Governor. Ellerbe was born on April 7, 1862, the son of the Marion District planter William Shackelford Ellerbe and Sarah Elizabeth Haselden. Ellerbe began his education at Pine Hill Academy in Marion. He attended Wofford College and Vanderbilt University but, due to poor health, withdrew without taking a degree. Returning to Marion County, Ellerbe purchased his own plantation and established a lucrative mercantile business in the town of Marion. On June 29, 1887, Ellerbe married Henrietta Rogers. The couple eventually had six children.
Ellerbe entered politics in 1889 when he joined the Farmers Alliance. However, his membership was suspended when it was discovered that he engaged in merchandising. In 1890 Ellerbe became state comptroller general, the youngest man ever elected to statewide office in South Carolina. He was reelected in 1892. Considered to be a more moderate member of Benjamin R. Tillman’s “Reform” faction, he was one of four Tillman followers who ran for governor in 1894. Tillman, the outgoing governor, eventually lent his tremendous prestige and support to another candidate, John Gary Evans, a lawyer from Aiken and Tillman’s spokesman in the S.C. House of Representatives. Evans won, but many Tillman supporters expressed dismay that leadership within their party had gone to a lawyer rather than to a farmer, Ellerbe.
Ellerbe won the election for governor in 1896 at the age of thirty-four. This election was the first to utilize the new county primary election system established by the state constitution the previous year. At the beginning of his term, South Carolina was in an economic depression due largely to low cotton prices. Conditions improved somewhat during his tenure. During his governorship, racial segregation became more rigid, as railroads operating in South Carolina were required to provide separate coaches for blacks and whites. Positive accomplishments included the organization of four new counties in 1897: Dorchester, Bamberg, Greenwood, and Cherokee. Ellerbe energetically promoted the state’s mobilization efforts during the Spanish-American War. He pushed for the establishment of a juvenile reformatory, which became a reality the year after his death. In addition, he received some credit for the lull in partisan discord within state politics during his tenure.
Ellerbe won reelection in 1898, despite a strong challenge from Claudius C. Featherstone, an upcountry lawyer who ran independently as a prohibitionist. The main issue in the contest was the increasingly corrupt and unpopular dispensary system, by which the state had controlled the sale of alcohol since 1892. Fearing defeat and hoping for support from Columbia’s newspaper, the State, Ellerbe privately informed its editor, Narcisco G. Gonzales, that he intended to soften his insistence on the dispensary plan. After the election, however, Ellerbe tried to backpedal closer to his original stance. Gonzalez then exposed their agreement, publishing part of their correspondence. Ellerbe, however, died of illness on June 2, 1899, and the State subsequently declared that it had never doubted Ellerbe’s stated intention to relieve factional strife within the state.
Simkins, Francis Butler. The Tillman Movement in South Carolina. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1926.
Wallace, David Duncan. The History of South Carolina. 4 vols. New York: American Historical Society, 1935.