South Carolina Court Records
The South Carolina court system can be quite confusing. However, since court records contain vital information for genealogical research, it’s important for researchers to fully understand the court systems and take full advantage of the records that they have to offer. Here is a quick description of the court system in South Carolina:
Grand Council or His Majesty’s Council: South Carolina had a centralized system of government, when it was under the British Crown. During that time, Charleston handled all civil administration duties. The Grand Council, which was headed by a governor and made up of various councilors, served as all of the following court officials: General Court, Court of Chancery (Equity), Court of Common Pleas, Court of General Sessions (Assize), Court of Admiralty, Court of Probate, Court of Appeals
Several of those courts received their own judges during a restructuring process that took place in the 1700s. All of those court records were originally created in the city of Charleston and were maintained there for quite a while. Those records that still exist can now be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History
General Court: Any cases that did not fall under the jurisdiction of a specific court were handled by the General Court. For example, headright grant petitions were heard by the General Court. His Majesty’s Council Journals (1721-74) and Journals of the Grand Council (1671-92) each contain General Court records. Many of the original records can also be found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
Court of Chancery: The Court of Chancery was created in 1721 in order to handle equity cases. Up until 1791, most of those cases were heard in the city of Charleston and the records relating to those cases were also kept in Charleston. Original Court of Chancery records are now held at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and have been indexed.
Equity Circuit Court (1791-1821): In 1791, Equity Circuit Court replaced the Court of Chancery. Although, it was still known as the “Chancery Court” at certain times. Equity Court handled cases with no clear or specific remedies, such as complicated land divisions, which might involve multiple factors and variables.
Three equity courts were created, in 1791. First, there was the Upper Circuit, which included the Circuit Court districts of Washington and Ninety-Six, as well as the portion of the Pinckney Circuit Court district in Union County and Spartanburg County. Second, there was the Middle Circuit, which included the Circuit Court districts of Orangeburgh, Camden, and Cheraws, as well as the rest of the Pinckney district. Finally, there was the Lower Circuit, which was made up of the Circuit Court districts of Georgetown, Beaufort, and Charleston.
In 1799, the equity courts were divided again. Four districts were created and each one was split in half. That meant that there were 8 district seats in the state. Then, in 1808, the districts were divided again, into 9 districts. Each county/district had its own equity court, as of 1821, except for the district of Cheraws. Then, in 1868, the Court of Ordinary (Probate Court) and the Court of Equity (Chancery Court) were combined, creating the Court of Probate.
Brent Howard Holcomb, “South Carolina Equity Records,” The South Carolina Magazine of Ancestral Research 6 (1978): 235-38 holds maps featuring equity circuits. Understanding the layout of those circuits is essential for genealogical research to be successful.
Known records are located in the following places:
- Camden Circuit (1808-21) and Middle Circuit (1791-99) records are located in Camden County
- Charleston Circuit (1808-21) and Lower Circuit (1791-99) records are located in Charleston County
- Columbia Circuit (1808-21) records are located in Richland County
- Pinckney Circuit (1808-21) and Western Circuit (1799-1808) records are located in Union County
The Upper Circuit records for 1791 to 1799 have not been located. Nor have the records for the Eastern, Northern, Southern, or lower half of the Western circuits for 1799 to 1808. The records for the circuits of Orangeburgh, Ninety-Six, Cheraws, Georgetown, and Washington for 1808 to 1821 are also missing.
Court of Common Pleas: The Court of Common Pleas is South Carolina’s version of the civil court. It is responsible for handling any cases in which private organizations or citizens file claims against each other. For most of colonial times, Court of Common Pleas cases were handled by the Grand Council. The Court of Common Pleas was located in Charleston until 1772. However, at about that time, Courts of Common Please were created in all of the circuit court districts in the state. Although, up until 1785, the records for each of those courts were still maintained in the city of Charleston.
Even though every county was given a Court of Common Pleas as of 1785, the courts in the Orangeburgh District counties only functioned until 1800 and the courts in the counties of Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort never functioned at all. The Court of Common Please operated on a district level and a county level between 1785 and 1800. So, it’s important for researchers to examine both types of records. In 1800, districts (counties) were created and a Court of Common Pleas was assigned to each one.
Court of Common Pleas records may include any of the following items: Guardianship Records, Petitions, Orders, Reports, Dower Renunciations, War Pension Applications.
All of those records and more can be found in the office of the court clerk. Most of the records from prior to 1865 can be obtained through the FHL or the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and have been placed on microfilm.
Court of General Sessions of the Peace, Oyer and Terminer, Assize and General Gaol Delivery: Generally known as the Court of Assize or the Court of General Sessions, this is the court responsible for trying criminal cases in the state of South Carolina. During colonial times, for the most part, those functions were performed by the Grand Council. Charleston was the home of the Court of General Sessions until 1772. By that point, each circuit court district was given its own Court of General Sessions, but Charleston held those records until 1785. The Courts of Common Pleas and Courts of General Sessions were each run in similar ways, with the Orangeburgh District county court only functioning until around 1791 and those in Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort not functioning at all. Both county and district records must be examined during genealogical research.
Court of Ordinary: In colonial times, South Carolina was a province. It had a governor, who acted as ordinary for the province. The governor held both administration power and probate power. From 1692 onward, the Secretary of the Colony also began acting as ordinary. Circuit court districts were given Courts of Ordinary in 1781. In 1787, functioning counties in each district also received Courts of Ordinary. In 1800, districts, or counties, were formed, and each one was given a Court of Ordinary. The Court of Equity and the Court of Ordinary merged and became the Court of Probate in 1868.
Circuit Courts (1769-1800): In 1769, the South Carolina Assembly created Circuit Courts. Every circuit court district was given a Clerk of the Crown and a Clerk of Common Pleas for its Court of General Sessions and Court of Common Pleas, respectively. Circuit Court records were kept, until 1785, in Charleston. All records were transferred to the district, or county, where the district seat for the Circuit Court was, as of 1800, which was when the Circuit Court system ceased to exist.
Precinct Courts: Precinct Courts were created in 1721, and they were also known as County Courts. There were 5 of them outside the city of Charleston. Minor civil suits and minor criminal cases were tried in those courts by justices of the peace. The South Carolina Department of Archives and History states that no records for the Precinct Court system still exist today.
County Courts: In 1785, a new system of County Courts was established. They were each required to record renunciations of dower, conveyances, levy taxes, and tavern-keepers licenses. Some County Courts functioned from 1785 until 1791, while others didn’t function at all until 1800. County Courts became the primary judicial bodies, when districts (counties) were established, which was in 1800. County Courts of the time had three offices. They were the Court of Common Pleas, the Court of General Sessions, and the Register of Mesne Conveyance.
The FHL and the Charleston Department of Archives & History each have microfilmed copies of the following court records on file: County Court, Court of Common Pleas, Equity Court, District Court, Court of General Sessions, Probate Court, Court of Magistrates and Freeholders. See Also Guide to U.S. Court Records Research