(799 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 46,734). Chesterfield County was established in 1785 when the state legislature divided the Cheraws Judicial District into three counties. Like other South Carolina counties, Chesterfield may have taken its name from English nobility, in this instance Philip Stanhope, the earl of Chesterfield. The name might also have originated in Chesterfield County, Virginia, from which many early settlers arrived. Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Cheraw Indians occupied the region. Of Siouan stock, they were decimated by disease and departed in the early eighteenth century, joining the Catawba Confederacy.
The first European colonists lived chiefly near the Great Pee Dee River, their main source of transportation. The first known settlers were forced upriver when the Welsh received a land grant in 1736 that ran along the river to the North Carolina line. However, the Welsh mainly settled near Society Hill to the south. Most of the earliest settlers in Chesterfield County were English, later joined by Scots, French, and Irish. These immigrants brought with them the county’s first African slaves. The earliest settlement was at Cheraw Hill, located at the head of navigation for the Great Pee Dee River. In the western part of the county, the Great Wagon Road brought new settlers from Virginia and the mid-Atlantic colonies. In 1768 St. David’s Parish was established to serve both religious and civic needs in the region. The Revolutionary War brought civil war to the upper Pee Dee. Recognized by both sides as a place of strategic importance, Cheraw was occupied by British and American troops at various times. The war devastated the region and resulted in an economic depression that lasted for decades.
Following the creation of Chesterfield County in 1785, a courthouse was constructed near its geographic center, which eventually evolved into the village of Chesterfield. By the early 1800s Cheraw and Mt. Croghan each had a post office. The appearance of steamboats on the Great Pee Dee in 1819 brought rapid prosperity to Chesterfield County in general and to Cheraw in particular. The town was incorporated in 1820 and was one of the state’s leading commercial towns during the antebellum era. Vast pine barrens kept the population low in many parts of Chesterfield. Robert Mills’s Atlas of 1825 showed settlement widely scattered across the county. Because the sand hills did not support intensive agriculture, the slave population was never large. There was some mining, including the Brewer Gold Mine near Jefferson, while along the “Stage and Main Post Road” several taverns sheltered travelers. Overall, the county grew slowly and sporadically during the first half of the nineteenth century.
On November 19, 1860, at Chesterfield Courthouse, one of the first secession meetings in the state was held. At the Secession Convention, John Inglis of Cheraw introduced the resolution calling for South Carolina to secede from the Union. The resulting war brought tumult and numerous refugees to the region. In March 1865 the county was in the path of the Union army under General William T. Sherman. Mt. Croghan and much of Chesterfield, including the Robert Mills–designed courthouse, were burned. Cheraw, which played unwilling host to most of Sherman’s army, fared better. Only its business district was destroyed in an accidental explosion.
The Civil War left the county destitute. The timber industry that grew in the Carolinas at the turn of the century extended the railroads from Cheraw out into the county and brought the first real hope of economic recovery. The railroads gave isolated sand-hill farmers their first convenient access to outside markets and aided in the formation of several new towns. When the railroad reached Chesterfield in 1901, the town immediately began to grow. In 1902 the village of Flint Hill was relocated to meet the railroad line and renamed Ruby. In 1904 Adolphus High Page, president of the Cheraw and Lancaster Railroad, extended his line to Blakeney’s Crossroads. The crossroads was renamed Pageland and later gained fame for its watermelons. Likewise named for railroad officials, the towns of Patrick and McBee evolved around depots built by the Seaboard Air Line.
At one time one of the poorest and most illiterate counties in the state, Chesterfield made great economic and educational strides in the twentieth century. In the 1930s large tracts of worn-out land were acquired by the state and federal governments and returned to pine forest. Part of this land became Cheraw State Park in 1934 (South Carolina’s first state park), while other tracts became Sand Hills State Forest and Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge.
The county consistently produced excellent fruits, particularly watermelons and peaches, and Chesterfield County remained largely agricultural until the 1960s. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a major push to attract industry. Improvements in education (especially the establishment of Chesterfield Marlboro Technical College), health care, the public library system, and the county’s infrastructure made this effort a success. By 2000 the county had a mix of industry, agriculture, and mining operations while maintaining a pleasant rural landscape. Major manufacturing plants included Takata Restraint Systems at Cheraw, A. O. Smith Water Products at McBee, and Conbraco Industries at Pageland.
Cheraw, a state leader in historic preservation, successfully managed to industrialize while maintaining its picturesque antebellum core. Pageland and Chesterfield likewise worked to improve their historic downtowns in the last years of the twentieth century. New uses for the more than 96,000 acres of public land in the county, such as the H. Cooper Black Field Trial Center, began to attract more visitors. County and city officials continued to recruit industry, and the growth of Charlotte, North Carolina, began to have an impact, bringing in new residents and businesses, particularly in the western part of the county.
Gregg, Alexander. History of the Old Cheraws. 1867. Reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1991.
Holcomb, Brent H. St. David’s Parish, South Carolina Minutes of the Vestry, 1768–1832, Parish Register, 1819–1924. Easley, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1979.
Johnson, George Lloyd, Jr. The Frontier in the Colonial South: South Carolina Backcountry, 1736–1800. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.
Nelson, Larry E. “Sherman at Cheraw.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 100 (October 1999): 328–54.