Our Infamous History
Before the first arrival of European explorers in 1520, Native Americans had lived for thousands of years in what is now called South Carolina. There were at least 29 different Native American tribes here, but the most important were the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Savannah, and Yuchi. These tribes played a key role in the settlement of the backcountry—both as friend and foe. As settlers began to arrive in South Carolina, treaties had to be made between the British government and the Native Americans to obtain land for these new people to live on. Also, trade with the Indians became a main source of income for the colonists and the government. However, the most significant part the Native Americans played was during times of war. While some Indians, who were on the warpath, killed many white pioneers, other Indians offered protection for them. These and other reasons are why survival in the backcountry depended heavily on good relations with the Indians.
The European settlement of what was to become Ninety Six District and later Edgefield District began as early as circa 1685, when white Indian traders established a trading post at Savannah Town (near present day Beech Island). Aside from Indian traders, there were also hunters and cattle drovers who traveled through the area. The cattle drovers herded their livestock into the backcountry where they were fattened on the lush cane of the creek bottoms and fertile prairie grass before being herded back to market. These individuals who first explored the South Carolina backcountry were awed by its beauty. Upon returning to civilization, their high praise of the wilderness regions beckoned a wave of settlers seeking opportunities in a rich new land. For many years interactions with the Native Americans were friendly and a booming trade system developed. These traders, hunters, and cattle drovers each played a part in opening up the backcountry for settlers.
In 1715 Stevens Creek was named for a cow drover named John Stevens, who maintained a cow pen near the creek. By the late 1730’s, true “toilers of the soil” settlers began to move into this wilderness backcountry and what they found was an unspoiled land of beauty and wonder. John H. Logan in his book A History of the Upper Country of South Carolina, from the Earliest Periods to the Close of the War of Independence, Volume I gave a wonderful description of the backcountry:
"As late as 1775, the woodlands, carpeted with grass, and the wild pea-vine, growing as high as a horse’s back, and wild flowers of every hue, were the constant admiration of the traveler and adventurous pioneer. The forests of those early times were far more imposing than any now remaining in this portion of the ancient Cherokee Nation. The trees were generally larger, and stood so wide apart that a deer or a buffalo could be easily seen at a long distance—there being nothing to obstruct the view but the rolling surface. On the elevated hill-tops the strolling hunter often took his stand, to sweep, at a single view, a large extent of country. The pea-vine and grasses occupied the place of the bushes and young forest growth that render the woods of the present time so gloomy and intricate (Logan, page 7)."
The earliest travelers to the backcountry had only ancient Native American trails to follow. Some chose to make use of rivers and streams to gain access through the wilderness. As more people moved inland, roads improved; however, travel was still a demanding process. The two-wheeled cart and the Conestoga wagon became a common sight on the Great Wagon Road during the last half of the 18th century. This road stretched from Pennsylvania down through Virginia and North Carolina and into South Carolina.
In 1754 the French and Indian War began and a large migration from northern colonies started down the Great Wagon Road. Most of these settlers were English, Scottish, and Scotch-Irish. Many came to escape the upheavals of the French and Indian War and the over-population of the old Northern settlements. Immigrants who came down the Great Wagon Road settled much of the region later known as the Abbeville and Edgefield Districts. Some estimates suggest that as much as 70% of the settlers into this area used this road.
Emigrants from France and Germany also came to settle in the vast South Carolina backcountry, establishing townships called Londonborough, New Windsor and New Bordeaux. Thus, migration into the backcountry that had been a trickle in the 1740’s and early 1750’s became a steady stream, and then a flood as the 1750’s and 1760’s wore on.
The prospect of inexpensive fertile land was the main incentive for immigrants coming into the backcountry. The colonial government of South Carolina encouraged settlement by issuing land grants to eligible petitioners. These land grants were usually given using the headright system—the larger the family, the larger the land grant, and required surveys and plats, which became official registered documents on file with the colonial government. This meant that multiple long and grueling trips to Charleston were necessary to request and record these documents.
Additionally, as settlers continued to flood into the backcountry so did outlaws and marauders, who held honest citizens at their mercy. By the late 1760’s, the Regulator Movement began in order to suppress lawlessness in the backcountry, however, it only managed to produce more violence. In 1769 Ninety Six District was created and a Circuit Court system established to help settlers with civil and criminal matters.
With the American Revolution (1776-1783), this whole system of government was put into upheaval. Royal grants ceased and State grants began; and while the land of loyalists was confiscated, other land was given as bounty grants to soldiers who fought as Patriots. Another change that came with this newly formed government was a break-down of the established districts into smaller ones. In “An Act for laying off the several Counties therein mentioned, and appointing Commissioners to erect the Public Buildings, No. 1263,” Old Ninety Six District was divided into six counties—Edgefield, Abbeville, Newberry, Laurens, Union and Spartanburg. This Act, dated 1785, states:
"Be it enacted, by the honorable the Senate and House of Representatives, now met and sitting in General Assembly, and by the authority of the same, That from and immediately after the passing of this Act, the following counties shall be established, with the several names, descriptions and boundaries hereinafter set forth and expressed: Six counties for the district now called Ninety-Six, that is to say: one county, situate, lying and being on Savannah river and adjoining the old Indian boundary, and known in the map of Ninety-Six district by the name of Abbeville; one other county, adjoining the above, and also bounded on Savannah river, known by the name of Edgefield . . . (Cooper, page 661)."
With this Act and the formation of Edgefield District came a pillar on which history could be built. Edgefield even influenced the settlement of the West as a migration flow began moving westward, in the early 19th century, to the newly opened lands of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas and became an increasing tide by the 1820’s and 1830’s. This westward movement was largely due to the over production of cotton, which had severely depleted the soil. “King Cotton” claimed the frontier—from the backcountry of South Carolina to the stubborn jungles of Mississippi; leveling ancient forests, beating down the wilderness and engaging slaves, plows and mules by the hundreds of thousands. Westward migration from the Edgefield District slowed dramatically by the middle of the 1850’s.
Outward migration from this region was renewed and became a flood in the decades following the arrival of the Boll Weevil in the 1920’s. This insect marched across the South destroying most of the economy related to cotton production. The result of this devastation was to make life untenable for thousands of small farmers and sharecroppers. No longer able to make a living, many of them left the area to find work in northern factories. This migration included both whites and African Americans, but the out-migration of African Americans was particularly heavy.
Edgefield has made a massive impact on South Carolina and national history as the citizens of this region vigorously and enthusiastically took their places as famous and/or infamous participants in events that occurred through the next two and a quarter centuries.
Sources: A History of the Upper Country of South Carolina, from the Earliest Periods to the Close of the War of Independence, Volume I, by John H. Logan, Original publisher—Columbia: S. G. Courtenay & Co., 1859, Reprinted—Spartanburg: The Reprint Company, 1960; The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, by Thomas Cooper, Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1838; The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729-1765, by Robert L. Meriwether, Kingsport, TN: Southern Publishers, Inc., 1940; The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, by Thomas Cooper, Columbia, SC: A. S. Johnston, 1838; and Edgefield County, South Carolina Minutes of the County Court, 1785-1795, by Brent H. Holcomb, Greenville, SC: Southern Historical Press, Inc., 2004.