Merchant, planter, banker, railroad developer. A son of James Aiken and Elizabeth Read, William Aiken was born in county Antrim, Northern Ireland, on August 20, 1778. He immigrated to South Carolina with his family in 1789 and settled near the town of Winnsboro in Fairfield County. Before the death of his father in 1798, Aiken was apprenticed to Charleston cotton merchant and factor Samuel Blakely. Aiken matured quickly and often managed the firm when Blakely was away on business. On November 12, 1801, he married Henrietta Wyatt. The marriage produced two sons, one of whom died in childhood.
With support from Blakely, Aiken went into business for himself in 1803 and brought in his brother, David, as an apprentice. Two years later Aiken opened a branch in Winnsboro in order to secure a larger share of the growing inland cotton trade. Utilizing Blakely’s international trade connections, Aiken added banking to his accomplishments, later serving as a director of the Planters’ and Mechanics’ Bank of South Carolina, the Union Insurance Company, and the Charleston branch of the Bank of the United States. Also, he began to purchase rice lands in Colleton District. His son and heir, William Aiken, Jr., would subsequently become one of the largest rice growers in the state. From 1823 to 1830 Aiken represented St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s Parishes in the S.C. House of Representatives, serving on the committees on accounts, internal improvements, and ways and means.
As one of Charleston’s leading businessmen, Aiken was acutely aware of the city’s loss of trade to Savannah and other cities. In March 1828 Aiken served on a Chamber of Commerce committee to investigate the feasibility of constructing a railroad from Charleston to the Savannah River near Augusta, Georgia. Accordingly, “a respectable portion of our citizens,” wrote planter Elias Horry, “agreed that a railroad would be beneficial to revive the diminishing commerce of the city.” Later that year Aiken and others received a charter from the General Assembly authorizing the creation of the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company (SCC&RR). Aiken, the railroad’s largest investor, was soon chosen as president of the newly chartered company. Under his direction, a route was selected and track began to be laid between Charleston and the new cotton boomtown of Hamburg, across the Savannah River from Augusta. Aiken angered states’ rights advocates, however, when he went to Washington, D.C., in an unsuccessful bid to secure a federal subscription to SCC&RR stock. He would not live to see the completion of the railroad. Aiken was thrown from his carriage in Charleston on March 4, 1831, and died from his injuries the following day. He was buried in the Second Presbyterian Churchyard, Charleston, a church he helped to found in 1809.
Derrick, Samuel M. Centennial History of South Carolina Railroad. 1930. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1975.
Moore, Alexander, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 5, 1816–1828. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1992.
Siegling, H. Carter. “The Best Friend of Charleston.” South Carolina History Illustrated 1 (February 1970): 19–23, 70–71.