(756 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 384,504). Richland County was created in 1785 when sprawling Camden District was divided. The original boundaries of Richland—named either for the fertile land along the banks of the Congaree or a plantation owned by Thomas Taylor—were described in this manner: “beginning at the corner of Clarendon county line, at Person’s Island, thence up the Congaree river to the mouth of Cedar creek, thence on a strait line to the mouth of Twenty-Five Mile creek, thence down the Wateree river to the beginning, and shall be called Richland county.” Not everyone was pleased, for during the decade that followed, the northern and eastern borders were altered slightly. By 1799 Richland County assumed its modern form, at the same time becoming a “district” (the area served by a district court), the official designation of all South Carolina counties until 1868.
This region, part of what geographers call an “inner” coastal plain, has an elevation above sea level that varies from 80 to 550 feet as one proceeds inland. The most obvious physical features are the Sandhills, a disjointed band of gentle slopes marking the fall line, and the Congaree and Wateree Rivers, which unite to form the Santee River at the extreme southeast corner of the county. This landscape can be divided into three major areas. Lower Richland, stretching from the Congaree Swamp north to the Sumter Highway (U.S. Highway 76), is by far the best farmland. Here large-scale agriculture and substantial estates developed during the early nineteenth century. A line drawn from Columbia (seat of local and state government) to the northeast corner of the county splits the upper two-thirds into two triangles: Sandhills and an area akin to the Piedmont. The former generally defines Fort Jackson’s domain, with soil less fertile than found elsewhere and never farmed extensively. The Piedmont triangle bordering various rivers—traditionally home to small farms—eventually became something of a suburban-industrial maze.
Before Europeans ventured inland from Charleston and south from Virginia, this region was a Native American hunting ground, as well as a no-man’s-land between two hostile tribes, the Wateree and the Congaree. However, their ranks dwindled, and by the time permanent settlers appeared in 1740, both groups had moved northward and merged with the more numerous Catawbas, leaving only the names of local rivers as their legacy.
Richland’s colonial history was much like that of many frontier outposts. Explorers, fur traders, and cowboys were followed by restless pioneers seeking cheap land and opportunity to prosper, first by growing essential foodstuffs and then by producing money crops such as wheat, indigo, tobacco, and eventually cotton. The warfare of those decades, even the Revolution, had limited impact, for this was no colonial crossroads. Trade, for the most part, went up the west bank of the Congaree into the lands of the Cherokee, one of the Southeast’s most powerful tribes. But change was in the air, largely because of the flow of settlers into the backcountry, their demand for more representative local government, and the concept of centrality—a belief that authority should be exercised from a central site easily accessible to the governed.
The result was Richland County and the city of Columbia, a new, more centralized seat of state government. Ironically, local residents tried briefly to make Horrell Hill, located about a dozen miles east of Columbia, the new county’s “capital,” but to no avail. Lawyers refused to cooperate, and legislation passed in 1799 stipu- lated that the local district court would meet in Columbia. Originally home to a minuscule gaggle of government officials, hundreds of farm-plantation households, and a few shops and stores tied closely to agriculture, Richland County has experienced steady growth. Only in the 1850s did the population decline due to out-migration of slaves, worn-out soil, and the lure of other regions. From 1800 to 1920 a majority of residents were black.
Not surprisingly, Richland’s story mirrors that of similar communities. By turns, it embraced canal travel, railroads, textiles, and a variety of commercial ventures, and the county even dreamed of becoming the site of an inland seaport. Yet, as this tale unfolded, it became apparent that the region’s well-being—especially since 1950—depended for the most part on state government, the University of South Carolina, and Fort Jackson. These giant enterprises annually pumped millions into the local economy and supported a metropolitan complex of some 500,000 people, which included not just Richland County but also scores of outlying villages, towns, and cities. By the early twenty-first century it was virtually impossible to imagine the region without this threesome, which, in turn, have attracted and fostered many related activities. And it was equally difficult to separate county and city—Richland and Columbia. The result was an entity sometimes referred to as “the capital of the Midlands,” a vague grouping of communities located between the upcountry and the lowcountry.
Nevertheless, this concept possesses some degree of political, economic, and social reality, for Columbia, Richland County, and their neighbors frequently charted a “middle” way between extremes advocated by other regions. And, because of the presence of state authority, they often are seen as spokesmen, especially on sectional and national matters, for virtually all South Carolinians. Born of compromise in the 1780s, this community has spent much of its life balancing contending forces—rural and urban, farm and factory, upland and coastal. This conciliatory stance, an attitude some would label “pragmatic,” was of paramount importance during the integration crisis of the 1960s and may serve equally well in years to come.
Over half a century ago this state’s well-known Works Progress Administration guide characterized the typical South Carolinian as having “fire in his head, comfort in his middle, and a little lead in his feet.” In the early twenty-first century concern for comfort remained as strong as ever in Richland County and throughout the Midlands, but to achieve that ease, fire and lead were transformed— the former tempered by several wars and profound social change and the latter by a desire to realize more fully the American dream.
Freeman, James W., comp. Greater Columbia Data Book. Columbia, S.C.: Economic Development Commission of Greater Columbia, Richland and Lexington Counties, 1976.
Green, Edwin L. A History of Richland County. Vol. 1, 1732–1805. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1932.
Moore, John Hammond. Columbia and Richland County: A South Carolina Community, 1740–1990. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.