During Reconstruction, with its large black majority, Georgetown County became a Republican Party stronghold. Even after the return of Democratic rule to South Carolina after 1876, African Americans in Georgetown County still held significant political power. They shared control in uneasy cooperation with local whites in a process called “fusion” until 1900, when white control was reestablished.
(815 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 63,353). Named in honor of King George III of England, Georgetown County lies in the fertile plain surrounding Winyah Bay. Its early wealth lay in the maze of rivers and creeks that traversed the county. Timber and naval stores traveled the Santee, Waccamaw, Pee Dee, and Sampit Rivers to the bay. The marshy coast and low-lying river bottoms produced rice and indigo. Rice grown by a cadre of immensely rich colonial and antebellum planters at one time made Georgetown one of the wealthiest counties in the United States.
Native Americans–the Sampit, Santee, Pee Dee, and Waccamaw, whose names grace the region’s rivers–were Georgetown’s first inhabitants. Trade with these Native Americans drew the first European settlers. Spaniards under Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón may have reached Georgetown County in the early sixteenth century. A few scholars even tout Georgetown as the site of the ill-fated settlement of San Miguel de Gualdape, the site of the first slave uprising in the North America.
Europeans first acquired land in the area in 1705. The Reverend William Screven settled the future site of the town of Georgetown in 1711. That same year Percival Pawley obtained grants for 2,500 acres on the Pee Dee, Sampit, and Waccamaw Rivers. French, English, and Scottish immigrants settled Georgetown. Trade continued to flourish on Georgetown’s myriad waterways. The Brown’s Ferry vessel, on display at the Rice Museum in Georgetown, sank between 1730 and 1740. Its surviving cargo of pipes and bottles documents eighteenth-century trade goods.
Three parishes served the eighteenth-century residents of the Georgetown area: Prince George Winyah (1721–1722), Prince Frederick’s (1734), and All Saints (1778). The county court act of 1769 named Georgetown as one of seven judicial districts in the colony. In 1785 the South Carolina General Assembly divided Georgetown District into four counties: Winyah, Liberty, Kingston, and Williamsburg. After 1804 Georgetown District approximated the area of Winyah County. With the Constitution of 1868, Georgetown District became Georgetown County.
The movement toward independence found a welcome home in Georgetown, and Thomas Lynch of Hopsewee was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette stopped at Benjamin Huger’s summer home on June 14, 1777, en route to serve with the Continental forces. General Francis Marion, the “Swamp Fox,” defeated a Tory force at Black Mingo Creek on September 14, 1780, and Colonel Peter Horry also prevailed in an encounter with the Tories in 1781. Conversely, a Tory contingent captured Lieutenant Gabriel Marion, nephew of Francis Marion, near White’s Bridge in 1780 and killed him.
After the Revolution, the production of indigo waned, but, with technological advances, rice production grew. Starting in 1787, Jonathan Lucas began building water-powered rice mills, then tide-operated rice mills, for leading rice planters. Production expanded and laid the foundation for some of the South’s preeminent planting families, including the Alstons, Heriots, Wards, and Westons. In 1840 Georgetown District accounted for almost half of the total rice crop of the United States. In 1850 ninety-one Georgetown planters produced more than 100,000 pounds of rice each. As noted by the historian George Rogers, “Rice was Georgetown’s contribution to Western civilization.”
The production of labor-intensive crops led to the importation of thousands of African slaves. Many came from the rice-growing Gold Coast of Africa and contributed folk and food ways to the rich cultural mosaic of Georgetown County. In 1860 eighty-five percent of Georgetown County’s population of 21,305 were slaves. At least two Georgetown District planters, Joshua John Ward and Plowden Charles Jennet Weston, owned more than one thousand slaves.
With its long coastline, Georgetown feared Federal invasion during the Civil War. In response to this perceived threat, Confederates constructed Battery White on a bluff overlooking Winyah Bay. In November 1862, there were fifty-three men and nine guns at the battery. It was abandoned by February 1865.
With the end of the Civil War, Georgetown faced economic hardship. The rice dikes had been damaged or destroyed, and the planters faced the challenge of negotiating for labor with the recently freed African Americans, who demonstrated little interest in returning to the rice fields. During Reconstruction, with its large black majority, Georgetown County became a Republican Party stronghold. Even after the return of Democratic rule to South Carolina after 1876, African Americans in Georgetown County still held significant political power. They shared control in uneasy cooperation with local whites in a process called “fusion” until 1900, when white control was reestablished.
With the help of the Georgetown Rice Milling Company, the desultory production of rice persisted into the early twentieth century, before succumbing to bankruptcies, outside competition, and a series of devastating hurricanes. Some planters turned to subsistence crops, but most of the former plantations became hunting pre- serves for wealthy northern sportsmen, including the Hobcaw Barony estate of Bernard Baruch and the Brookgreen estate of Archer Milton and Anna Hyatt Huntington.
The growth of the lumber and pulpwood industry converted thousands of agricultural acres to pine forest. During the first decades of the twentieth century, giant lumbering companies, such as Atlantic Coast Lumber and International Paper, built massive factories near the city of Georgetown and bought up vast tracts of pine lands. Logging railroads, such as the Georgetown and Western, carried timber to the mills. New railroads revived the economy of Georgetown and established the boomtown of Andrews on the Williamsburg County line. This prosperity faltered during the 1930s, and Georgetown County suffered the effects of the Great Depression with partic- ular intensity.
World War II and the expansion of the pulp and paper industry, especially the construction of massive paper mills by International Paper in the 1930s and 1940s, brought about yet another economic revival. Improvements to the port of Georgetown and arrival of Georgetown Steel in the 1960s and 1970s provided a further boost. Finally, improved rail and road access to the county brought thou- sands of tourists to Georgetown beaches. More sedate than the rambunctious tourist mecca of Myrtle Beach, upscale beach communities such as Murrells Inlet, Litchfield, Pawleys Island, and Debidue Beach have provided a peaceful respite not only for vacationers, but for a spectrum of authors ranging from Julia Peterkin to Mickey Spillane.
Bolick, Julian Stevenson. Waccamaw Plantations. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1946. Joyner, Charles W. Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984. Linder, Suzanne C., and Marta Leslie Thacker. The Historical Atlas of the Rice
Plantations of Georgetown County and the Santee River. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History for the Historic Ricefields Association, 2001.
Rogers, George C. The History of Georgetown County, South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1970.