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Records of the Commissioners of the Charleston Orphan House, 1790-1951

The Charleston Orphan House, the oldest municipal orphanage in the United States, was established by act of City Council on 18 October 1790, "for the purpose of supporting and educating poor orphan children, and those of poor, distressed and disabled parents who are unable to support and maintain them." A board of twelve commissioners elected annually by City Council governed the institution, while a paid staff administered its day-to-day operations. The Orphan House was funded by a public endowment consisting of annual appropriations from City Council, returns on investments, and charitable donations and bequests.

Although the Orphan House was officially created in 1790, the institution was housed in temporary quarters for nearly four years. The cornerstone of the new Orphan House, occupying the block bordered by Calhoun, King, Vanderhorst, and St. Philip’s Streets, was laid in 1792, and the building formally opened in 1794. The institution remained at that site, with numerous additions and improvements, for nearly one hundred and fifty years.

In the early 1950s the mission of the Charleston Orphan House took a new direction. The city sold the Orphan House property on the corner of Calhoun and St. Philip Streets in 1951, and the Orphan House itself was demolished. The name was changed to Oak Grove at that time, and the facilities were moved to North Charleston. In addition, the institution also began admitting non-orphaned, emotionally disturbed children. In 1978 the City of Charleston removed itself from the direct involvement with the Oak Grove facility, and Oak Grove became a private, non-profit institution known as Carolina Youth Development Center.

The materials represented in this collection include applications to admit children (1790s-1920s), applications for indentures (1790s-1920s), committee records, correspondence of the commissioners, financial records, indenture books, minutes of the commissioners’ meetings (1790-1977), miscellaneous records, physician’s reports, and staff records.

Starting in the 1790s, parents or guardians were obliged to submit an application to admit children to the Orphan House stating the reasons for this necessity. Most of those applications have survived, and they represent a valuable source of genealogical information for modern researchers. Once the boys and girls reached a certain age, they would be indentured or “bound out” to an adult in the community (or occasionally beyond Charleston) until their eighteenth birthday. This collection also includes a large number of “applications for indentures,” which often provide information valuable about the children’s teenage years. Many of the names of these children, 1790-1899, can be found in Susan King’s History and Records of the Charleston Orphan House (2 volumes, Southern Historical Press, 1984). A large quantity of additional materials is not covered in those publications, however, so the Special Collections staff has compiled a database of the names from these two forms of applications. This database is available in a printed form in the Charleston County Public Library’s South Carolina Room. Please note that all applications less than 75 years old are housed in the office of the City of Charleston Records Management Division and are closed to the general public.

For further information, please call (843) 805-6968 or email the Special Collections Department.