Fairfield County, lying in the lower Piedmont, is a geologically diverse region with topography ranging from level plains to hilly terrain.
(687 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 22,059). Fairfield County, lying in the lower Piedmont, is a geologically diverse region with topography ranging from level plains to hilly terrain. The county lies primarily between the Broad and Wateree Rivers north of Richland County. Originally part of the 1769 court district of Camden, the area became Fairfield District in 1800 and then Fairfield County in 1868.
Mississippian mound builders were active in the Fairfield region from 1300 to 1400 c.e. At the time of European settlement, the Catawba and other Native Americans possibly used the area as a hunting preserve. The first Europeans arrived between 1740 and 1770 and settled along the Broad, Wateree, and Little Rivers. In 1740 Thomas Nightingale, an early settler, established a cowpen on Little River near the site of the future county seat of Winnsboro. Some of these early Europeans came overland from Charleston, while others traveled down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Most settlers engaged in trapping, hunting, and raising livestock.
During the 1760s Fairfield was a center of Regulator activity, as Thomas Woodward and other upcountry South Carolinians sought to curb lawlessness and create a circuit court system. Agitation by the Regulators led to the passage of the Circuit Court Act of 1769 and the creation of Camden District. The Regulator quest for justice carried over into strong sentiments for independence. The Fairfield area produced patriot leaders including General Richard Winn (namesake of the county seat of Winnsboro), Captain Thomas Woodward, Captain James Kincaid, and Major John Pearson.
Fairfield was the site of several important engagements during the Revolutionary War. In 1780 patriots under the command of Colonel William Bratton, Major Richard Winn, and Captain John McClure routed a Tory force at Mobley’s meetinghouse, one of the first patriot victories following the British occupation of Charlestown. Other battles fought in Fairfield took place at Rocky Mount, Caldwell’s Place, and Dutchman’s Creek. The British commander Lord Cornwallis occupied Winnsboro from October 1780 to early January 1781. Tradition holds that the county derived its name from Cornwallis’s exclamation “What fair fields!”
Early settlers established Presbyterian, Baptist, Associate Reformed, and interdenominational centers of worship. Many of the Scots-Irish Covenanters who followed the Reverend William Martin to South Carolina are interred in the graveyard of Richmond Covenanter Church. The Reverend Philip Mulkey brought Separate Baptist beliefs to Fairfield. His preaching led to the establishment of several Baptist churches in the backcountry. In 1803 the Associate Reformed (Presbyterian) Synod of South Carolina was organized at the Old Brick Church near Jenkinsville.
In addition to religion, the early settlers were interested in education. In the 1780s the Mount Zion Society, organized in Charleston in 1777, established a school for boys in Winnsboro. Other residents founded the Feasterville Female and Male Academy in 1842. In 1837 Furman Institution moved from Stateburg to Winnsboro.
Following the Revolution, agriculture increased in importance. The production of small grains flourished initially, but with the introduction of the cotton gin Fairfield became a major producer of short-staple cotton. The growth of cotton production led to an increase in the number of slaves. By 1840 Fairfield planters were among the largest cotton producers and slaveowners in the Midlands and contributed heavily to the construction of the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad through the district in the early 1850s. Despite cotton prosperity, the white population declined in the antebellum period as residents sought fresh lands in the West. By 1850 African slaves comprised two-thirds of the district’s population.
The secession movement thrived in cotton-dependent Fairfield, and four prominent residents–including former governor John Hugh Means–signed the Ordinance of Secession. Approximately two thousand Fairfield men enlisted in Confederate service. In February 1865 three columns of Sherman’s army crossed Fairfield and destroyed much property, including some buildings in Winnsboro and Ridgeway. Also in February 1865 the Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard, after evacuating Columbia, briefly used the Century House in Ridgeway as his headquarters.
Following the Civil War, African Americans in Fairfield sought educational opportunities and independent places of worship. Educators founded the Fairfield Institute in 1869. Before merging with Brainerd Institute in Chester, the school had grown to one hundred students. Kelly Miller, professor and dean at Howard University, was a student at the Fairfield Institute. Also, African Americans organized St. Paul’s Baptist Church in 1873, and members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church established the Camp Welfare camp meeting by 1876.
The importance of agriculture persisted in post–Civil War Fairfield and only began to wane in the 1950s. Commercial districts developed in Winnsboro during Reconstruction and in Ridgeway in the early twentieth century. The post–Civil War period also brought economic diversification with the Winnsboro Granite Company and systematic granite quarrying, the Rockton and Rion Railroad, textile manufacturing, and timber and pulpwood production. Fairfield Blue Granite, a valuable county resource, is considered the “silk of the trade.” Also, Shivar Springs Bottling Company operated from ca. 1900 to ca. 1950, bottling first mineral water and later soft drinks. Fairfield County, home of Sumter National Forest, is one of South Carolina’s leading pulpwood producers. In the mid-1900s Parr Shoals on the Broad River was the first nuclear power facility in the Southeast. The acquisition of Mack Trucks in the 1980s was hailed as a boon to the Fairfield economy, but the plant was closed in 2002. Despite subsequent economic setbacks, Fairfield County strives to preserve its historic character and structures through the creation of historic districts, to develop a viable tourist industry, and to provide educational and occupational opportunities for its residents.
Bellardo, Lewis. “A Social and Economic History of Fairfield County, South Carolina, 1865–1871.” Ph.D. diss., University of Kentucky, 1979.
Bolick, Julian Stevenson. A Fairfield Sketchbook. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1963. McMaster, Fitz Hugh. History of Fairfield County, South Carolina: From “Before the White Man Came” to 1942. 1946. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1980.