(514 sq. miles; 2010 pop. 28,961). A Union County of 540 square miles was created by the state legislature in 1785. A century later, in 1897, the county lost its two northernmost townships in the creation of Cherokee County, reducing Union County to 514 square miles and establishing its modern boundaries. Probably the first white settlers in the area were James McIlwaine and a party of Scots-Irish Protestants who arrived from Virginia and Pennsylvania about 1751. Others followed and were soon joined by large numbers of Quakers. Baptists were also among the early settlers, and an entire congregation settled on lower Fairforest Creek around 1760. To save effort, inhabitants of various denominations in the Brown’s Creek area built a common house of worship and called it a “union” church. The generic name became a given name, and in 1785 Union County was named in honor of that early church.
During the Revolutionary War residents were active on both sides of the conflict and a civil war raged in what was to become Union County, while the pacifist Quakers hunkered down and rode out the storm as best they could. Probably no other county in South Carolina was as evenly divided between Tories and patriots as Union County was. At least five Revolutionary War battles occurred within or exactly on the later boundaries of the county. The most important battle took place at Blackstock’s on November 20, 1780, when state militiamen under Thomas Sumter defeated a British force commanded by the notorious Banastre Tarleton.
After the return of peace and the creation of the actual county, a log courthouse and a log jail were built in 1786. Space for the public buildings had been donated by the county’s greatest Revolutionary War hero, Colonel Thomas Brandon. In May 1788 Brandon also led Union County representatives at the state’s ratification convention, where the entire delegation opposed adoption of the new national Constitution.
Cotton became king soon after 1800, and large plantations appeared in the fertile southern parts of Union County, where numerous slaves worked under the eyes of the overseers. Area Quakers felt uncomfortable with this sudden increase in the slave population and abandoned Union in the first decade of the nineteenth century, resettling north of the Ohio River, primarily in southwestern Ohio. Poor soil conservation practices left fields eroded and red by the 1830s, sparking a second exodus from the county as people left for new lands in the Southwest. Although many emigrants took their slaves with them, established plantations grew larger as the slave population increased and the white population declined. Slaves became a majority in the county in the 1840s, and blacks continued to outnumber whites until about 1915. Efforts were made to restore prosperity to the county in the 1850s. In 1858 John L. Young, a local merchant and railroad entrepreneur, succeeded in linking Union to the outside world with a railroad, the Spartanburg and Union. The following year he pushed the line to Spartanburg, which remained the terminus of the line until after the Civil War.
In 1860 the governor of South Carolina was William H. Gist of Union. On October 5, 1860, Gist dispatched his Union County first cousin, States Rights Gist, as special envoy to the governors of other southern states to sound them out on the question of secession. When States Rights sent back letters assuring the governor that the Deep South would follow a secession move by South Carolina, Gist called a special session of the legislature to convene on November 5, the day before it was expected that Lincoln would be elected. When their worst fear was realized, the legislators voted to call a state convention. That convention on December 20, 1860, unanimously signed the Ordinance of Secession, an instrument written in the hand of convention secretary Benjamin F. Arthur of Union. Many Union County men fought in the Confederate army, and after the war they were especially active in resisting what they considered to be the tyranny of Reconstruction. The Union County Ku Klux Klan was among the most active in the state, and in February 1871 the county was the scene of the largest KKK raid that ever occurred in the South. “Carpetbag” rule was ended in the county in 1872, four years before the Democratic “redemption” of 1876 brought Reconstruction to an end in the state as a whole.
Trapped in postwar poverty, most Union County residents, black and white, were small cotton farmers or sharecroppers in the late nineteenth century. Not until 1893 did a measure of prosperity return in the form of cotton mills. Thomas Cary Duncan was the county’s preeminent industrialist, and his Union Cotton Mill was the first in the county to go into production. Lockhart Mill and others soon followed, and by 1907 some 4,075 workers were tending 7,645 looms and 285,800 spindles in the county. In an era of segregation African Americans were not employed inside the mills, and whites from the North Carolina mountains filled many mill jobs. During the period between the world wars, many blacks left the county and migrated north in search of better lives.
Following World War II, Union County entered a second phase of industrial development and by the 1990s possessed metal working plants, such as those operated by Torrington and Webb Forging, although most manufacturing remained textile-related. Cotton growing declined after the 1920s and all but disappeared by the 1970s, being replaced by forestry, cattle raising, and soybean farming. With the return of forests, deer reappeared in the 1960s and eventually drove out soybeans, which were regarded as a delicacy. At the end of the twentieth century the taking of deer by both local and out-of-county hunters had become an industry in itself, and deer coolers (to process the meat) and hunt camps sprang up all over the county. Throughout the twentieth century, economic growth balanced with economic difficulties, and thus the county’s population remained almost exactly the same for some ninety years, hovering just above the thirty-thousand level. Despite changes, history remained a real presence in the county, with many Union inhabitants descended from longtime residents.
Charles, Allan D. The Narrative History of Union County, South Carolina. 3d ed. Greenville, S.C.: A Press, 1997.
Mabry, Mannie Lee, ed . Union County Heritage, 1981. Union, S.C.: Union County Heritage Committee, 1981.