Robert Mills called Abbeville “the original seat of learning in the upper country,” and it quickly distinguished itself as the mother of some very famous Carolinians.
(508 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 24,404). Abbeville County was one of the six counties created in 1785 out of Ninety Six District. Its border to the north was the pre–Revolutionary War Indian boundary line. The Savannah and Saluda Rivers marked its eastern and western borders. The boundary with Edgefield County was surveyed from the mouth of Little River to Island Ford on the Saluda. Abbeville lost much of its area to Greenwood County in 1897 and gave up further territory in 1916 to McCormick County.
Before the Revolutionary War, the most significant early settlement in this area was in the Long Canes, the name early given to the watershed of Little River and its main tributary, Long Cane Creek. Beginning in 1756, the Calhoun family and other settlers from Virginia took up land grants along these streams. In the 1760s, under the direction of Governor Thomas Boone, colonies of “poor Protestants” (Scots-Irish) settled the township of Boonesborough at the headwaters of Long Cane Creek.
Most settlers joined the Whig or patriot cause in the Revolution. The best-known patriot leader was Andrew Pickens, who was aided by such neighbors and friends as Andrew Hamilton and Robert Anderson. Pickens resided near the center of what later became Abbeville County, and it was through his influence and that of Andrew Hamilton, who bought his land, that the site of a courthouse for the new county was located near Pickens’s block-house, or fortified post. Dr. John de la Howe, one of the commissioners appointed to choose the location, was given the honor of naming the county. Some surmise that he may have been born in Abbeville, France, but it is known only that he was a native of France.
Robert Mills later called Abbeville “the original seat of learning in the upper country,” and it quickly distinguished itself as the mother of some very famous Carolinians. The most notable of these native sons was John C. Calhoun, but there were others who won acclaim, such as Langdon Cheves, Patrick Noble, James L. Petigru, as well as adopted sons George McDuffie and Moses Waddel, whose Willington Academy drew students from throughout the South. Schools in Cokesbury and Due West also attracted students from a wide area.
The coming of cotton planting to the upcountry after the 1790s accelerated the introduction of slavery to Abbeville District and increased migration westward of small farmers. In 1790 one-fourth of the white families owned slaves. By 1850 two-thirds owned slaves and slaves comprised two-thirds of the population. Ten planters owned more than one hundred slaves, and one planter, George McDuffie, owned more than two hundred. This wealth manifested itself in the fine homes on plantations and in the town of Abbeville, which flourished in the 1850s.
Following the election of Abraham Lincoln in November 1860, Abbeville held one of the earliest public meetings in support of secession, and an Abbeville native, Francis H. Wardlaw, is considered by many to have authored the Ordinance of Secession. The Civil War brought bitter losses. At least 349 men from the district died in the war. Safely removed from the battlefields, the district attracted refugees from the coast and from the West.
Emancipation destroyed much of the planters’ wealth. The post-war economy chiefly rested upon small farmers, largely through the expansion of tenant farming and sharecropping. In the 1850s the Greenville and Columbia Railroad ran through the eastern end of the district with a branchline from Hodges to Abbeville. In the 1880s the Savannah Valley Railroad connected the western part of the county with Augusta and Anderson. In the 1890s the Seaboard Air Line connected Abbeville and Greenwood with cities to their north and south. In 1895 the businessmen of Abbeville organized the Abbeville Cotton Mill Company and later secured the financing of northern textile magnate S. M. Milliken, which ensured its success.
In the first decade of the twentieth century, Calhoun Mills, a textile corporation under the experienced leadership of James P. Gossett and Judge W. F. Cox, from neighboring Anderson County, built a mill and village at the junction of the Savannah Valley Railroad and the Seaboard. The resulting town of Calhoun Falls soon became the second largest town in the county. The town of Due West ranked third with its male and female colleges, respectively Erskine College and Due West Female College.
During the twentieth century Abbeville County’s agriculture experienced a transition from cotton to cattle, and its dependence on textiles gave way to more diversified industry and small businesses. In later years its population stabilized, with most concentrated in and around the city of Abbeville. By 1990 whites were a two-thirds majority of the county residents.
The creation of an industrial park and the aggressive pursuit of new investments resulted in the arrival of industries such as Pirelli Cable Corp., Flexible Technologies, Karistan-Bigelow, and West Point Pepperell. However, the absence of an interstate highway limited industrial expansion.
Despite a century of change, Abbeville County still managed to retain its rural character. The Long Cane District of the Sumter National Forest was established in 1936, featuring a recreation area around Parsons Mountain with a lake, trails, and camping as well as hunting and swimming. Lake Secession on Rocky River was completed in the 1940s and is owned by the city of Abbeville. Lake Russell, a Corps of Engineers hydroelectric project on the Savannah River, was completed in 1984 and is mostly in the county. The Calhoun Falls State Park is one mile north of Abbeville, just off the Savannah River Scenic Highway. With such an abundance of out- door recreational opportunities, Abbeville County annually attracts hunters, fishermen, and nature lovers of all kinds.
Ferguson, Lester W. Abbeville County: Southern Life-Styles Lost in Time. Spar- tanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1993.
Lander, Ernest McPherson. Tales of Calhoun Falls. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1991.
Ware, Lowry. Old Abbeville: Scenes of the Past of a Town Where Old Time Things Are Not Forgotten. Columbia, S.C.: SCMAR, 1992.