By the 1840s Horry’s political and social isolation gave rise to its nickname, the Independent Republic of Horry.
(1,134 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 365,449). Horry is the largest and easternmost of South Carolina’s forty-six counties, forming a wedge between North Carolina and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1785 the Georgetown Judicial District was subdivided into four counties, one of which, Kingston County, became Horry District in 1801. In its modern form, the Little Pee Dee River separates Horry County from Dillon, Marion, and Georgetown Counties on the west and south. The county was named for Peter Horry, an officer in the Revolutionary War.
It is likely that Spaniards probed Horry’s coastline as early as the 1530s, but more than two centuries passed before European and African newcomers gained a foothold in what became Horry County. In the 1670s English settlers began to cluster around South Carolina’s harbors and adjacent rivers. In 1735, as part of Governor Robert Johnson’s plan to settle the interior, Kingston Township was laid out in the northeastern part of the colony, along the north bank of the Waccamaw River. Slowly pioneer families began entering Horry. Most of them drifted down from North Carolina and Virginia, while a few came up the Waccamaw River from Georgetown. While some brought slaves with them, most were “poor white Protestants” who expected to earn their daily bread by the sweat of their own brows.
Several factors impelled Horry’s development in a different direction from other South Carolina counties. In the first place, geography isolated Horry. The Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Pee Dee Swamp on the west and south made communication with other South Carolinians difficult. Ironically, Horry’s northern border was mostly dry, level ground, facilitating contact with North Carolina. Tar Heel influences were subtle but persistent, and in many ways Horry came to resemble neighboring North Carolina counties. By the 1840s Horry’s political and social isolation gave rise to its nickname, the Independent Republic of Horry.
Horry’s economic development was also distinctive. Except for a few miles along the lower Waccamaw River, Horry was too far inland for the tidewater rice culture that dominated the lowcountry. Likewise, the Horry landscape was unsuited to large-scale cotton production. Thus the plantation economy common to other counties never evolved. For example, in 1860 two-thirds of Horry’s farms were valued at less than $600 while small farms in neighboring Georgetown County comprised only one-quarter of the total. Horry became a refuge of yeomen farmers subsisting on their modest holdings and bartering with neighbors. The census of 1860 reckoned Horry the poorest county in South Carolina.
Demographics reflected the economy. Few Horry farmers owned slaves, and only the mountain district of Pickens had a greater white majority. Lack of commitment to slavery influenced Horry’s politics as well. In 1860 many Horryites opposed secession but closed ranks with their state and region after Fort Sumter. Horry men mustered into the Tenth South Carolina Volunteers and saw service in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia. Defeat and emancipation had less impact on Horry than other counties. Accustomed to doing their own work, most Horry folk simply resumed their lives of toil.
In 1887 a branch of the Wilmington, Columbia, and Augusta Railroad (and its attendant telegraph line) linked Horry County to the outside world. Better transportation and communication opened markets for Horry’s forest products, and timber, tar, and turpentine became important exports for several years. Horry farmers felled, tapped, and scraped pine trees for a few extra dollars per year.
In the 1890s Horry embraced bright leaf tobacco as a cash crop. By 1903 thousands of acres of leaf were growing and tobacco markets were thriving in Conway and Loris. Tobacco put Horry’s subsistence/barter economy on a cash basis, and Horry farmers marched into the twentieth century in step with world markets. By the 1920s Horry was South Carolina’s top tobacco-producing county. Predictably Horry’s fortunes rose and fell with tobacco’s, booming with high leaf prices and languishing with low ones. The Great Depression of the 1930s caused fewer hardships in Horry than many other places. Horry folk typically lived on their own land and raised their own food, and thus felt less change in their living standard. The federal production control/price support system established for bright leaf in the 1930s protected the income of tobacco growers and stabilized Horry’s economy.
Horry County prospered after World War II. A profitable cash crop coupled with the developing resort economy along the coast ushered in an era of sustained growth. In the 1950s Horry’s beaches began attracting increasing numbers of tourists, and Myrtle Beach became the centerpiece of Horry’s thirty-mile-long Grand Strand. In the 1970s and 1980s capital investment and population flowed into Horry as resort hotels and condominiums rose along the coast and forests were felled for golf courses. Horry’s good climate and abundant land helped to transform the county into a world-class golf destination.
By the 1980s Horry had evolved into two distinct cultures: a cosmopolitan, sun-belt economy along the coast and a traditional, agrarian society inland. As tobacco farming declined in the 1980s, many rural folk found service jobs, transforming Horry towns such as Loris and Aynor into bedroom communities. Along with Horry’s population growth came greater diversity as significant numbers of Hispanics and Asians joined the workforce in the 1990s. In the late twentieth century, Horry became one of South Carolina’s most prosperous counties. But rapid growth strained local infrastructure, and Horry County entered the twenty-first century struggling to meet the demand for expanding services.
Gragg, Rod. The Illustrated History of Horry County. Myrtle Beach, S.C.: Southern Communications, 1994.
Lewis, Catherine H. Horry County, South Carolina, 1730–1993. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
Prince, Eldred E., and Robert R. Simpson. Long Green: The Rise and Fall of Tobacco in South Carolina. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000.