The Salkehatchie and Combahee River system extends more than one hundred miles through the southeastern quarter of South Carolina. The Salkehatchie consists of two blackwater river-swamps: the Big Salkehatchie, with headwaters in Barnwell County near Williston; and the Little Salkehatchie, with headwaters near Blackville. The two meet north of Yemassee to form the Combahee River. The Combahee becomes tidal freshwater, brackish water, and then salt as it feeds into the Atlantic Ocean at St. Helena Sound. The Salkehatchie was once known as the “salt ketcher,” while the Combahee takes its name from an area Indian group.
The Combahee became an important river in lowcountry rice culture beginning with significant plantation development in the 1730s. The last rice cultivation on the Combahee ended in 1929. However, plantation landholdings remained largely intact and in private hands. Carolinians engaged in timber extraction, turpentine production, and farming along its banks. Commercial shell fishing took place in the brackish and salt parts of the river. After it divides into two branches further inland near Yemassee, the Combahee becomes more of a swamp and is usable only by shallow draft boats.
Through the late nineteenth century little timber harvesting took place along the Salkehatchie because of the difficulty of bringing logs out of the swamp. The first major commercial effort came in the twentieth century with the Big Salkehatchie Cypress Company. This company, formed in Varnville in 1915, logged the old- growth cypress from the Salkehatchie until 1929. Others followed, and the region has subsequently been heavily logged for pine, cypress, and hardwoods. Still, in the early twenty-first century the watershed remained forested and mostly undeveloped. It is home to a wide range of fish, birds, and game animals.
Linder, Suzanne Cameron. Historical Atlas of the Rice Plantations of the ACE River Basin—1860. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.
Williams, Rose-Marie Eltzroth. Railroads and Sawmills, Varnville, S.C., 1872–1997: The Making of a Low Country Town in the New South. Varnville, S.C.: Varnville Community Council, 1998.