An Eerie Answer for Halloween

Because today is Halloween, and a little fun is in order, I'd like to share a reference question I got about 5 to 7 years ago. Neither the name of the customer nor the name of the plantation involved will be revealed. The circumstances are intentionally left vague to protect the identity of the library customer.

I received a long distance telephone call from a woman in Ohio one afternoon. She sounded a little sheepish as she began to frame her reference question for me. She explained that she had "bad vibes" at certain spots on the Jasper County property she had recently purchased and had consulted a medium about them. At her reading, the medium counseled her to "Call Beaufort County Library, your answer is there."

Needless to say, her question and the enjoinder by the medium presented a rather intriguing aspect to my day. (I want it understood by all that I would have worked her question as well as I was able with or without the medium's counsel. That's what reference librarians do everyday, but I must admit that having a soothsayer involved did add an element of interest to the search. To date, this is the only time that a fortune-teller has given instructions to a client about the value of a public library that I have heard about!)

Taking the open-minded position that some folks believe that "bad vibes" can arise from "bad events" or "unfinished business of souls departed," I wondered aloud about whether or not there had been any known unpleasantness on the property.

Had the location been a battlefield in the past? Not that the researcher or I was aware of.

Were there any known murders or fires at that location? Not that the researcher nor I were aware of.

Were there any record of structures on the site in the past -- structures in which unhappy events or mistreatment of others may have occurred? Perhaps there were, because the property was known to be a working plantation with slaves in the past.

In most places, a question like this one involves county offices in charge of land and tax records at the County courthouse. However, the Beaufort District's courthouse located in Gillisonville burned down in 1865 as the Union troops moved to capture Columbia. This means that many of the pre-1865 records for Beaufort District and its subsequent counties, Beaufort, Hampton, and Jasper, including records of land transactions, wills, court cases, property taxes, etc. -- all activities and functions that arise within a courthouse -- were destroyed.

Did we have any other ways to find out prior uses of a particular piece of land? And if we had some materials that might help her, would she be coming to our area to do her own research? The answer to both questions was "Yes." Therefore, she made an appointment to come to the BDC during her next trip to South Carolina.

Precisely because Beaufort District is a "burned county," the BDC purchases South Carolina Department of Archives and History microfilm series to help compensate for the loss of pre-1870 Beaufort County courthouse records when we can. Using the SCDAH online records index to search on the original owner of record and his properties here in our area, we got a number of hits. Then we pulled several reels of microfilm in hopes that we'd learn more. My greatest hope was that we'd learn something about structures that once were on her property, such as houses, out-buildings, and slave quarters.

I loaded the first reel of microfilm -- going with my gut about which one might be best. I chose a reel of the Charleston series of State Plats. The Charleston series starts slightly before the Columbia series. Furthermore, the Charleston series may include a greater number of lowcountry plantations by virtue of its closer geographic location to Beaufort and Jasper.

The very first reel we pulled, on the very first try, we hit the mother load! The property had a plat; the plat including key structures; the structures included the layout of the slave quarters. The location of the strongest "bad vibes" she felt turned out to be the precise location of the slave houses row on her property. She believed that she had her answer.

Her medium was correct! She did find her answer in the Beaufort County Library after all.

In a forthcoming Connections entry sometime soon, I will highlight the variety of land records to which researchers have access through the BDC or over the open web.

For the record: Because this is a public library, there are no weird questions, only intriguing ones.

About the Author

Grace Cordial has been responsible for the day-to-day operation of the Beaufort District Collection at the Beaufort County Library since 1999.  The Beaufort District Collection exists to acquire, preserve, maintain and make accessible a research collection of permanent value which records the history, culture, and environment of our part of the South Carolina lowcountry.  Besides the research room, Cordial manages the “Virtual BDC:” the BDC web pages, the Online Obituary Index, two digital collections, a new BDC.BCL Facebook page, and the Connections blog.  
Among her duties is to coordinate or present programs about local history, Gullah culture, and our coastal environment, including occasional instructional sessions about how to perform historical and/or genealogical research.