Genealogy Tips: Researching Marriages in South Carolina
For genealogists, birth, marriage and death records are somewhat akin to the Holy Grail – these are the bits of paper that prove the theoretical family connections and back up the oral history. Sometimes more importantly, these are the records that that confirm eligibility for membership in such lineage groups as the Daughters of the American Revolution. But if your research takes you to South Carolina, you will find that the answer to the question "Where are the marriage records?" may be "There are no marriage records."
Prior to 1911, South Carolina had very little in the way of laws regarding marriage. Marriage was considered to be a matter of concern only to the family and possibly the church, and not a matter for the government. There was no mandated minimum age, licenses were not issued, and marriages did not have to be registered with any government entity. This changed beginning on July 1, 1911, when the state began requiring the recording of marriages. These records were kept only on a county level, with marriages being recorded in the county where the license was issued. It wasn't until July 1, 1950, that marriage records became centralized. They are now the responsibility of the Bureau of Vital Statistics, a division of the State Board of Health.
It seems pretty straight forward, at least for relatively modern marriages. No such luck. To add to the confusion, South Carolina has always recognized common law marriages. For a couple looking to get married, no license is needed; it can be as simple as moving in together and referring to yourselves as Mister and Missus Smith. This is a holdover from the earliest colonial days. Contrary to what many people believe, most of our ancestors seldom went to church. Churches and ministers were few and far between outside of the larger towns and cities, and settlers could go months without seeing a member of the clergy. As a practical matter, people didn't wait for official sanction – they went on with life and took care of the formalities later.
There are other possibilities as well. Although it was far from a universal practice, some newspapers did publish marriage notices. The Church of England and its successor, the Episcopal Church, kept records in Charleston until the 1850s. Other denomination were not as meticulous on an organized basis, but often individual churches or pastors kept their own records. The single largest collection of marriage and death notices is found at the South Caroliniana Library on the campus of the University of South Carolina in Columbia.