South Carolina: Commentary

South Carolina Atlas of Historical County Boundaries

John H. Long, Editor; Peggy Tuck Sinko, Associate Editor; Gordon DenBoer and Kathryn Ford Thorne, Historical Compilers; Douglas Knox, Book Digitizing Director; Emily Kelley, Research Associate and Digital Compiler; Laura Rico-Beck, GIS Specialist and Digital Compiler; Peter Siczewicz, ArcIMS Interactive Map Designer; Robert Will, Cartographic Assistant

Copyright The Newberry Library 2009

Special Topics

The first constitutional limits on the creation of new counties in South Carolina were contained in the state constitution of 1868, which required that the legislature ensure that new counties contain at least 625 square miles and that no existing county be reduced in area below 625 miles. These requirements were altered in the current constitution (adopted in 1895), which stipulates that new counties can be created when one-third of the qualified voters in the area of the proposed new county petition the governor for a new county, and two-thirds of the qualified voter in the same area approve the creation in a subsequent election. If the voter reject the creation, another election to create the same county cannot be held for four years.

The constitution further requires that the legislature, in enabling legislation following approval by the voters, must ensure that new counties contain at least 400 square miles, $1,500,000 of assessed taxable property, and 1/124th of the state’s total inhabitants. Furthermore, in the process of creating new counties, no existing county can be reduce to less than 500 square miles in area, $2,000,000 of assessed taxable property, or 15, 000 inhabitants, and its boundaries must be at least eight miles distant from its courthouse. The legislature also has the authority to alter the boundaries of existing counties, provided the above four requirements for existing counties are met and the voters in the affected areas approve by a two-thirds majority.

Several disputes involving these constitutional requirements have been decided by the state supreme court. In 1899 the court voided the initial creation of Lee County because two-thirds of the qualified voters had not approved in that part of Darlington County to be included in the new county. In 1902 Lee was created again, with slightly different boundaries. The court upheld the creation of McCormick County in 1916, even though Greenwood County (one of the counties from which McCormick was created) thereby fell below the 500 square miles required by the constitution for existing counties. The court ruled that Greenwood (created in 1897) was not covered by the constitutional requirements for "old" counties, since it was created after the 1895 constitution was adopted. The court also ruled that a December 1914 Greenwood election, voided because many eligible voters were denied the vote, did not count toward the four-year waiting period required by the constitution; a valid election was held in December 1915.

In another case involving the requirement that existing counties contain at least 500 square miles, the court in 1951 upheld the transfer of part of Beaufort County to Jasper County, rejecting the argument by Beaufort officials that the transfer thereby reduced Beaufort below 500 square miles of non-marsh or "high land." The court ruled that the word "area" in the state constitution did not distinguish as to the quality of such territory, that marshlands were included in the constitutional definition of "area," and that the requirement that a county have at least $2,000,000 of assessed taxable property after a reduction in size answered the question of land quality. At the same time, the court declined to uphold a referee's opinion that "area" also included inland waters, since the constitutional requirement as to Beaufort's area was satisfied without considering inland waters.

In another case, the state supreme court ruled in 1921 that the legislature, in altering existing county boundaries, must enact any boundary change exactly as approved by two-thirds of the qualified voters in the affected area. The case involved a transfer of territory from Clarendon County to Sumter County, in which more that one-third of the qualified Clarendon voters in the affected area had petitioned for the transfer, and two-thirds of them had approved in a subsequent election. However, before the legislature approved enabling legislation, some Clarendon residents opposed to the transfer produced their own survey of a revised boundary line and asked the legislature to draw the new boundary according to their survey. The legislature referred the matter to the supreme court, which declared that the legislature had no authority under the constitution to alter the boundary line approved by the voters.

Counties, judicial districts, and parishes have served as the basic units of local government at various times and places during South Carolina's history. The historical boundaries of these units are mapped in this atlas as they are recorded in the records of the Carolina Proprietors and session laws of the legislature, without reference to the governmental role each played at different times and places. However, it has been necessary in some cases to supplement the maps with interpretative text to explain the transition from one unit of government to another. For example, the boundaries of the initial counties created in the late seventeenth century are mapped as they appear in the official record. But they failed to develop as effective units of government and were eventually supplanted by parishes and judicial districts--although never officially abolished. To reflect this ambiguity in status, the four counties are considered as "effectively eliminated" when the colony was divided into seven judicial districts in 1769.

