Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 10 September 2010

Translating Old Street Addresses In Charleston

Last month I posted an essay about the history of street numbers or building addresses on the Charleston peninsula. After reading that historical survey, one might wonder how to go about translating an “old” number into a modern address. It’s not necessarily an easy process, but here’s my best advice on solving that mystery.

The fact that the streets of peninsular Charleston have been renumbered several times over the past three centuries can cause confusion for anyone attempting to match a “historic” street number (one taken from a historic source) to a modern address. Depending on the vintage of the number in question, this process might be quite simple, but in other cases the historic number might be wildly different from the modern number. Anyone attempting to locate the modern location of a historic address should therefore proceed with caution, for there is no simple rule for making this translation. The solution will depend on a number of variables, including the date of the historic reference in question and the size of the lot in question.

Whether you are attempting to locate the residence of a distant ancestor or tracing the history of a specific building, you must bear in mind one important rule: the key to tracing the history of a particular piece of property in Charleston is understanding its succession of ownership, or “chain of title.” Since most of the available records you will consult are organized by surname, you will need to acquire the names of the individuals through whose ownership the property passed.

Remember that your ancestor, or the occupants of the old building you are studying, may have rented the property in question. People from all walks of life, from planters to paupers, executed short- and long-term property leases in historic Charleston, but very few records of these transactions survive. In such cases, you still need to establish the property’s chain of title and then use sources such as city directories to connect temporary occupants to it.

The following suggestions are intended to direct researchers to the most pertinent resources:

  1. Track your target names(s) through the various Charleston city directories, which are available from 1782 to the present (though not necessarily published every year). Your subject’s street number may change over the years, especially in the directories of the late 1700s and early 1800s, but keep in mind that such changes do not necessarily mean he/she relocated. Whenever possible, try to identify the name(s) of the occupant(s) who resided at your target address, as well as the names of his or her neighbors, over a period of years. The more names you can tie to a specific location, the easier it will be to confirm the fixed location of an address even if the street number changed several times.
  2. The Charleston city directory of 1840 includes a “reverse directory”: an alphabetical listing of streets that identifies each street address and its occupant. Similar  “reverse directories” are also found in the city directory from 1890 onward. These later directories post-date the renumbering project of 1884–1886, however, so the information they contain might only serve to confirm what you already know.
  3. Find your subject in the earliest extant property tax record: the City of Charleston Tax Assessor’s Ward Books, 1852–1856. These records are divided into separate volumes for each ward, and the street names are indexed at the beginning of each volume. Under each street heading is a list of names representing the property owners and an incomplete listing of street numbers. These names are listed in geographic order; that is, they appear in the same as if you were walking in the street. Thus if your subject’s name is located near a recognizable landmark such as a church or the intersection of two streets, you may be able to match that location to a modern street number without further work (unless the lots have since been subdivided or merged). Similarly, Charleston County tax assessment records from the 1870s onward are also available on microfilm in the South Carolina Room at the Charleston County Public Library (CCPL).
  4. Consult Ford’s 1861 Census of the City of Charleston, in which the contents are arranged alphabetically by street name and then sequentially by house number. If you know the street number and/or the name of the occupant, you can count the number of doors between your target address and the nearest landmark such as a church or intersection. Always keep in mind, however, that these lots might have been subdivided or merged before or after the date of this 1861 survey. Also bear in mind that the city never officially adopted Ford’s numbering system (see the historical narrative above).
  5. The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps of Charleston of 1884 and 1888 both include street numbers, and thus offer a snapshot of the addresses as they existed before and after the renumbering of 1884–1886. Note, however, that these maps do not encompass every building standing in the city at that time.
  6. Consult the Report of Committee on Condition of Buildings after the Earthquake, with a List of Buildings that Should Come Down, published shortly after the earthquake that struck Charleston on 31 August 1886. This report, which is available on microfilm in the South Carolina Room at CCPL, includes the street number and owner’s name of every building in the city.
  7. Milby Burton’s unpublished two-volume typescript “Streets of Charleston,” a copy of which can be found in the South Carolina Room at CCPL, contains a brief historical survey of all peninsular streets and includes dated references to street modifications such as widening, lengthening, renaming, etc.
  8. The most definitive strategy, and also the most laborious, is to perform a “chain of title” search. In order to do this, you must visit the Charleston County Register of Mesne Conveyance Office (RMC), which contains records of nearly all property conveyances within Charleston County from 1719 to the present (a small percentage were never recorded). Here you find indices that will direct you to specific volumes containing real estate transactions relating to your target property. The eighteenth- and nineteenth-century deeds are indexed by surname, while the twentieth- and twenty-first-century deeds are indexed by geographic location. Once you find the deeds relating to your subject, read the description of the property for clues to its precise location. If the early descriptions of your target property are too vague to determine its precise location, you might have to perform similar title searches on the neighboring properties in order to establish a larger contextual framework. Note that published abstracts of all deeds from 1719 through 1788 are available in the South Carolina Room at CCPL.
  9. In the course of your “chain of title” research, you might encounter difficulty determining how a certain piece of property came into the possession of a specific individual. In such cases, remember that the property could have been conveyed by means of marriage or inheritance rather than by deed. Transcriptions of all extant South Carolina wills, 1671–1868, as well as copious records of early Charleston marriages, are available in the South Carolina History Room at CCPL.

Like this essay? You can download a PDF version of it (with footnotes) from our PATHFINDER page.

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