(665 sq. miles; 2000 pop. 104,646). Located in central South Carolina, Sumter County is bounded by the Santee and Wateree Rivers on the west and Lynches River on the east. Prior to European colonization, the area was home to the Wateree and Santee Indians. After their defeat in the Yamassee War of 1715, both tribes left the area, opening the door for European settlement. In 1739 the colonial government reserved land on the east bank of the Wateree and Santee Rivers for an anticipated immigration of Scots settlers. While these particular Scots never arrived, in the 1740s Scots-Irish colonists from the Williamsburg area settled on the Black River in the eastern portion of the future county. In the 1750s an influx of settlers from Virginia and Pennsylvania settled along the Wateree in the High Hills of Santee.
After the Revolutionary War, the South Carolina legislature decided to move the state capital from Charleston to a central location. General Thomas Sumter lobbied unsuccessfully for the relocation of the capital to Stateburg. According to local legend, Sumter’s proposal lost by one vote. However, his name was later affixed to the district upon its creation in 1800.
Most eighteenth-century residents were small farmers who planted a variety of crops. But with the arrival of the cotton gin, cotton culture spread. Farmers planted Sumter’s first commercial cotton crops in 1796. The success of these plantings convinced more and more Sumterites to engage in cotton cultivation. For the next six decades Sumter’s fortunes rose and fell with the price of cotton. When cotton prices rose, the crop made fortunes. When they fell, many Sumter farmers migrated to new lands in the Southwest. Even the few manufacturing facilities in the district depended on cotton. William Ellison, one of the wealthiest free blacks in antebellum South Carolina, was a Stateburg gin wright who began making and repairing gins as early as 1817. William Mayrant, also of Stateburg, in 1815 established a cotton factory, which he sold in 1821. In the 1840s the planter Jeptha Dyson built a cotton factory in the southern portion of the district near the modern town of Pinewood.
The arrival of railroads in the 1840s and 1850s brought prosperity to communities in Sumter District. Manchester, a junction with lines running to Camden and to Wilmington, North Carolina, boomed. The district seat of Sumterville enjoyed such economic success that when the town reincorporated in 1855, it shortened its name to the more urban-sounding “Sumter.” Mayesville grew up around another station located on the plantation of Matthew P. Mayes. Lynchburg also began as a railroad station but quickly grew to boast schools, a carriage and buggy shop, and a dry goods store. The town was incorporated in 1859.
In 1855 the General Assembly divided Sumter District, with the eastern portion becoming Clarendon District. That same year several misfortunes visited Sumter. The price of cotton plummeted, and many residents lost their property in sheriff sales, while the communities of Manchester and Sumter experienced several devastating fires. After secession in 1860, Sumter District prepared for war. James D. Blanding organized the Sumter Volunteers. Women formed relief associations and contributed to Wayside Homes to assist traveling soldiers. Residents set up hospitals for the sick and wounded. Because of its central location and railroad connections, Sumter District became an important distribution center for the Confederacy. In April 1865 Union general William T. Sherman sent General Edward E. Potter to destroy war matériel in Sumter District. Potter’s Raid through the area culminated in the Battle of Dingle’s Mill on April 9. With the Confederates defeat, Potter set up camp in the town of Sumter and occupied the district.
When South Carolina adopted a new constitution in 1868, the district became Sumter County. A county board of commissioners gained jurisdiction over taxes, schools, and public works. Financially, Sumter was in better shape than other counties during Reconstruction. Nonetheless, there were several charges of malfeasance against the county commissioners, and by 1873 the county closed some of the public schools and suspended currency payments. Repeated crop failures brought many Sumter residents to ruin in the 1880s, but by then the county’s economic base no longer depended exclusively on agriculture. Industries included seventy-three flour and grist mills, thirty-one lumber mills, and ten turpentine companies. And thanks to its substantial railroad network, Sumter remained a busy cotton market and shipping center.
Sumter County entered the twentieth century with less land area (Lee County was created from the northeastern portion of Sumter in 1902) but with an increasingly vibrant economy. Farmers produced cotton, tobacco, grains, legumes, onions, peaches, and dairy products. New industries included brick manufactories and lumber mills. In addition to the railroads that crisscrossed the county, by 1924 the county completed a hard-surfaced highway system that radiated throughout the area. The county received another boost when the U.S. Army established Shaw Field in 1941. The county leased the land to the government for $1 a year for ninety-nine years. Renamed as Shaw Air Force Base, it became an integral part of the Sumter community and became the county’s largest employer with more than seven thousand military and civilian personnel.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century, Sumter’s economy was a blend of agriculture and manufacturing along with the strong military presence of Shaw Air Force Base. The county ranked third in the state in the sale of agricultural products, which included peanuts, corn, winter wheat, broilers and turkeys, soybeans, and tobacco. More than one hundred different industries operated in eighty manufacturing plants and five industrial parks. The county also contained a strong cultural base, with the Sumter Opera House, Sumter County Museum, Sumter Little Theatre, Patriot Hall, and several artists’ guilds. Five public golf courses, Manchester State Forest, and Poinsett State Park provided recreation, and the county had five institutions of higher learning: University of South Carolina– Sumter, Morris College, Central Carolina Technical College, St. Leo College, and Troy State University.
A few of Sumter County’s notable citizens include the African American educator Mary McLeod Bethune, the opera singer Clara Louise Kellogg, Reconstruction governor Franklin J. Moses, Confederate general Richard H. Anderson, and the artists Elizabeth White and Charles Mason Crowson.
Gregorie, Anne King. History of Sumter County, South Carolina. Sumter, S.C.: Library Board of Sumter County, 1954.