Industrial development in the late nineteenth century dramatically changed York County. Rock Hill was home to the first steam-driven cotton mill in South Carolina, the Rock Hill Cotton Factory, which began operation in 1880.
(682 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 289,105). Located in the north-central part of the state, York County was one of seven counties created in 1785 from the judicial district of Camden. The Catawba Nation was the dominant Native American group in the region during the colonial period. The first European settlers were Scots-Irish from Virginia and Pennsylvania. The county was named for York, Pennsylvania, and the county seat was situated at a place known as Fergus’ Cross Roads. The town of Yorkville (later shortened to York) was laid out at the site and incorporated in 1849.
In 1763, as a part of the peace settlement ending the French and Indian War, the Catawbas were granted a fifteen-square-mile territory, with most of the acreage in York County. Two Revolutionary War battles were fought in York in the summer and fall of 1780. Patriots routed the Loyalist force of Captain Christian Huck on July 12 in a skirmish that came to be known as “Huck’s Defeat.” Later that year, on October 7, American forces won a decisive victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain. Two of York County’s leading tourist attractions are associated with the Revolutionary War: Kings Mountain National Military Park and Historic Brattonsville, the site of Huck’s Defeat and home of Colonel William Bratton, a patriot officer and prominent local citizen.
Of the 6,604 people who lived in York County in 1790 only 14 percent were slaves. Most whites lived modest lives growing grains and raising livestock. While almost one-third of York’s white families owned slaves, only 4 of the 227 masters listed in the 1790 census owned more than 20 slaves, the typical designation of a planter. The expansion of short-staple cotton into the southern Piedmont had a profound impact on York’s economy and society. By 1860 the district’s population had tripled to 21,502, with slaves making up almost half (46.4 percent) of that number. In 1850 York produced almost four million pounds of cotton, the most grown in South Carolina’s upper Piedmont and a testament to the vital role cotton played in York’s antebellum economy.
Besides Yorkville, the only other population center in the district before the 1850s was the village of Ebenezer. The towns of Rock Hill and Fort Mill began as railroad depots for the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad in 1852. York’s voters supported the nullification movement by a slim majority in 1832 but opposed the 1851 secession movement by a two-to-one margin. Nevertheless they supported secession in response to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. At the end of the Civil War, Jefferson Davis and his cabinet traveled through York District, fleeing south from Richmond after the Confederate capitol fell. There was also a military skirmish (Stoneman’s Raid) in which the railroad crossing over Nation Ford was burned.
After the Civil War most poor whites and newly freed slaves became sharecroppers. In 1890 almost sixty percent of the farms in York County were rented for cash or shares. While economic prospects after the Civil War were bleak, conflict ensued over the role that the newly freed slaves would play in society. The Ku Klux Klan organized as early as 1868 in York, and both rich and poor white citizens joined in order to keep blacks from voting and also to disarm black militia companies in the region. By spring 1871 about 1,800 of the 2,300 adult white males in the county were members of the Klan, which was estimated to have committed eleven murders and six hundred whippings, beatings, and aggravated assaults. Federal troops were stationed in Yorkville to quell the violence, but order was not restored until President Ulysses Grant declared martial law, suspending the writ of habeas corpus in nine counties including York in October 1871.
Industrial development in the late nineteenth century dramatically changed York County. Rock Hill was home to the first steam-driven cotton mill in South Carolina, the Rock Hill Cotton Factory, which began operation in 1880. At Fort Mill in 1888 the Fort Mill Manufacturing Company commenced production, the first unit in what would become Springs Industries. The town of Clover was incorporated in 1887 and also benefited from the booming cotton textile industry when the Clover Spinning Mill opened in 1890. By 1900 there were 108 factories of various types in the county employing 2,285 workers. Four years later the first hydroelectric project on the Catawba River and the second in South Carolina began operations. The India Hook hydroelectric plant contained one power- house generating 8,000 horsepower that was distributed along forty miles of lines serving Rock Hill, Fort Mill, and Charlotte, North Carolina. Industrialization brought farmers to town in search of jobs, and Rock Hill quickly became the industrial center of the county.
In 1895 Winthrop Normal and Industrial College was moved from Columbia to Rock Hill. Under the leadership of David Bancroft Johnson, Winthrop grew to become the state’s premier teacher training college. Friendship College and Clinton College were established as schools for African Americans respectively in 1891 and 1894. Higher education in York County continued to improve well into the twentieth century with the establishment of York Technical College in 1964 and expansion of Winthrop into a coeducational institution in 1974.
After World War II, York County’s economy diversified and continued to grow. While still dependent on cotton textile mills, York County residents found jobs in other industries. In 1959 Bowater began producing newsprint and pulpwood, and in the 1980s Duke Power Company completed construction of its $3.9 billion Catawba Nuclear Station near Clover, providing power to many in both North and South Carolina. The short commute to Charlotte, North Carolina, was made easier after Interstate 77 was completed in 1973. Its proximity to Charlotte prompted continued growth for York County as both businesses and people moved south in order to take advantage of South Carolina’s lower tax rates and cheaper land prices. Interstate 77 was widened to eight lanes between Rock Hill and Charlotte in autumn 2000 to facilitate the increasing traffic.
Beginning in the 1990s the York County Council began addressing problems associated with urban development by offering tax incentives to property owners to set aside areas of green space in perpetuity. The program, called “York County Forever,” proved successful and, coupled with numerous projects emanating from the Anne Springs Close Greenway and the Nation Ford Land Trust, earned York County a reputation as a statewide leader in environmental protection.
Ford, Lacy K. “One Southern Profile: Modernization and the Development of White Terror in York County, 1856–1876.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1976.
Shankman, Arnold, et al. York County South Carolina: Its People and Its Heritage. Norfolk, Va.: Donning, 1983.