Clinton returned in 1780 with 14,000 men and captured Charleston; the British occupied the city until December 1782.
The South Carolina GenWeb Project is compiling data on Palmetto State Revolutionary War soldiers, including Loyalists, here. The state archives has a card catalog of South Carolina Revolutionary War soldiers, as well as a name index to post-Revolutionary claims.
The early years of independence proved prosperous for Charleston. Already a center for the deerskin trade, rice and indigo, Charleston joined in the cotton boom made possible by the 1793 invention of the cotton gin — and, of course, slave labor from Africa, which arrived through the Port of Charleston. By 1820, a majority of the city’s population was black. After plans were uncovered in 1822 for a slave revolt led by free African-American Denmark Vesey, he and 36 others were hanged. Trace Charleston slave ancestors in the wills and estate papers at the state archives and online here, and visit the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston.
Fearful that the election of Abraham Lincoln would mean losing slaves, South Carolina was the first state to vote for secession Dec. 20, 1860. Four months later, Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard ordered shore batteries to open fire on Fort Sumter after the Union refused to surrender it, triggering the Civil War.
Records of Charleston soldiers serving in the Civil War are at NARA and the FHL. Online, check the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors System, South Carolinians in the Military and the state archives’ online records index, which covers nearly 11,000 records of Confederate veterans (1909 to 1973), including pension applications.
Growing Palmetto Pedigrees
Charleston went into decline after the Confederacy’s defeat, its woes amplified by natural disasters, including a magnitude 7.3 earthquake in 1886. But today the city has rebounded and regained its allure as one of the South’s most charming cities.
Like many Southern states, South Carolina was late to begin statewide vital records, commencing birth and death records in 1915, marriage in 1950 and divorces (illegal until 1949) in 1962. But Charleston kept separate birth records from 1877 to 1901 and death records from 1821 to 1914; these are available on FHL microfilm and on Ancestry.com. The state archives also has some 18th- and 19th-century marriage records. Ancestry.com offers a database of South Carolina Marriages, 1641 to 1965, as well as Charleston Marriage Records, 1877 to 1887. Statewide death indexes for 1915 to 1960 are online here.
Newspapers, too, can fill gaps in vital records. The FHL has a collection of marriage and death notices from the Charleston Observer, 1827 to 1845. Ancestry.com also has newspaper obituaries, and subscription site Genealogy Bank offers a wealth of complete Charleston newspapers dating from 1783. The Early South Carolina Newspaper Database offers index books, surname searches, ship-name searches and slave-name searches of newspapers published in Charleston from 1732 through 1782.
Charleston has been enumerated in every US census since 1790. City censuses took place in 1848 and in 1861. Both enumerations are available on Google Books (find them in Family Tree Magazine‘s Google Library), and the 1848 census is on FHL microfilm.
James Hagy compiled 27 Charleston city directories between 1803 and 1860. These and a later 1888-to-1890 directory are searchable on Ancestry.com; the Hagy collection and several other directories also are at the FHL.
Although much of your Charleston genealogy research can now be done remotely, don’t let that convenience keep you from visiting in person. In addition to its history and antebellum appeal, Charleston is known as one of the South’s best places to eat — and there’s nothing like a plate of shrimp and grits to celebrate finding another branch (a palmetto one, of course) of your family tree.
- Settled: 1670
- Incorporated: Aug. 13, 1783
- Nicknames: The Holy City, Palmetto City
- State: South Carolina
- County: Charleston
- Area: 104 square miles
- Motto: Aedes mores juraque curat (Latin for “She guards her buildings, customs and laws”)
- Primary historical ethnic groups: African-American, British, Dutch, German, Huguenot, Jewish, Irish, Scottish
- Primary historical industries: deerskin, shipping, rice, indigo, cotton
- Famous residents: John C. Calhoun, Gen. Mark Clark, Stephen Colbert, Lauren Hutton, Joel Roberts Poinsett (namesake of the poinsettia plant), Darius Rucker, John Rutledge
- Charleston County GenWeb
- Charleston History
- Low Country Digital Library
- Online Records Index
- Rediscovering Charleston’s Colonial Fortifications
- Colonial South Carolina: A History by Robert M. Weir (University of South Carolina Press)
- A Guide to South Carolina Genealogical Research and Records by Brent H. Holcomb (Magazine of South Carolina)
- Roster of South Carolina Patriots in the American Revolution by Bobby Gilmer Moss (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
- South Carolina: A History by Walter B. Edgar (University of South Carolina Press)
- South Carolina Marriages, 1688-1799 and South Carolina Marriages, 1800-1820 by Brent H. Holcomb (Genealogical Publishing Co.)
