(575 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 136,555). The lowcountry county of Dorchester was established by the General Assembly in 1897 with territory carved from sections from Colleton and Berkeley Counties. Shaped roughly like a bow tie, Dorchester County is bordered by Colleton, Orangeburg, Berkeley, and Charleston Counties. The county seat, St. George, is in the northwestern part of the county, while the largest town, Summerville, and majority of the county’s population are located at the southeastern end. Although Dorchester is among the youngest South Carolina counties, it has a long history. The county takes its name from a colonial town founded on the northern bank of the Ashley River in 1696 by Congregationalists from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Proprietary-and colonial-era planters settled on the upper branches of the Ashley River and the middle reaches of the Edisto River. These rivers and their swamplands have been the defining geographical features of the county since its earliest settlement. During the colonial and antebellum eras the land that became Dorchester was part of St. Paul’s, St. Andrew’s, St. James Goose Creek, and St. George’s Dorchester Parishes.
The town of Dorchester was the local market town and also a regional center of worship. St. George’s Dorchester Parish church was the Anglican place of worship and a political center. In 1724 the Commons House of Assembly incorporated the Dorchester Free School, which provided for a local school and maintenance of charity scholar (the Free School Board still existed at the start of the twenty-first century). Dorchester was also a center of the Indian trade. In the early years of settlement, the Dorchester-area parishes were the colony’s western frontier. The Yamassee War briefly depopulated the region as native inhabitants drove settlers back toward the safety of Charleston. In 1720 the Primus Plot created great alarm among white residents after the planned slave rebellion began in St. Paul’s Parish and swept southward toward the Spanish settlements of Florida. In 1757 colonial officials authorized construction of a tabby fort at the town of Dorchester, which subsequently made the region an active theater of combat during the Revolutionary War. William Gilmore Simms wrote a series of Revolutionary War-theme novels set in and near Dorchester that provided insights into the political and social culture of the region during that time.
The Dorchester region became home to expansive rice plantations that provided wealth and prestige to several prominent families. Henry Middleton founded Middleton Place on the Ashley River in 1741, and his extended family created a plantation network that provided great wealth. The Waring, Perry, Blake, Izard, and Pringle families also centered their planting activities in the Four Holes and Great Cypress Swamps During the nineteenth century settlements moved farther inland to take up lands for farming cotton in addition to rice. The village of Summerville superseded Dorchester when the Presbyterian White Meeting House and St. George Dorchester Episcopal Church moved into the town. In 1831 the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company built a railway through Summerville, creating an additional stimulus to growth. During the Civil War, the summer retreat was a safe haven for lowcountry refugees until 1865, when Federal troops pushed inland from their island bases. These troops burned Middleton Place Plantation and other homes on the Ashley River. They then occupied and bivouacked in Summerville after April 1865.
The town of George’s Station was incorporated in 1874 as a railroad stop. Fourteen years later, in 1889, the town was renamed St. George, recalling the old parish of St. George’s Dorchester. When Dorchester County was incorporated, a hotly contested election named St. George the county seat. Summerville residents protested the election, but a runoff confirmed that the county seat would be in the rural portion of the county, not in its densely populated southern corner.
As it entered the twentieth century, Dorchester remained divided between a rural, sparsely populated upper portion and a lower portion that contained the majority of county residents and close ties to the mixed economy of the coast. African Americans made up the majority of the county’s population until 1960. In 1910 the population was 17,891 of which 10,982 were black. The first decades of the twentieth century brought slow but steady growth as the effects of industrialization and New Deal programs of the 1930s helped create an economic base less dependent on agriculture. In 1940 the county population was 19,928 and African Americans accounted for 11,439 of that total.
The modern history of Dorchester County is closely tied to the urbanization of Charleston and North Charleston. As the economy and population of this metropolitan area expanded, Dorchester became a popular residence for those working in greater Charleston. The county saw explosive population growth after 1970 as well as a steady influx of businesses, retirement homes, hospital complexes, and light industry. From a population of 24,383 in 1960, the 1990 population more than tripled to 83,060. How to manage the high rate of growth in population and business investment was a challenge that Dorchester faced at the start of the twenty-first century.
Dorchester County is the home of the Francis Beidler National Forest, one of the few remaining virgin tupelo swamps in the world. Givhans Ferry State Park, built as a Civilian Conservation Corps project, and Old Fort Dorchester State Park are recreational areas. Old Dorchester State Park is the site of the colonial town of Dorchester and contains the largely intact tabby Fort Dorchester. Communities of Native Americans inhabit rural settlements. The Natchez-Kussos, formally unrecognized as a tribe, live in the Four Holes Swamp region, near the town of Dorchester.
Walker, Legare. Dorchester County: A History of its Genesis, of the Lands Constituting Its Area, and of Some of Its Settlements, Institutions, Relics, Events, and Other Matters of an Historical Nature, Especially with Respect to Its Southeastern Part. 1941. Reprint, Charleston, S.C.: J. W. Parker, 1979.