Allendale is South Carolina’s youngest county, yet it contains the oldest known human habitation in the state.
(408 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 8,331). Formed in 1919, Allendale is South Carolina’s youngest county, yet it contains the oldest known human habitation in the state. Archaeological investigations in Allendale have found evidence of human settlement dating back more than sixteen thousand years. These prehistoric people used “Allendale Chert” in making stone tools.
Europeans began arriving in the area in the 1750s, settling at Matthews Bluff on the Savannah River and Jackson’s Branch, a tributary of the Salkehatchie. Other families settled along the headwaters of the Coosawhatchie and its tributaries. In 1759 they organized Coosawhatchie Church, which became Beech Branch Baptist Church. Cattle herding and farming were the mainstays of the pioneer economy.
During the Revolutionary War, armies marched up and down the Savannah River and partisan fighters conducted raids. The Pipe Creek Light Horse, a patriot cavalry force consisting of men from what came to be Allendale and Hampton Counties, established a camp at Matthews Bluff. In March 1779, patriots fleeing the disastrous Battle of Brier Creek in Georgia floated on logs or swam across the Savannah River; their commander, General John Ashe, took refuge at Matthews Bluff. In April 1781, the Battle of Wiggins Hill near Burtons Ferry ignited bloody conflict among neighbors.
After the Revolution, the area became more settled, with Baptists, Lutherans, and Methodists each establishing churches in the vicinity. Great Salkehatchie Baptist Church at Ulmer was organized in 1790. St. Nicholas Lutheran Church was founded around 1800. A log building housed Swallow Savannah Methodist Church around 1816. The buildings of Smyrna Baptist Church, organized 1827, and Antioch Christian Church, organized 1833, remained standing at the start of the twenty first century.
In the antebellum era, Allendale made up the southern third of Barnwell District. With the arrival of cotton and the cotton gin in the 1790s, landowners adopted the plantation system and slaves soon made up the majority of the population. Steamboats, pole boats, and cotton boxes plied the Savannah River during the era, and Allendale was the site of several boat landings. One steamboat line stopped at Matthews Bluff, while a competitor stopped at neighboring Cohens Bluff. Boats also stopped at Johnson’s Landing and Little Hell.
During the Civil War, General William T. Sherman’s army marched through Allendale County. Union troops spared the Erwinton Plantation house because it was being used as a hospital for malaria sufferers. Brigadier General Hugh Judson Kilpatrick set up headquarters for his Union cavalry at Roselawn. Confederates staged their strongest resistance against Sherman’s march to Columbia at Rivers Bridge on the Salkehatchie; the resistance crumbled when Union troops crossed at Bufords Bridge and attacked the Confederates’ right flank. In the post Civil War era, the area continued to rely on an agricultural economy and an African American labor force. As late as 2000, African Americans made up almost seventy-five percent of the population.
Allendale County was formed in 1919 from parts of Barnwell and Hampton Counties because of the inconvenience of traveling to the courthouse in Barnwell or Hampton. The first courthouse was all but destroyed by fire in May 1998. Construction on a new courthouse incorporating the exterior shell of the old began in August 2002.
In the mid-twentieth century, the local economy benefited from travelers along U.S. Highways 301 and 321. Construction of the Savannah River Site, a nuclear weapons production plant, brought more economic opportunity to the area. Robert E. McNair practiced law in Allendale from 1948 until he became governor in 1965. The Salkehatchie Regional Campus of the University of South Carolina opened in Allendale in 1965. However, the opening of Interstate 95 deflated the tourism economy, the end of the cold war led to downsizing at the Savannah River Site, and an agricultural depression drove many farmers out of business. A handful of manufacturers, however, provided some light through the economic gloom, including Scotsman, Clariant, Mohawk, Collum’s Lumber, International Apparel, Fairfax Dimension, and Corbett Plywood.
Allendale County entered the twentieth-first century facing a series of economic and social challenges. The county had the lowest per-capita income and the lowest median household income in South Carolina during the final two decades of the twentieth century. More than one third of the individuals and well over one fourth of the families lived in poverty. Half of the families had a female householder with no husband present. In the 1990s, twenty-six percent of births in the county were to teenage mothers. The county also had the highest infant mortality rate and the lowest percentage of high school graduates in the state. In 1999 the South Carolina Board of Education authorized the state to assume management of the Allendale County schools until goals for improvement were met.
Lawton, Alexania Easterling, and Minnie Reeves Wilson. Allendale on the Savannah. Bamberg, S.C.: Bamberg Herald Printers, 1970.