The revolution in technology and genetics testing has made tracing family history easier than ever.

And in South Carolina, thanks to public records that go back more than 300 years, the potential for researching a building's history, and the lives of those who lived or worked there, is possible, too.

“Researching property is something near and dear to us at the Preservation Society (of Charleston),” says the nonprofit’s executive director Kristopher King, noting the society’s decades-long program to place historic markers on homes downtown.

As a result of those markers, the society often is a first stop for novices in Charleston embarking on a journey of discovery, and King says the organization tries to start people on the right track. Many other communities also have historical or preservation groups that could be a good place to start.

“We’re really fortunate in Charleston. A lot of people think that Charleston is an incredibly well-researched city, and it is, to a certain degree," King says, "but we’re always amazed at how much more information there really is to be found out there.”

“When an individual homeowner is willing to take on that task, we get excited about it because it adds to the collective story of Charleston.”

Getting started

Robert Gurley looks over a Sanborn (insurance company) map at Preservation Society

Robert Gurley, director of preservation at the Preservation Society of Charleston, looks over one of the Sanborn fire insurance maps from 1941 at the nonprofit's office. The maps give details of properties in specific times. David Quick/Staff

While Charleston and other communities have resources, it can be intimidating to figure out where to begin a search.

In the Lowcountry, records are available at a wide array of places, including the Preservation Society, South Carolina Historical Society, Charleston County Library, Historic Charleston Foundation, S.C. Department of Archives and History, Charleston Library Society, Avery Research Institute, Charleston Museum and the University of South Carolina.

Cooperative efforts continue to make resources available online at the Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston.

"It's amazing that we have these records," says Doreen Larimer, a real estate abstractor who has 35 years of experience researching historic properties in the Lowcountry, including those that date back to when Carolina was a royal colony.

"When you think about all the things that happened in Charleston, between the hurricanes, earthquakes and wars, that these records still exist, it's amazing. And they can be accessed by anyone," she says. "They are public records and you are more than welcome to see them."

Both King and Larimer say the first place to start is by establishing "a chain of title" of ownership, starting with the current owner and working back.

In South Carolina, such searches begin in the county Register of Mesne Conveyance office, more commonly referred to a more modern, simplified term "Register of Deeds" in other places.

The title leads to names of people and places, which Larimer says can change over time. As an example, Rivertowne subdivision in Mount Pleasant used to be known as Wando Plantation and land where the new S8 skateboard park in the Charleston Neck used to be called the "Rat Trap."

Long ago, Charleston County used to be Berkeley County, which was originally established in 1682 and named for lords William and John Berkeley.

"The more knowledgeable you are of an area that you're researching, the easier your search will be," says Larimer of becoming familiar with family names, topography, geography and former names of places.

Asking around may help lead a researcher to local historians and other experts able to help.

The next step is reading plats.

"To do research, you'll have to learn to read a plat, and it can be daunting at first," says Larimer, adding that plats match up fairly well with historic maps. "You've got to learn to read a plat."

The fun stuff

After establishing a chain of title and examining plats, the fun starts.

For those with properties in downtown, King says the McCrady plats offer "a real treasure trove of information." 

The John McCrady Plat Collection is a collection of more than 10,000 plats collected by local surveyor John McCrady, who lived from 1884 to 1955. During his lifetime, McCrady collected thousands of original 18th- and 19th-century plats, mostly of Charleston, Berkeley, Dorchester and Colleton counties. When he could not acquire originals from the landowners, he placed tracings into his collection.

King says one of the "most easily accessible (resources)" to get information on a property are the Sanborn maps, issued by the Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. and locally available at the county library's South Carolina Room.

"Most towns in the country had them," says King of the maps that pre-dated the era of the modern fire department.

"Back then, you’d sign a contract with various fire insurance companies. They would come out and do these incredibly detailed plat-by-plat documentation of what’s there. Is it masonry? Is it wood? Does it have a slate roof or wood shingle roof? What was the use of the property? It was all about assessing a fire risk," says King.

"The cool thing about them is that they are the prettiest things you’ll ever see because they are hand-colored."

In Charleston, some libraries have old city directories, which were printed from the late 19th century through most of the 20th. They're searchable either by last name or street address. These not only give the name of the person who lived there but also their occupation (and even their race).

Knowing the names associated with the properties allows a researcher to open up a whole new vein of exploration.

"We have great city directories that are sort of like the historic yellow pages to see who was working where," King says. "It helps you piece together what the history may look like."

Maps provide opportunities to cross-reference when researching property history

Old maps provide opportunities to cross-reference when researching property history, such as which houses were burned in Charleston's fire of 1861 or which were built atop tidal creeks. David Quick/Staff

Contact David Quick at 843-937-5516. Follow him on Twitter @DavidQuick.

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