Intersected by the fall line and two rivers, the Lynches and the Wateree, the geography of Kershaw County influenced its settlement and character. The Piedmont soils of the hilly northwest contrast with the meandering river floodplains in the southeastern section and the sandhills terrain predominant in the other areas.
(726 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 67,472). Kershaw County was created in 1791 from portions of Claremont, Fairfield, Lancaster, and Richland Counties. Like other South Carolina counties, Kershaw was designated a “district” from 1800 until 1868, when a new state constitution restored the “county” designation. The first courthouse for Camden District was built in 1771 at Camden, which later became the Kershaw County judicial seat. The county’s name honors the Revolutionary War patriot Joseph Kershaw of Camden.
Intersected by the fall line and two rivers, the Lynches and the Wateree, the geography of Kershaw County influenced its settlement and character. The Piedmont soils of the hilly northwest contrast with the meandering river floodplains in the southeastern section and the sandhills terrain predominant in the other areas. European explorers and early immigrants followed waterways and ancient Native American footpaths to enter the region. Some of the state’s oldest prehistoric sites are in Kershaw County, including mounds, rock shelters, and Paleo-Indian artifacts. Early visitors to the massive Native American settlement of Cofitachiqui, with its temple mound capital at Mulberry, were Hernando de Soto in 1540, Captain Juan Pardo in 1566 and 1568, and the Englishman Henry Woodward in 1670. Later visitors encountered the Wateree and Catawba Nations. The county seal honors King Haiglar, an eighteenth-century Catawba chieftain who befriended early settlers.
European settlement occurred in several areas. The township of Fredericksburg, part of Governor Robert Johnson’s township plan of the 1730s, was not inhabited because of its location in a floodplain. Instead, English settlers and Irish Quakers took up lands on both sides of the Wateree River in the early 1750s, near the head of navigation. Near this central location, the backcountry’s most important colonial milling and trading center flourished at Pine Tree Hill (renamed Camden in 1768). Scots-Irish settlers from Pennsylvania also established homesteads along waterways in upper Kershaw County. During the Revolutionary War, the British seized Camden and fortified it as their headquarters in the hotly contested backcountry campaign. Eight battles or skirmishes were fought within the modern county boundary, the largest of which was the American defeat at the Battle of Camden (August 16, 1780).
When hostilities ended, the area recovered quickly. With the advent of the cotton gin, a flourishing economy developed based on plantation agriculture. Demand for virgin soil to maintain cotton profits, however, encouraged planters and farmers to migrate to the southwest in the 1820s. Dependence on African slave labor increased rapidly in the early nineteenth century. By 1850 slaves outnumbered free inhabitants in Kershaw District by more than two to one.
Support for the Confederacy was strong at the outbreak of the Civil War. Camden was the birthplace of six generals who served the Confederate cause. Within the first year of the war, eighty percent of white males over age eighteen had volunteered for service. The wartime diaries of Camden resident Mary Chesnut are important historical sources of the era. Federal soldiers occupied the county twice during the closing year of the war. In late February 1865, shortly after the burning of Columbia, General William T. Sherman encamped with thirty thousand men at Liberty Hill, a wealthy antebellum village in the High Hills. In the last organized incursion into the state, General Edward E. Potter and a force of 2,500 troops, including African Americans, engaged Confederate forces on April 19 at Boykin’s Mill, where the last Federal officer to die in the war was killed.
Impoverishment, displacement, and political instability led to migration in and out of the county following the war. Many freedmen sought improved opportunities in the North. Agricultural operations shifted from plantations to smaller farms, sharecropping, and the lien system. Postwar racial and political tensions produced violent excesses, including several duels and the murder of Solomon George Washington Dill, a senator-elect shot in June 1868 by local whites.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Camden became a popular winter resort for wealthy northerners. A common sporting interest in horses among visitors and residents promoted the equine industry, which gave a distinctive character to the county that survived into the modern era. The expansion of railroads in the late nineteenth century improved transportation and helped attract tourists, business, and industry. Several small towns emerged from railroad stops, including Bethune, Cassatt, Lugoff, Blaney (later Elgin), and Westville.
Industrialization proceeded slowly. The first textile mill began in 1838 but burned just before the Civil War. Another mill did not operate until 1890, followed by a third in 1900. Completion of the Wateree Dam in 1919 gave Kershaw a boost by providing electricity and flood control to a county that had sometimes been temporarily divided by the unpredictable river. The dam also created Lake Wateree, which evolved into a popular recreational and residential area. Although some farming families abandoned the land for textile employment, agriculture dominated the lives of most Kershaw residents into the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Industrialization increased significantly in 1950 when E. I. duPont de Nemours began manufacturing orlon (an acrylic fiber) in Lugoff. By century’s end, the largest sector of the workforce, thirty percent, was employed in manufacturing, followed by twenty percent in wholesale and retail sectors. DuPont remained the county’s largest employer, followed by Standard Corporation, BBA-Nonwovens, Dana Corporation, and Archimica, Inc. Four of these five manufacturers were located in the West Wateree section.
Formerly segregated public schools were racially integrated into a unitary educational system by 1970. Support for public schools remained strong in the county, with less than five percent of the student population attending private schools at the end of the twentieth century.
After more than 250 years of settlement, Kershaw County entered the twenty-first century as one of the state’s fastest-growing counties. Interstate 20 whisks workers in and out of the county to jobs in nearby Columbia and elsewhere. Planted timber replaced abandoned farm fields. The threat of pollution to the Wateree River raised environmental concerns. Despite these changes, Kershaw County remained focused on the goal of maintaining the best aspects of its past while meeting the challenges of the present and the future.
Inabinet, L. Glen, and Joan A. Inabinet, eds. Kershaw County Legacy: A Commemorative History. Camden, S.C.: Kershaw County Bicentennial Commission, 1976.
–––. Legacy II: Kershaw County History and Heritage. Camden, S.C.: Kershaw County Historical Society, 1983.
Kershaw County Historical Society. A Guide to Selected Historical Sites in Kershaw County/District, South Carolina. Camden, S.C.: Kershaw County Historical Society, 1992.
Kirkland, Thomas J., and Robert M. Kennedy. Historic Camden. 2 vols. 1905. Reprint, Camden, S.C.: Kershaw County Historical Society, 1994.