(937 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 29,825). Williamsburg County, located in the outer coastal plain and in the southern tip of the Pee Dee area, dates from Governor Robert Johnson’s Township Plan of the 1730s, which included the creation of Williamsburg Township on the Black River. Named for King William III of England, Williamsburg became part of Prince Frederick’s Parish in 1734. It became a district in 1804 and a county in 1868. A small area of Williamsburg became part of Florence County in 1888.
Native Americans, believed to be tribes of Mingoes, Wee Nees, and Wee Tees, had largely abandoned the area before the first whites arrived. A small number of settlers arrived in the area as early as 1710, forming a colony called Winyaw. But the focal point of settlement was Williamsburg Township, first settled by forty Scots-Irish in 1732. Scots-Irish and Huguenots dominated the early population, although English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, German, and Swedish settlers could be found as well.
The first house of worship was a brick meetinghouse erected for dissenters in 1726 at Black Mingo (later known as Willtown). The Williamsburg Presbyterian congregation, formed in 1736, secured land for the Williamsburg Meeting House two years later, and it remained the largest building in the township until the Revolutionary War. A second Presbyterian congregation, the Indiantown Presbyterian Church, was organized in 1757.
People of the area, called “poor Protestants” by outsiders, raised livestock, flax, and cotton and exported deerskins, pork, and lard. Most produce was carried down the Black River to Georgetown, which served as the area’s main center of trade. In the late 1740s indigo was introduced, which enriched many farmers and led to the widespread introduction of plantation slavery.
Williamsburg’s white planters had become prosperous by the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. After Charleston fell in 1780, Williamsburg men made up the nucleus of General Francis Marion’s brigade, and the “Swamp Fox” often headquartered at nearby Snow Island. Williamsburg skirmishes included the battles of Kings Tree (August 27, 1780), Black Mingo (September 28–29, 1780), Mount Hope Swamp (March 1781), and Lower Bridge (March 1781).
In 1804 Williamsburg became a separate district with the seat at Kingstree. By then, Williamsburg District was prosperous again, raising cattle and growing cotton, tobacco, and other crops. White farmers depended heavily on slave labor. Most herdsmen and planters each owned a few slaves, although by 1790 eighty men in the county owned more than 20 slaves each. The largest slaveholder, Theodore Gourdin, had 150. By 1830 blacks outnumbered whites by a margin of three to one.
Willtown, now vanished, reached its zenith about 1800 when it got its own post office. Ten years later Kingstree had a post office, and in 1823 the noted South Carolina architect Robert Mills designed the district courthouse. A later boon was the building of the Northeastern Railway from Charleston northward through Williamsburg in 1856. The line allowed planters to ship their products more easily to Charleston, which soon replaced Georgetown as the district’s trading seat. The railroad line benefited innkeepers and spawned the production of naval stores and lumber. R. C. Logan founded the first newspaper, the Kingstree Star, in 1856.
On December 16, 1860, a “Secession flag” was raised in Kingstree. A year later more men from Williamsburg were in the Confederate military than on the voter rolls. The county historian William Boddie claimed that half of Williamsburg’s male population was “sacrificed to the god of war” during the conflict.
With defeat, white residents tried to adjust economically to the end of slavery and politically to rule by blacks and non-native white Republicans. Only one member of the ruling Republican Party was white and native-born in 1876. With the end of Reconstruction and demise of Republican rule, Democrats would elect every office-holder in the county until 1986.
The turpentine and naval stores business persisted during Reconstruction while cotton prices fell. Tobacco reemerged around 1900 as an important addition to the county’s agricultural economy. At first, tobacco was marketed in Florence and Lake City, but by 1909 two local warehouses were operating on the site of the county fairgrounds. In 1918 the county produced eleven million pounds of tobacco, which sold at an average price of $33.20 per hundred pounds. As the economy expanded, the Bank of Kingstree opened in 1901. Other banks opened at Greeleyville, Lane, Cades, and Hemingway. After World War I, tobacco and cotton continued to provide cash to area farmers, but the Williamsburg economy would suffer greatly during the Great Depression of the 1930s. The downturn continued until World War II.
In the postwar decades, major changes occurred in Williamsburg’s political, social, and economic landscape. Blacks regained voting rights in the 1960s and in 1971 elected the first black officeholder since Reconstruction, a county councilman. In response, white voters withdrew support for the Democratic Party, which had dominated the county since Reconstruction. The county backed Republican candidates in 1960, 1964, and 1972 but returned to the Democratic fold in later years as blacks flexed their newfound voting muscle. By the start of the twenty-first century, black officeholders had become commonplace. The changes were generally peaceful, but racial tensions periodically arose. The burning of the Mount Zion AME Church in 1995 prompted Governor David Beasley to create a statewide Commission on Race Relations.
Heavily agricultural, Williamsburg in 2001 had the state’s second-highest amount of acreage in farmland, most of which was devoted to cotton (29,000 acres), soybeans (20,500 acres), and corn (12,600 acres). Beginning in the 1980s tobacco production began a steady decline, wilting under the combined pressure of the courts, growing health concerns, higher taxes, and direct marketing schemes. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Williamsburg remained a “poor Protestant” rural county, somewhat as it began. Per capita income was only $12,794 in 1999, compared to $18,795 in the state as a whole. Twenty-eight percent of the population lived below the poverty level. The county’s single institution of higher learning, Williamsburg Technical College, worked to fight the poverty cycle in the area.
Despite its problems, Williamsburg has retained a rustic charm and is known to many as a “Sportsman’s Paradise,” with plentiful wildlife and hunting preserves. Local celebrations such as Hemingway’s annual Bar-B-Q Shag Day Festival and Greeleyville’s Flag Day draw large crowds annually.
Boddie, William Willis. History of Williamsburg. 1923. Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1980.
Williamsburg County Historical Society. Williamsburg County, South Carolina: A Pictorial History. Dallas, Tex.: Taylor Publishing, 1991.