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Are you looking for your South Carolina ancestors? Here's how to start

Ernie Wiggins Ernie Wiggins
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Veronica Gerald began her study of her family tree when she was a little girl, during the days when children were seen and not heard.

"When my grandmother would talk about her mother (who had been a slave) I would sit there on the floor and play with my doll but I was all ears," said Gerald, who traces her ancestors back to the large Brookgreen rice plantation in Murrells Inlet, now Brookgreen Gardens.

Gerald, who teaches at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, is an expert in the Gullah culture of the black sea island residents. As a child, she would go with her mother to visit four or five families of relatives living at Brookgreen, even after the plantation had become a tourist attraction, and would listen to their stories and commit them to memory.

Many of the original black residents of the plantation were buried in the Springfield Cemetery at Brookgreen, she said. Studying those headstones and the collected papers of the plantation's owners helped her put the leaves on her family tree.

"Those owners were prolific writers," she said. "I found familiar names in their papers. I was really lucky because I had a paper trail."

Though Gerald says she took an unconventional approach to finding her forebears, genealogical experts recommend doing just what she did.


Start with What You Know

When researching your family, it's best to start with what you know, says Tonya Browder, executive director of the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society.

A professional historian, Browder also is the archivist for the South Carolina Genealogical Society, a collection of 19 affiliated chapters around the state that coordinate individual and group research efforts.

Old Edgefield is the largest chapter, with more than 600 members, many of whom are descendants of South Carolinians who migrated west along the Great Wagon Road and now live in Texas. The chapter, which is housed in the Tompkins Library on the Courthouse Square in Edgefield, recorded 3,000 researchers in 2010.

"I tell them to talk to parents and grandparents, get the oral history of the family, Browder said, adding that she offers those who visit Old Edgefield a lineage chart to fill out as best they can. The chart begins with the researcher's parents, their birth dates and locations, death dates and locations, and marriage date. It then branches out to paternal and maternal grandparents, then great-grandparents. After that point, the chart calls for simply the birth and death dates.

Information about births and deaths going back four and five generations can be difficult to locate. But that's where the local chapters of the genealogical society can help by providing guidance and resources.

Dr. David Hiott of the Old St. Bartholomew Chapter in Walterboro said his relatively small chapter (about 130 members) gets a good number of inquiries as well. It helps researchers track down relatives in Colleton County using records of military service and war casualties, cemetery records, recovered court dockets believed destroyed during the Civil War, and an index to births, deaths and marriages that appeared in the Press and Standard (the local daily newspaper) among other documents.

A retired physician, Hiott and his wife, Bobbie, have been members of the Old St. Bartholomew Chapter for about 12 years. He has been archivist for six and uses his own research to help patrons hoping to find their ancestors.

"I start with my tree," Hiott said, "I used to call it the Hiott tree" but not anymore. As the Hiott tree branched out, it grew to include thousands of people and became less identified with his family, he said. But its comprehensiveness makes it a great tool.


Roots and Branches

Identifying family branches and members is a crucial part of genealogy.

Doug Keisler of Lexington, who has been researching his ancestors for years, recently came across quite a find: a photograph of his Civil War-era ancestor Phillip Eichelberger. Eichelberger, dressed in the captain's uniform of the Confederate Army, was the spitting image of Keisler, or maybe that should be vice versa.

Keisler, a retired state government project administrator working on a book about his family, tracked it down using Internet sources that led him to four people in Texas, each of whom had information on the Eichelbergers from South Carolina. In addition to the Eichelbergers there are the Summers, Hobbes and Hopes who have lived in Lexington, Saluda, Newberry, Richland and Edgefield counties.

Identifying family branches and members is a crucial part of genealogy. The Old Edgefield library has an extensive collection of documents and resources, many of which have been written and published by chapter members, to help researchers identify family members.

Some of those records include generations of census data, which is available for perusal and can be a valuable resource for those trying to verify information. Other kinds of documentation - marriage, death and birth records - are 20th century conventions, she said.