A similar ambiguity accompanies the status of many of the thirty-four counties created within the seven judicial districts in 1785. They also failed to develop as functioning counties, and by 1791 the fourteen counties created in the low country districts of Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown had largely been abandoned. In that same year county government was suspended in the four counties of Orangeburg District (Lewisburgh, Lexington, Orange, and Winton), and those counties became, for all intents and purposes, defunct. In this atlas, these eighteen counties are considered as being "effectively eliminated" in 1791, even though their names survived in official records for years thereafter.

The remaining counties were absorbed into the judicial district system in 1800, when twenty new judicial districts were created (and five eliminated). From 1800 to 1868, then, the judicial districts were the principal subdivisions of the state, with county and parish names surviving mostly as geographical reference points. Finally, in 1868, a new state constitution declared that the judicial districts were thereafter to be "designated as counties" (Art. II, sec. 3), and they have remained so.

The ephemeral nature of many of South Carolina's counties and judicial districts is reflected in the fact that eighteen counties and districts have become extinct. In addition, two early incarnations of Berkeley County, two early versions of Colleton County, two versions of Granville County, and the original Marion County have also disappeared. Kingston and Liberty counties were functioning counties for only a few years before they became Horry and Marion districts, respectively.

Parishes existed side-by-side with counties and judicial districts from the early days of the colony to the Civil War, and even as their functions dwindled parish names survived as geographical reference points. The first parishes were created in the South Carolina low country in 1706 as territorial units of the Church of England. But they gradually assumed many of the functions of local government during the remainder of the eighteenth century, and they continued to function as such well into the nineteenth century. In some coastal areas, the parishes survived as election districts until the Civil War. The judicial districts replaced all but two parishes (the “late” parishes of St. Philip and St. Michael) as election districts in the 1865 state constitution, thus signaling the demise of the parishes as functioning governmental units. (In this atlas the parishes are considered to have been “effectively eliminated” on 27 September 1865, the date of completion of the 1865 constitution). The 1868 state constitution completed the transformation of local government when it stipulated that the judicial districts were henceforth to be “designated as counties.”

Some anomalies result from the ambiguities in the status of governmental units outlined above. For example, in 1791 the legislature essentially eliminated the four counties of Orangeburg District (Lewisburgh, Lexington, Orange, and Winton) as operational units, yet in delineating the boundaries of the area’s counties, election districts, and parishes in 1803 and 1805, the legislature continued to refer to the boundaries of the four counties. However, it appears from the context of the two laws that the reference to county lines was made primarily for the purpose of locating the boundaries of election districts and parishes, not for altering the county boundaries. The eclipse of the four counties is reflected in the fact that when Barnwell District was created from Orangeburg District in 1800, the boundaries of Orange and Winton counties were never altered to coincide with the new district boundaries. Of the four original counties of Orangeburg District, only Lexington survived to become a judicial district (in 1804), and it joined Barnwell and Orangeburg districts in superseding the four counties.

Similarly, two extinct counties, Claremont and Salem, pose special interpretative problems. Salem was created from Claremont and Clarendon counties in 1792, and those three counties made up Sumter District when Sumter was created from Camden District in 1800. However, when Clarendon County was established as a judicial district in 1857, the district boundaries were those of the original Clarendon County of 1785--ignoring the creation of Salem County in 1792. Although the law creating Clarendon District notes that Sumter District was thereafter confined to Claremont County only, in this atlas Claremont and Salem counties are considered as being "effectively eliminated" as units of local government in 1800--when both counties became part of Sumter District and failed to become districts in their own right.

Another anomaly involves the boundaries of St. Bartholomew Parish and the original Colleton County. When St. Bartholomew was created in Colleton County in 1706, Colleton’s inland boundary had not yet been defined (it is notated as an “estimated line” in this atlas), and thus St. Bartholomew also had an undefined inland boundary. With the demise of the original Colleton County in 1769 and the creation of a new Colleton County (in a different location) in Charleston District in 1785, St. Bartholomew Parish was left with an indefinite inland boundary. However, when Bartholomew County was created in Charleston District in 1785, it had the same boundaries that St. Bartholomew Parish would have had if its inland boundaries had been extended to the Charleston / Organgeburg district line. In this atlas, then, those parish boundaries are "implicitly extended" to that district line in 1778, when the boundaries of three neighboring low-country parishes (St. George–Dorchester, St. James–Goose Creek, and St. John–Berkeley) were also extended to the district line by statute. (Bartholomew County became extinct in 1791, while St. Bartholomew Parish continued as an election district until 1865).

