Cheraw’s position on the Great Pee Dee made it an important point of trade and commerce from its inception.
(Chesterfield County; 2020 pop. 5,554). Cheraw is located at the head of navigation of the Great Pee Dee River. Before the arrival of European settlers, the Cheraw Indians maintained a village near the site. Decimated by smallpox in the 1730s, the Cheraws abandoned the region, leaving only their name at the small trading village. Europeans began moving into the area during this time. Most were of English descent, and many brought slaves along with their households. Others were Irish, Huguenots, or Scots. In the 1760s the merchants Joseph and Eli Kershaw laid out the present street system and town green. The Kershaws called the town Chatham, but the name never gained wide acceptance. Cheraw or Cheraw Hill continued to be used interchangeably with Chatham. Cheraw became the official name at the town’s incorporation in 1820.
Cheraw’s position on the Great Pee Dee made it an important point of trade and commerce from its inception. Corn, tobacco, indigo, and rice were grown in the more fertile land. Naval stores and cattle raising, with the related tanning and curing industries, were also major sources of income. Following the creation of St. David’s Parish in 1768, the town became the site of the parish church, which was completed in 1774. During the Revolutionary War, Cheraw was part of the British line of defense that included Camden and Ninety Six. The British Seventy-first Highlanders held the town for a time, and General Nathanael Greene of the Continental army had his camp just across the river in the winter of 1780–1781. The war in this region was a true civil war and left the area devastated. Recovery was slow, and real growth did not occur in Cheraw until the advent of steam navigation on the Pee Dee.
Moses Rogers brought the first steamboat, The Great Pee Dee, to Cheraw in 1819. In 1823 the first covered bridge was built across the river. These improvements led to rapid growth in Cheraw. The remainder of the lots from Eli Kershaw’s estate were auctioned, and over the next decade numerous homes and public buildings were constructed. By 1825 Cheraw was one of South Carolina’s chief market towns, with 150 houses and between twelve hundred and thirteen hundred inhabitants. Twenty thousand bales of cotton were shipped from Cheraw annually. A fire destroyed much of the business district in 1835, but the railroad arrived in the 1850s and Cheraw continued as a regional center of business, culture, and religion.
During the Civil War, Cheraw was a haven for refugees and a repository for military stores. In March 1865 the town hosted the Union army of General William T. Sherman for several days. Although the business district was destroyed in an accidental explosion and there was widespread looting, no public buildings or dwellings were burned. The town was destitute after the war, but prosperity began to return by 1900 with the arrival of the timber industry and the expansion of railroads in the county. By 1922 Cheraw had a population of four thousand, two railroad lines, a cotton gin, a knitting mill, oil and lumber mills, machine shops, and brickworks. Cheraw bankers and cotton brokers built imposing colonial-revival residences. New public schools for both blacks and whites were built. Coulter Academy, a private boarding school, served the area’s African American students. A drastic drop in cotton prices during the 1920s dealt Cheraw an economic blow, which was exacerbated by the Depression of the 1930s. The completion of U.S. Highway 1 in 1931 helped offset some of the decline, as did New Deal projects that created Cheraw State Park and Sand Hills State Forest.
In 1950 a serious effort was undertaken to recruit industry, and manufacturing plants began relocating to the Cheraw area. In the 1960s continuing recruitment and improvements in education and infrastructure attracted major industries. By the end of the century Cheraw had a healthy mix of textile, metal fabricating, and other manufacturing interests, many of which were owned by international companies. In the 1990s civic improvements including Arrowhead Park, a theater, a new library, and police and fire stations added to the quality of life. Cheraw has taken pride in its trees and in its historic district, 213 acres of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. While continuing to recruit new businesses, Cheraw also preserved its antebellum core, tree-lined streets, and town green.
Gregg, Alexander. History of the Old Cheraws. 1867. Reprint, Greenville, S.C.: Southern Historical Press, 1991.
Holcomb, Brent H. St. David’s Parish, South Carolina: Minutes of the Vestry, 1768–1832, Parish Register, 1819–1924. Easley, S.C.: Southern Histori- cal Press, 1979.
Johnson, George Lloyd, Jr. The Frontier in the Colonial South: South Carolina Backcountry, 1736–1800. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1997.
Nelson, Larry E. “Sherman at Cheraw.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 100 (October 1999): 328–54.