"Before then there are few records of marriages in church records," Browder said. "Many people did not marry in churches." In addition, deaths were not always officially recorded and those that were often were recorded differently depending on the source.

"You may have a death certificate, a tombstone and a Bible entry and they all have different dates," she said. Entries in the family Bible are usually the most accurate because they were often the entry made soonest after the death.


Etched in Stone

If you're researching your ancestors, you'll eventually end up in a cemetery.

Carolyn Jackson, executive director of Quaker Cemetery in Camden, responds to hundreds of inquiries each year from people looking for the graves of ancestors. Jackson maintains a catalog of the 5,000 graves in the 50-acre cemetery, the earliest of which date back to the 1700s.

"We give them a map of the cemetery, which is pretty easy to follow," Jackson said of the cemetery, which is at 713 Meeting St. "But sometimes they need a little help."

The cemetery is the burial site of many Confederate veterans and Civil War casualties. Among the more historic sites are those for Brig. Gen. John B. Villepique, a Camden native, and many members of the Villepique family, and Capt. Benjamin Carter, one of seven Revolutionary War veterans buried there.

Jackson said she expects the number of inquiries will only increase now that Find a Grave has become such a popular website for those trying to track down the burial sites of ancestors -- even as far back as the colonial period, the era when Quaker Cemetery was founded.


Family Ties

Alzena Robinson of Bamberg began work on her family tree in 1974, for the first reunion of the Hightower family. Robinson, who has been a member of Bamberg County Council since 1986, wrote her first family history based on interviews with older relatives, particularly family historian Florence Hightower Banks.

Robinson, a retired educator, set aside her work for a while but when she returned to it she decided she had to find documents to support the oral histories she had been collecting.

"I went to the probate court and was able to get everything for my family," she said. "I was really blessed."

Robinson said she was especially elated to find a record of purchase from the Hightower plantation near Denmark, dated Jan. 30, 1837, which read in part, "negro boy Abram $400."
From that listing she was able to trace the line to her grandmother.

Robinson's personal passion was the fuel for a countywide project to collect and archive the history of African Americans in Bamberg.

Four years ago, Robinson met with a group of friends who began collecting oral histories from senior members of the black communities. The two dozen oral histories are housed at the Bamberg County Library.

Robinson said the Bamberg African American Genealogical Society also is collecting the published obituaries of African American residents and conducting an inventory of the county's black cemeteries, which involves photographing every gravestone and transferring that information into a searchable database.


African American Research

Piecing together the puzzle of a family tree is time consuming and often difficult work, experts say, and can be a particular challenge for African Americans because the official record of a family is often incomplete.

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture at the College of Charleston collects manuscripts, documents and other material regarding the unique historical and cultural heritage of African Americans in Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry.

As reference librarian at the Avery Research Center, Deborah Wright received so many requests for help with genealogical research that she prepared a packet tailored for patrons looking into the family trees of African Americans from Charleston.

Included in the packet is Charleston-based professional genealogist Wevonneda Minis' "Guidelines for Researching African American Ancestors," which gives advice to families looking for their slave ancestors. "To trace an ancestor in slavery, you need the name of his or her last slave owner," Minis writes. "That person may not be who old aunt Kate said, or have the same last name as your family, or be on the church membership list, or be a man or woman, or be white, or live in the area where your family lived."

Minis' advice: Search the wills and other documents of slave owners in the areas where they lived for names. Federal census records from the 1800s often list slave owners in an area.

When you find the last slave owner, determine his plantation and look for other records, including insurance policies, mortages, receipts, diaries and other records that might show previous owners.

"If your ancestor disappears from an owner's ledgers, check records of local courts," Minis wrote. "Slave sales and mortgages were often recorded in county deed books. Freeing a slave after 1800 often had to be approved by a court or state legislature, so check those records too."


Getting Started

Tonya Browder is archivist for the South Carolina Genealogical Society
Tonya Browder is archivist for the S.C. Genealogical Society and executive director of the Old Edgefield District Genealogical Society.