Some imprecision in drawing the boundary lines of the counties, judicial districts, and parishes is unavoidable, given the vagueness and imprecision of many boundary descriptions, e.g., the "head" of a creek or swamp or a line between river systems. Also, boundaries often involve landmarks that cannot be identified today, e.g., the property of named individuals, roads, marked trees, ferries, mills, and river landings. Finally, some boundaries were ephemeral, disappearing completely in later boundary changes and sometimes in existence for only a brief time. It is also apparent that some county boundaries were not surveyed or clearly marked. In 1797, for example, the legislature responded to a petition from some Fairfield and Richland County residents, who asserted that the boundary separating the two counties (both created in 1785) had never been run. Instead, another line--run "some years ago"--was accepted by the residents as the boundary line, and they asked the legislature to establish and run that "old" line as the official boundary. The boundary established by the legislature in 1797 is significantly different from the line prescribed in 1785; in this atlas, the 1785 boundary is drawn according to the law creating the two counties, and the boundary enacted by the legislature in 1797 is mapped as a change from that 1785 line.

For many of the reasons mentioned above, some historical county boundaries are conjectural; in this atlas they are notated as "estimated lines" During the early years of county and parish formation in South Carolina, some northern and western limits were left undefined or extended to the limits of settlement; these are notated as an "indefinite limit."


Every effort has been made to give the day, month, and year (e.g., 25 February 1785) for all county creations, boundary changes, and other events in this atlas. Occasionally it is impossible to date an event so precisely, but a reasonable estimate is possible. When the precise date is not known or an approximate date is more appropriate, the date is generalized to the month and year (e.g., February 1785) or to the year alone. A lack of evidence may make it impossible to give any date at all for a county's creation, and its occurrence can only be confirmed by the record of a later, related happening, such as the appointment of a sheriff. In such a situation, the date of the later event is used with the simple addition of "by" (e.g., by 25 February 1785) to indicate that the county creation or other event occurred no later than that date and probably earlier.

Several dates may be associated with the creation of a county, judicial district, or parish or a change in boundaries. To many individuals the date that makes the most sense is the one when people began to observe the change, but in most cases that date is impossible to ascertain. An alternative is the date on which the law effecting the change passed the legislature or was approved by the governor. The date of passage is an important reference because it helps identify the law; now, as in the past, references to a law often include the date of passage. Most other compilations of county changes have adopted the date of passage as their standard for the date of change, but it is not always the best indicator of when change occurred.

The dating standard in this atlas is the legally effective date of change, whether it be for the creation of a new unit of government or for the alteration of lines between existing units. Through the colonial period and into the nineteenth century, the date a law passed was generally the date it went into effect. As the nineteenth century progressed, legislators recognized the importance of preparing for the establishment of a new governmental organization or for the shift in jurisdiction that accompanies boundary changes. Some laws, therefore, began to carry two dates: one marking the passage of the law and the other specifying when the boundary change would go into effect. If the date of passage and effective date are different, the law gives both.

Using effective dates means that many of the dates in this atlas may disagree with dates in other references. Dating events before 1752 is a problem because the calendar then in use is very different from the one in use today. Whereas by 1600 most of Europe had adopted the Gregorian calendar, as the modern system of reckoning the days is called, England observed the Julian calendar until 2 September 1752. For the purposes of this atlas, the chief differences between the two systems are, first, numbering the days and, second, designating the change from one year to the next. There has been no attempt to convert the dates of one system to those of the other. Differences in numbering days, therefore, are effectively ignored; whatever day and month are given in a source are the day and month used here, regardless of whether the document was written in England or some other country, before or after 1752. Under the old, Julian calendar the last day of the year was 24 March and the first day was 25 March, which means that in England and its colonies the day after 24 March 1750 was 25 March 1751. This atlas follows the convention of showing both years for dates that fall within the period from 1 January through 24 March when the different calendars call for different years. Thus, successive dates before England's adoption of the Gregorian calendar would occur as follows: the day after 24 March 1688/1689 would be 25 March 1689; the day after 31 December 1689 would be 1 January 1689/1690. About three months later would come 24 March 1689/1690, and the next day after that would be 25 March 1690.