The granting of large estates to titled aristocrats was important in setting a tone for the colony, but the granting of lands by “headrights” to the commoners was much more important.
The granting of land was of immense importance in establishing and shaping South Carolina. In 1663 King Charles II granted the territory of Carolina to the Lords Proprietors, who were supposed to extend the empire westward at a minimum of expense to the crown and to become wealthy as landlords, regranting the land to the settlers. The crown gave the proprietors semifeudal powers appropriate for a colony so remote that the crown would relinquish direct control. The proprietors intended to govern their colony much like a medieval fiefdom, complete with a titled and landed nobility, the titles of which were “landgrave” and “cassique.” The intent was to establish a stable and orderly society. The proprietors did not establish a feudal province but rather one of large plantations, which were worked by white indentured servants and African slaves. There were no more titles granted after the proprietors lost control in 1719.
The granting of large estates to titled aristocrats was important in setting a tone for the colony, but the granting of lands by “headrights” to the commoners was much more important. Headrights, an early version of homesteads, were the means of granting land according to the grantees’ ability to cultivate the land. The number of acres in a headright grant was determined by the size of the grantee’s family, including servants. Hence, the larger the family, the larger the grant. Fifty acres became the normal headright. An indentured servant typically brought two headrights, one for the owner who paid for passage and another for the servant upon achieving freedom. An African slave, being perpetual, earned one headright, and that for the owner.
The proprietors and the royal government granted the land to encourage immigration, to reward beneficial services, to encourage investments in the colony, and to secure revenue. The headrights, while encouraging immigration, also encouraged the acquisition of large numbers of slaves. The colonial leaders, fearful of the increasing number of slaves, sought to entice more “poor white European” immigrants, especially to get them settled in townships arrayed as a protective barrier along the colony’s border. To encourage these military enlistments, the colonial government made grants of lands ceded by the Cherokees as bounties. Colonial land grants normally entailed an obligation to pay the grantor quitrents, a feudal vestige that served as revenue and an indication of allegiance.
Land granting involved a series of steps since there was never a central office in charge of the process. During the proprietary period, a settler would petition the governor in council for land, and either the governor or the council could issue a warrant for survey. The surveyor general would then survey the land and return a plat to the secretary of the province, who then wrote the land grant for the approval of the governor or council. This process was suspended in 1719, and land granting began again in 1731 under royal control. Royal surveyors undertook the work formerly done by the surveyor general. Intending to revise the policy, the Board of Trade greatly restricted land grants in 1772 but was unable to complete the policy changes before the Revolutionary War.
The state of South Carolina continued to grant land after the Revolution by passing an act in 1784. Vacant land could be purchased from the state for $10 per hundred acres. The fee was dropped in 1791, and this measure, along with the repeal of the limits to the amount of land that could be granted, fueled land speculation in the state. Consequently the state granted many large tracts of land in the 1780s and 1790s. The process was abetted by decentralizing land granting: the state surveyor general possessed the authority to appoint numerous deputies in the backcountry to assist in surveying the lands. Land granting continued in South Carolina until the Civil War, albeit at a slower pace as the amount of public land was declining. The office of surveyor general was abolished in 1868, and the practice of land granting virtually died out by 1878.
Ackerman, Robert K. South Carolina Colonial Land Policies. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.
Weir, Robert M. Colonial South Carolina: A History. 1983. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.