Just getting started? Discover South Carolina asked Tonya Browder of the Old Edgefield Genealogical Society for advice. Here's what she says:

Begin by writing down all that you remember hearing about your family while growing up. Interview an older relative or friends to find out what they remember about the family. Gather as many names and dates and you can. Collect family photographs and have them identified, writing names, dates and places on the back of each photo.

After you have collected this information, you are ready to move forward with your family history research.

Fill out lineage charts and family group sheets. Lineage charts show your direct line from you to your great-grandparents. It is important to begin with your direct line first and work back as far as you can. Place the male's name on the top line and the female's name on the bottom line. If you do not know the maiden name of the female, put her first name only. Always use a pencil to fill out these forms because you might to need to make corrections later.

Family group sheets are used to provide more in-depth information on each generation. It is on these forms that you list the parents and children of each family group.

Take your lineage charts and family group sheets with you to research centers for quick reference to see what you have and what you need on your family.

It is important for you to become familiar with the region in which you are researching.

Learn about the formation of the counties in the area. Identifying the correct county your ancestors lived in will keep you from wasting time.

Study waterways and roads in your research area by using old maps.

Use deeds and plats to pinpoint where your family's property was located.

Check census roads to help you learn important family facts. The census will also help you locate where your ancestors lived.

After you've completed this basic research, you are ready to explore your genealogy futher by using wills, deeds, estate records, church histories, cemetery surveys, Bible records, newspapers and military records.


Five research tips:

Here's more information on how to get started, according to the South Carolina Genealogical Society website:

1. See what's available at the local public library. Call ahead and ask before making the trip. University, state and other large libraries, including the Library of Congress, likely will have detailed census records, government documents, newspapers and other genealogical documents.

Libraries dedicated to genealogy generally have church and government records, among other things. The largest of these libraries is operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. The church also has numerous Family History Centers in other cities and states.

2. Look for history books and other published family histories on the region you're researching. Local church histories, cemetery records and census records also can be helpful.

3. Many records are on microfilm and microfiche. They're both easy to use, and librarians will show you how if you don't already know.

4. Vital records are usually found at courthouses, including birth records, marriages and probate records. Some records might be archived, so check with your local office.

5. The local genealogical or historical society often is a wealth of information about where to find records. Like interviewing your family, asking questions of fellow researchers can yield invaluable tips. Consider joining.


Specific South Carolina resources:

The International African American Museum in Charleston
The Center for Family History at The International African American Museum offers a treasure trove of resources.

Whether you’re just getting started or are an experienced genealogist, the International African American Museum’s Center for Family History offers a treasure trove of resources to help you on your genealogy journey. A one-of-a-kind resource, the Center is home to a robust collection of photos, records, archival tools and the largest collection of United States Colored Troop records outside of the National Archives. Admission to the museum includes access to the Center for Family History, its FamilySearch kiosks, storybooth and more.

If you can’t make it to the museum, their digital archives of marriage records, bible records, obituaries, funeral programs, and more can be explored online. Their online resource center will help you navigate the countless documents, understand legal and medical terminology found in old documents, and even tricks and tips for reading old handwriting.

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History maintains statewide records, indexes to information and where you can find it. Start at the website,

Another good place to start online is the S.C. Genealogical Society website. There you can find links to chapters in all parts of the state and information about other groups and research centers.

The Charleston area is blessed with generations of public documents, some dating to the 1600s. The Charleston County Public Library has birth and marriage records dating from 1877, and death records spanning much of the 19th century. It has wills and probate records, some dating as far back as the 1670s, city directories and of particular interest to African Americans, Freedman's Savings and Trust Company Records, 1865-1874, Free Negro Capitation Tax Books from 1811-1864, and compiled military records of 1st United States Colored Infantry; 1st S.C. Volunteers (Colored) Company; Company A, 1st United States Colored Infantry.

There also are private collections at the Charleston Library Society at 164 King St., the Family History Center Library of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints at 1519 Sam Rittenberg Blvd., the Huguenot Society of South Carolina Library at 38 Logan St., and the South Carolina Historical Society Library at 100 Meeting St.

The Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture is located at 125 Bull St., in Charleston.

Ernie Wiggins
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.