Merchant. Kershaw was born in Yorkshire, England, the eldest son of Joseph Kershaw. Little is known about his early years. Around the mid-1750s he and two brothers, Ely and William, immigrated to South Carolina. Joseph became a clerk for the Charleston merchant James Laurens, the elder brother of Henry Laurens. In 1758, however, Kershaw struck out for the colony’s interior, establishing a store northwest of Charleston near the Wateree River at Pine Tree Hill. There, acting as an agent for the Charleston firm of Ancrum, Lance, & Loocock, Kershaw laid the foundations for his future success. On October 20, 1762, he married Sarah Mathis. The couple had eight children.
In 1763 Kershaw formed a partnership with his brother Ely, John Chesnut, William Ancrum, and Aaron Loocock. Centered in Charleston, the partnership used Kershaw to provide a base of operations to expand its trade into the interior. Although the partnership experienced mixed success, Kershaw’s own mercantile operations made him the leading commercial, and subsequently political, figure in the Wateree River region. His business operations expanded to include a large flour and grist mill, indigo works, a warehouse, a brewery, and a distillery. He and his partners also acquired grants for several thousands of acres of land across the colony. In 1769 Kershaw played a lead role in convincing his Pine Tree Hill neighbors to lay out a series of streets and lots, which became the town of Camden.
Kershaw was elected to the Commons House of Assembly in 1769, in which he was a member of the committee that drew up the Circuit Court Act, which established several new judicial districts in the interior. He was returned to three more assemblies before the start of the Revolutionary War and then was elected to the First (1775) and Second (1775–1776) Provincial Congresses and the first five General Assemblies (1776–1784). As a legislator and militia officer, Kershaw worked to secure interior settlers and Catawba Indians to the patriot cause. A major and later a colonel in the state militia, Kershaw saw action at Purrysburg and Stono River and was captured at the Battle of Camden (August 1780). He was imprisoned at British Honduras and then Bermuda, where he nevertheless was able to mortgage his Carolina lands to secure needed supplies for American forces (the vessel carrying the cargo was unfortunately captured). He was eventually exchanged and returned to South Carolina.
Kershaw spent the last years of his life trying to rebuild his war-torn business enterprises in Camden. He died on December 28, 1791, and was buried in the town’s Episcopal cemetery. That year Kershaw County was named in his honor.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Ernst, Joseph A., and H. Roy Merrens. “‘Camden’s Turrets Pierce the Skies!’: The Urban Process in the Southern Colonies during the Eighteenth Century.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 30 (October 1973): 549–74.
Kirkland, Thomas J., and Robert M. Kennedy. Historic Camden. 2 vols. 1905. Reprint, Camden, S.C.: Kershaw County Historical Society, 1994.