Archives & Organizations
- Archives, Diocese of Charleston: Box 818, Charleston, SC 29402, (843) 724-8372
- Avery Research Center for African-American History and Culture: 125 Bull St., Charleston, SC 29401, (843) 953-7608
- Charleston County Public Library: 68 Calhoun St., Charleston, SC 29401, (843) 805-6930
- City of Charleston: 50 Broad St., Charleston, SC 29401, (843) 577-6970
- South Carolina Department of Archives and History: 8301 Parklane Road, Columbia, SC 29223, (803) 896-6100
- South Carolina Historical Society: 100 Meeting St. Charleston, SC 29401, (843) 723-3225
- Vital Records Services, South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control: 2600 Bull St., Columbia, SC 29201, (803) 898-3630
1670: British colonists establish Charles Town
1744: Eliza Lucas cultivates indigo, which becomes a cash crop
1761: Deerskin trade peaks with up to 1.25 million deer slaugh
1780: British troops occupy Charleston
1822: Denmark Vesey’s plans for slave revolt are uncovered
1841: Market Hall becomes Charleston’s commercial hub
1861: Firing on Fort Sumter starts the Civil War
1886: 7.3-magnitude earthquake damages 2,000 buildings
1923: Broadway’s Runnin’ Wild gets America dancing the Charleston
1969: Charleston’s black hospital workers strike
1989: Hurricane Hugo causes $2.8 billion in damage
Records at a Glance
- Begin: city records in 1877, state records in 1915
- Research tips: Find Charleston birth records from 1877 to 1901 (predating statewide registration) on FHL microfilm and on Ancestry.com.
- Begin: 1803
- Research tips: The James Hagy city directory collection provides a detailed chronicle of antebellum Charleston; find it at the FHL and Ancestry.com.
- Begin: city records in 1821, state records in 1915
- Research tips: Death records for Charleston from 1821 to 1914 are on FHL microfilm and on Ancestry.com. For statewide death indexes, 1915 to 1960, visit http://www.scdhec.gov/administration/vr/vrdi.htm.
- Begin: public registers in 1719, county records in 1785
- Research tips: Check the state archives, FHL microfilm, and a database of 52,000 plats for state land grants (1784 to 1868) at http://www.archivesindex.sc.gov.
- Begin: 1820
- Research tips: Only fragments exist for 1820 to 1829. Passenger lists covering 1890 to 1924 are on NARA and FHL microfilm, and searchable at Ancestry.com.
- Begin: state records in 1950
- Research tips: Check the state archives for 18th- and 19th-century marriage records, and Ancestry.com’s collection spanning 1641 to 1965.
- Begin: 1732
- Research tips: GenealogyBank has the best online collection of digitized South Carolina newspapers.
Top Five Historic Sites
1. Charleston Museum
360 Meeting St., Charleston, SC 29403, (843) 722-2996
“America’s First Museum,” founded in 1773, preserves and interprets the history of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry.
2. Citadel Archives and Museum
171 Moultrie St., Charleston, SC 29409, (843) 953-6846
Chronological exhibits trace the history of the Citadel — whose cadets fired on a Union ship in January 1861, almost starting the Civil War early — from 1842 to the present.
3. Confederate Museum
188 Meeting St., Box 20997, Charleston, SC 29413, (843) 723-1541
The second floor of Market Hall houses a museum maintained by the Charleston chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
4. Fort Sumter National Monument
1214 Middle St., Sullivan’s Island, SC 29482, (843) 883-3123
Tour the site in Charleston Harbor where the Civil War began April 12, 1861, when the Union surrendered Fort Sumter 34 hours after Confederate artillery opened fire.
5. Middleton Place
4300 Ashley River Road, Charleston, SC 29414, (843) 556-6020
Relive Charleston’s plantation era at this 1741 home of Henry Middleton, president of the First Continental Congress. This national historic landmark, site of America’s oldest landscaped gardens, is about 15 minutes northwest of the city.
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