Located in the Piedmont, Laurens is a county of forests and gently rolling hills.
(715 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 67,883). Located in the Piedmont, Laurens is a county of forests and gently rolling hills. The Enoree River separates Laurens from Spartanburg and Union Counties on the northeast. Newberry County borders on the southeast and Greenville County on the northwest, while the Saluda River and Lake Greenwood separate it from Abbeville and Greenwood Counties on the southwest.
The first known European in the area was John Duncan, a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, who came from Pennsylvania in 1753 and settled near the modern Newberry-Laurens county line. He also brought the first African American slave and the first horse-drawn wagon. Duncan’s settlement grew. By the mid-1760s a church was established that became Duncan’s Creek Presbyterian Church, the oldest in Laurens County.
Four important Revolutionary War battles took place in Laurens County. On July 15, 1776, patriot forces defeated a combined Indian and Tory attack on Lyndley’s Fort near Rabun Creek. At the Battle of Musgrove’s Mill, a force of rebels attacked British and Tory forces on August 18, 1780, and achieved a decisive victory at the end of a two-day battle. On December 29, 1780, a Tory detachment was defeated at Hammond’s Store near present-day Clinton. Near the end of the war, at Hayes Station (eight miles southwest of Clinton), Captain “Bloody Bill” Cunningham attacked a contingent of rebels and killed fourteen.
After the war, Ninety Six District became the chief governmental unit of the backcountry. In 1785 Laurens County, named for the statesman Henry Laurens of Charleston, was one of six counties carved from the district. To select a site for the county seat, a delegation met at the distillery of John Rodgers, near the present Laurens courthouse square. Tradition has it that the men, after imbibing freely, climbed the hill to a level area and chose the spot for the courthouse. More likely, however, the site was selected for its proximity to water and because five important roads connecting the upcountry converged at the point. A wooden courthouse, also used as a church and a schoolhouse, was constructed shortly afterward. An improved courthouse was built between 1837 and 1838 and enlarged in 1857 and 1911.
After the Revolution, the upcountry saw immigrants arrive from Pennsylvania seeking cheap land. By 1800 the population of Laurens County stood at 12,809, of which almost eighty-five percent were white. However, as cotton production expanded, the number of slaves increased. The district produced almost sixteen thousand bales of cotton in 1850. Ten years later the county population reached 23,858, more than half of which were slaves. Villages sprang up and briefly thrived during this period at Cross Hill, Waterloo, Princeton, Gray Court, Owings, Ora, and Mountville. However, they gradually dwindled. Laurens and Clinton became the dominant towns. Antebellum Laurens County was the home of Ann Pamela Cunningham, whose 1853 letter to the Charleston Mercury raised awareness about the deplorable condition of George Washington’s home at Mount Vernon, Virginia. Cunningham’s actions sparked the movement to restore this national historic site.
No military action occurred in Laurens County during the Civil War, although many native sons served in the conflict. In April and May 1865 Union troops passed through the county in pursuit of Confederate president Jefferson Davis, who spent two days and a night in Laurens County during his flight from Richmond. During Reconstruction white residents of Laurens County resented the enfranchisement of newly freed blacks, most of whom supported the despised Republican Party. Whites responded by organizing Democratic clubs that attempted to influence elections through intimidation and violence. As a result of Ku Klux Klan activity across the lower Piedmont and the Laurens Riot of 1870, Laurens and eight other South Carolina counties were placed under martial law in 1871. When Reconstruction ended following the 1876 election of Wade Hampton as governor, Laurens native William Dunlap Simpson became lieutenant governor, and he later served as governor and chief justice of the state supreme court.
Cotton remained the main crop in the decades following the Civil War, with sharecropping replacing slave labor. Like most upcountry counties, Laurens sought to revive its economy by spinning cotton rather than simply growing it. By the turn of the century, textile manufacturing had become an important part of the economy. Laurens Cotton Mill was established in 1895, and Mercer Silas Bailey built a mill in Clinton in 1896. The Lydia, Watts, and Joanna mills also began operations. Company-built villages appeared around these new textile mills to provide housing for employees. Mill villages remained an important economic and social feature of Laurens County until well after World War II. New railroads arrived in the late nineteenth century, including the Charleston and Western Carolina Railroad; the Columbia, Newberry, and Laurens Railroad; and the Georgia, Carolina, and Northern Railroad.
Education expanded in Laurens County during the late nineteenth century. Pratt Suber became the first county superintendent of education in 1874, and Clinton College (later Presbyterian College) was established in 1880. Privately sponsored libraries appeared, eventually evolving into a county library in 1929.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Laurens County experienced steady growth but remained predominantly rural. From a population of 37,382 in 1900, the county grew to 46,974 in 1950 and to 69,567 by 2000. The same period saw a significant change in racial composition, with the African American portion of the population declining from three-fifths in 1900 to just under one-third by 1950. With the exception of a large glass bottle manufacturing plant in the town of Laurens, textiles and agriculture dominated the county economy until World War II.
The decades following the war brought changes. Small rural schools consolidated, and all schools were desegregated. Economic diversification made the county less dependent on textile manufacturing. Michelin, Milliken, and Wal-Mart established large warehouse distribution centers in the county near Laurens and Clinton. New manufacturers included CeramTec, Torrington, Avery Dennison, and Norbord. Several automobile-parts suppliers established facilities in northern Laurens County at Fountain Inn to supply BMW’s upstate assembly facility. Retirement centers were built by three church denominations. Because of its location near the rapidly expanding Greenville-Spartanburg metropolitan area, Laurens County stood poised to enjoy continued economic and population growth into the twenty-first century.
Bolick, Julian Stevenson. A Laurens County Sketchbook. Clinton, S.C.: Jacobs, 1973.
The Scrapbook: A Compilation of Historical Facts about Places and Events of Laurens County, South Carolina. N.p.: Laurens County Historical Society and Laurens County Arts Council, 1982.