Initially a center of the colony’s thriving Indian trade, the Berkeley County region grew to economic prominence as one of the premier agricultural centers of colonial America. By the end of the twentieth century, Berkeley County had evolved from its agricultural past into a mecca for manufacturing.
(1,098 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 235,987). Created on May 10, 1682, Berkeley was one of South Carolina’s first three counties. It was named for two of the Lords Proprietors, Lord John Berkeley and his younger brother, Sir William Berkeley. At that time Charleston served as the county’s seat of justice. Over the next two centuries, the boundaries and organization of the Berkeley County area underwent several alterations. From the early eighteenth century until the close of the Civil War, the area was the location of several lowcountry parishes, including St. John’s Berkeley, St. James Goose Creek, St. Thomas and St. Denis, and St. Stephen’s. With the abolishment of the parish system in 1865, Berkeley became part of Charleston County. In 1882 the General Assembly reestablished Berkeley County. Its area was reduced several times in the following decades, and Berkeley established its modern boundaries by 1921. Mount Pleasant served as the county seat from 1882 until 1895, when Charleston County annexed the town. Moncks Corner was selected as the new Berkeley County seat in an election that same year.
Initially a center of the colony’s thriving Indian trade, the Berkeley County region grew to economic prominence as one of the premier agricultural centers of colonial America. English and French Huguenot planters developed a thriving rice and indigo culture along the Cooper and Santee Rivers. As early as the late 1670s, English colonists from Barbados settled in the Goose Creek area, which became the home base of the politically powerful “Goose Creek Men.” Immense rice fortunes were made on some of the richest agricultural land in the American colonies. Cosmopolitan planters such as Ralph Izard traveled the world and attained a level of sophistication seldom matched by the inhabitants of other British colonies. Early plantations included Medway, constructed in 1686 on Back River, which survives as the oldest house in South Carolina. Middleburg Plantation, established around 1699 on the Cooper River’s east branch, is considered the state’s oldest wooden house.
Several Berkeley planters achieved prominent roles in the push toward independence from Britain. The Revolutionary War produced Berkeley County’s most famous native son, Francis Marion, as well as General William Moultrie and the statesman Henry Laurens. But the war wreaked havoc, disrupting the agricultural trade on which the colony had gained prominence. Beginning in 1793, Moultrie introduced cotton cultivation at his North Hampton plantation, heralding a shift from an exclusive reliance on rice, indigo, and naval stores. The accumulation of wealth in Berkeley was directly due to the labor of African American slaves, and African Americans comprised a majority of the region’s population for most of its history. In 1790 the Berkeley County area had approximately 103,000 slaves to some 30,000 whites. By 1820 blacks comprised a two-to-one majority, a ratio that continued throughout the remainder of the antebellum era.
Reconstruction plunged Berkeley County into turmoil, as the wealth and opulence of antebellum days vanished. The overwhelming black majority in Berkeley made the area a Republican Party stronghold until the 1880s, helping to elect several African Americans to the state General Assembly and the U.S. House of Representatives. With the return of Democratic rule in South Carolina in 1877, whites quickly worked to dilute the political influence of black voters. In 1882 legislators created the “Black” Seventh District, a meandering congressional district that contained almost twenty-five percent of the state’s black voters, including all of Berkeley County. By condensing black voters into a single district, the statewide political influence of Berkeley County’s black majority was contained, before being practically eliminated with the disfranchisement of African Americans by the state constitution of 1895.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Berkeley County economy centered on timbering and farming, the latter built on sharecropping. The system kept many people, both black and white, perpetually in debt, living from crop to crop. Manufacturing was virtually nonexistent. During Prohibition in the 1920s, Berkeley earned a notorious reputation for its underground economy in the illegal manufacture of moonshine whiskey. The county’s black majority declined in the twentieth century as a steady stream of African Americans left Berkeley for urban centers of the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states.
Beginning in 1939, an influx of federal dollars into the Santee Cooper hydroelectric project (which submerged a large portion of Berkeley County under the waters of Lake Moultrie) initiated an economic revival. This continued through World War II, as county residents and newcomers flocked to jobs at the Charleston Naval Base and the Charleston Naval Shipyard. The county seat of Moncks Corner grew into a thriving town, but not to the degree of Goose Creek, which emerged in the postwar years as the county’s largest municipality. Its growth was spurred by cold-war-era military spending and continued as new arrivals to the Charleston area moved into burgeoning residential subdivisions such as Crowfield Plantation. By 1990 the Berkeley County population had become three-quarters white.
By the end of the twentieth century, Berkeley County had evolved from its agricultural past into a mecca for manufacturing. The Bushy Park industrial corridor, first developed in the mid-1950s along the Cooper River, became home to the manufacturing facilities of such well-known multinational firms as Dupont, Bayer, and Agfa. In the late 1970s an aluminum smelter, Alcoa-Mount Holly, was built between Goose Creek and Moncks Corner. In the mid-1990s the huge Nucor steel mill was constructed in the Cainhoy and Huger communities. In 1995 Berkeley became the first county in South Carolina to secure $1 billion in new capital investment in one year. The 1,044-acre Mount Holly Commerce Park, a public- private venture between Moncks Corner and Goose Creek, was dedicated in October 1999. The Charleston Naval Weapons Station is almost entirely located in Berkeley County, as is the Francis Marion National Forest.
Chamber of Commerce (Moncks Corner, S.C.). Berkeley County, South Carolina. N.p., [1955?].
Cross, J. Russell. Historic Ramblin’s through Berkeley. Columbia, S.C.: R. L. Bryan, 1985.
Orvin, Maxwell Clayton. Historic Berkeley County, South Carolina, 1671–1900. Charleston, S.C.: comprint, 1973.