Friday, February 18, 2011

South Carolina blues

If you have antebellum ancestors from South Carolina, it's a sad day. A piece of your genealogy went up in flames on this day in 1865 when General William T. Sherman torched the State House in Columbia. The State House library was left in ashes, and the city was left in disbelief and debt as the Civil War drew to a close. Our ancestors' lives were changed forever.

South Carolina is notoriously difficult for family history research due to the lack of records, especially during the Colonial and antebellum eras. Due to the extent of record destruction, it is essential to understand the cultural, religious, and political history, migration patterns, topography, creeks, and rivers as well as federal, state, county/district/parish, town, plantation, and family records. So few tax lists survive that they can be counted on two hands. Birth and death records were not kept by the state until 1915. Many churches and county courthouses have also burned over the years, making family history research quite a challenge.

However, there is good news. Charleston was not destroyed by the Civil War. Before moving the state capitol inland to Columbia, Charleston had been the seat of the South Carolina state government. Many records, including land and court records which are essential for family history, remained housed in Charleston and survived Sherman's fires. Many county courthouses have survived both the Civil War and the ravages of time, and many local historical societies and libraries have preserved genealogical treasures just waiting to be uncovered.

One of the best places to start looking for South Carolina ancestors from the comfort of your own home is the South Carolina Archives. Many of their collections have been indexed and digitized and are available for free at their website. To use it: review the index to their digital collections so you know what record sets you are (and are not) searching. Then click "Enter on-line records index" at the bottom which will take you to the search form. A guide to the digital collections can be found here.

The South Carolina Digital Library is another fascinating resource. Although it is less likely that you will find documents or photos pertaining to your ancestors in the index to people here, it is well worth checking. Your ancestor may not be mentioned in the digital library, but the photos, maps, and historical documents preserved here will at least help you see what their lives were like. Search by topic, county, or timeline if you have a specific idea of when or where your ancestors lived, or just browse by media type to get a feel for the collection.

It took 40 years, but Columbia rose from the ashes of the Civil War and instituted the Historical Commission of the State of South Carolina, which is now responsible for the State Archives mentioned above. Although researching your Palmetto State ancestors may require patience and skill, it's worth it.

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