When reaching far back through time to trace our ancestors through generations, it sometimes dawns on the researcher that we have begun to chase them in circles. That, at least, is how I'm feeling now while in pursuit of my fourth great-grandfather's roots.
We've managed to push our way back, in mostly a straight line of migration, from territorial Florida in the late 1820s to Camden County, Georgia, and then to South Carolina. But then, the questions begin. Where to find these McClellans in South Carolina: was it Orangeburgh District? Or Barnwell District? And even if we could find documents showing the presence of a Charles McClellan—and his possible brother Andrew—in the 1800 census, where were any other documents?
Worse, chasing in pursuit of those subsequent questions tied me in even further knots when I found the following note at the website called Carolana.com, regarding Barnwell District:
Originally called Winton County, formed in 1785 as one of the four counties created from the old overarching Orangeburgh District. Within the Barnwell County Court House archives are the original court records of Winton County, dated to 1786.
Winton County? What was this? Could McClellan documents be buried in those old Winton County records within the Barnwell County courthouse? As it turned out, Winton County was in existence from 1785 though 1791. That would be good to know, since I'm now trying to locate Charles and Andrew McClellan—or at least their parents' family—in the 1790 census.
Not so fast, it turns out. Almost as quickly as I discovered the existence of Winton County, its place in my research to-do list vanished: more info from the Carolana website revealed that the first United States census in 1790 contained "no reference" to Winton County. Scratch that lead.
Whether my McClellans ever lived there or not, it seems Winton County as a geopolitical entity was a mess. It was never surveyed. Further, records during that time period were not kept at the county level, but within parishes. And those parishes referred to subdivisions of England's Anglican Church.
Judging from an old map of South Carolina parishes, the parish which should be of most interest would be that of Saint Matthew, which was created in Orangeburgh District in 1768. What records are still available from that location seem minimal.
While running in circles, trying to chase the geopolitical boundary changes in late 1700s South Carolina may seem exhausting, it is still important to understand the underlying basis for how and where records are kept, if we seek to find evidence of our ancestors' presence in that specific location. As one section of the South Carolina government website once noted,
Because records are arranged under the county of origin or the county inheriting the record, understanding the development of counties is important.
That became quite evident when I attempted one other approach to locating my McClellan ancestors: a leap into the unknown by pulling up the name of every McClellan head of household reported in the country's first census in 1790. At first glance, it seemed there was nothing helpful—but let's take some time tomorrow to investigate that a bit closer. I warn you, though: once again, we'll confront a dizzying litany of jurisdictional changes.