Spanning the state in a broad northeast to southwest band, the Piedmont is the second-largest of South Carolina’s landform regions, encompassing 10,500 square miles, nearly one-third of the state’s total area.
One of six landform regions in South Carolina, the Piedmont is defined by high hills to the north that give way to rolling hills at the center of the state. This region is part of the larger Piedmont Plateau that spreads southwest from Maryland through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and northern Georgia before ending in Alabama.
Spanning the state in a broad northeast to southwest band, the Piedmont is the second-largest of South Carolina’s landform regions, encompassing 10,500 square miles, nearly one-third of the state’s total area. It runs from the Blue Ridge in the north to the Sandhills in the south and includes all or portions of twenty-two counties: Abbeville, Anderson, Cherokee, Chester, Chesterfield, Edgefield, Fairfield, Greenville, Greenwood, Kershaw, Lancaster, Laurens, Lexington, McCormick, Newberry, Oconee, Pickens, Richland, Saluda, Spartanburg, Union, and York. Elevation increases markedly across the Piedmont, from three hundred feet at the eastern boundary, where Richland, Lexington, and Kershaw Counties straddle the line between the Sandhills and the Piedmont, to twelve hundred feet at its northwest border at the base of the Blue Ridge in Oconee and Pickens Counties.
The region experienced frequent periods of great geologic change. Land was built up and eroded away, leaving signs of geologic activity behind. Six hundred million years ago the land that forms the Piedmont was a land mass separate from the North American continent. Then, about 470 million years ago, this mass collided with the edge of the continent, changing the soils of the region through extensive folding, faulting, and metamorphism. Another, larger collision with the continent of Africa had similar effects. Before this, the Piedmont was the coast. With the retreat of the Atlantic Ocean, its sandy border became the Sandhills region that divides the Piedmont from the coastal plain region.
The result of these collisions is that most Piedmont rocks are metamorphic, originally sandstone and shale changed to gneiss and schist, with igneous intrusions of granite formed deep in the earth’s crust during the tectonic activity associated with the continental collisions.
Despite the active tectonic history, the Piedmont is relatively flat. Like its predecessors, the most recent mountain range, formed ten million years ago during the Miocene epoch, began eroding as it was formed, flattening the landscape and covering it with red clay soil colored by iron-rich minerals. Remnants of techtonic activity in the form of monadnocks (mostly granite outcrops that resist weathering) remained as the softer rocks were eroded away. Good examples of this type of geological formation include Forty-Acre Rock in Lancaster County, Paris Mountain in Greenville County, and Kings Mountain in York County.
The geography and geology of the region determined its settlement and use by humans. Three major Piedmont river systems, the Santee, the Savannah, and the Pee Dee, filled with sediment from the eroding mountains, created the rich floodplains so attractive to the area’s early settlers and later transported their produce downriver to the coast. During the colonial period, Scots-Irish, English, and German immigrants from Virginia and Pennsylvania poured into the region, establishing small farms. Place names such as York, Lancaster, and Chester reflect these settlers’ connections to Pennsylvania, and Chesterfield suggests ties to piedmont Virginia.
Subsistence farmers at first, these rugged settlers after the 1790s changed to cotton, which became the upstate’s principal commercial crop. Wheat and tobacco produced additional income as northerners moved into the area with expertise in cultivating these crops. In 1830 Piedmont districts of Abbeville, Edgefield, Fairfield, and Laurens produced almost one-half of the state’s cotton crop. Better transportation in the form of canals and then railroads improved the demand for Piedmont cotton into the early 1900s. Railroads out of Columbia connected to Piedmont cities, including Anderson, Laurens, Greenville, and Spartanburg. By 1940 the upper Piedmont was producing only one-third of the state’s cotton using tenant-farmer or sharecropper systems. Dropping prices, boll weevils, and poor land conservation practices caused the decline of cotton during the 1910s through the 1930s. The red clay soils of the Piedmont made water absorption difficult, leading to rapid runoff of rain and therefore high erosion potential. This and heavy demand on the soils produced severe erosion and depleted the topsoil. Most of the Piedmont lost up to ten percent of topsoil to erosion, and some places lost more.
The Piedmont is also a source of economically important rocks and minerals, primarily granite and gold. Lancaster, Chesterfield, and Fairfield Counties all have active gold mines, making the state one of the most productive gold-mining states east of the Mississippi. Other mining activities in the region have included clay (for brick), kyanite, kaolin, and some gemstones.
Most settlers in the Piedmont, however, were not miners but farmers. As constant farming began to deplete the soils and severe erosion made farming conditions worse, the Piedmont began changing from agriculture to industry, especially textiles. This transition was eased by readily available waterpower. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, almost all significant Piedmont rivers and streams were dammed, first to provide power to cotton mills and then for creation of hydroelectricity.
Mill towns flourished as the textile industry grew through the early twentieth century and soon dominated the social and economic landscapes of the Piedmont. Railroads spread rapidly across the region to carry cotton to the coast, and towns sprang up along major routes. Cotton mills soon produced a way of life, as farming had before them. Along with textile factories, mill owners also built housing near the mill sites. With significant increases in hydroelectric power, the textile industry boomed in the state. In 1880 about forty percent of textile mills in the state were located in the upper Piedmont counties of Oconee, Anderson, Greenville, and Spartan- burg. By the 1910s more than seventy percent of mills lay in the Piedmont between Anderson and York. However, more recent decades saw the decline of the textile industry in the South Carolina Piedmont, mostly as a result of cheaper overseas production.
In the early twenty-first century the Piedmont area still contained much rural land, which supported some farming, including cattle and forest production. These rural patches rested between the region’s rapidly growing cities of Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, and Rock Hill. New industry, especially along the Interstate 85 corridor, had been heavily and successfully recruited in the area, resulting in rapid development. Future plans called for careful land-use planning to handle the rapid growth.
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Jones, Lewis P. South Carolina: One of the Fifty States. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandlapper, 1985.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
South Carolina Maps and Aerial Photographic Systems. 4th ed. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, 2000.