South Carolina conserves oldest state document, dating to 1671

1671 charleston deed

After several months work and an expenditure of $15,000, South Carolina’s oldest state document – dating back nearly 350 years – is back in the state archives.

A deed for a lot of land at Charleston’s original location at Albemarle Point dates to May 28, 1671, the year after English settlers landed at what is now the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site, and is included in Records of the Secretary of the Province 1671-1673.

Those records and a companion volume, Records of the Registrar of the Province 1673-1675, feature 26 handwritten sheets recently conserved at the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Mass.

Among the documents is an accounting of property owned by two men from Barbados forming a partnership to create a plantation, according to the Associated Press. It lists items ranging from the value of their tools to the names of indentured servants.

Charleston was established in 1670 by English colonists from Bermuda, under the first governor of South Carolina, William Sayle, on the west bank of the Ashley River a few miles northwest of the present city. It was moved to its current location on the Charleston peninsula a decade later.

“I think it’s a tribute to all those people who came before who recognized the significance of all these public records and recognized the need to take care of them,” SC Department of Archives and History Director Eric Emerson said. “This is the first record. It’s really kind of the genesis of record-keeping in South Carolina and the genesis of the archives.”

Decades ago, the 1671 deed didn’t appear destined to be around much longer.

It was described in 1944 as “a battered document having fallen victim to ‘storms, earthquakes and wars,’ making it a difficult document to read or preserve,” according to Archives and History spokesman Geoffrey Hardee.

Seventy years ago it and its companion documents, which for many years had been kept in the heat and humidity of the Statehouse basement, were sent to Virginia to be preserved using what was then cutting edge technology – lamination with a sheet of acetate.

Since then, conservators have determined such treatment did more harm than good as the acetate deteriorated over time.

In Massachusetts, the laminate was removed with acetone, ethanol and water, the acid was removed from the paper and then the paper was lined on both sides with a special transparent tissue paper.

“A staff member accompanied it up there and a staff member brought it back,” said Charles Lesser, a retired department archivist and an expert on early colonial documents, who noted that the state wasn’t taking any chances with its records.

“This is the oldest government record that has survived here,” he said. “This has been in state custody from 1671 until the present.”

The department keeps state government records in temperature- and humidity-controlled vaults at its headquarters just outside Columbia.

It has an estimated 80 million documents, including such items as the state’s copy of the Bill of Rights ratified by state lawmakers in 1790 and the Ordinance of Secession passed when South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860.

The Records of the Secretary are the first documents of what would later become the South Carolina state government, according to the Associated Press.

In those days, such things as recording deeds and wills were the responsibility of the state, Lesser said. Later those functions passed to South Carolina’s counties, according to the wire service.

(Top: South Carolina’s earliest state government document, a 1671 deed for a lot at Charles Towne Landing, is seen at the SC Department of Archives and History in Columbia, on March 27, 2015. Photo credit: The Associated Press.)

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