Few other areas in America contain more history or charm than Georgetown, South Carolina. From its earliest beginnings as the probable site of the first European settlement in North America in 1526, to its present status as a vibrant and gracious city of 9,000, Georgetown has long been known for its warm hospitality and Southern charm.
The third oldest city in South Carolina, following Charleston and Beaufort, Georgetown was founded in 1729 and became an official port of entry in 1732. Prior to this, all foreign exports and imports had to pass through Charleston. Duties and the added freight had to be paid there. With the designation of Georgetown as a port of entry, the area’s merchants and planters could deal directly with all ports, bypassing Charleston.
The first permanent settlers to the area were the English who were actively involved in the Indian trade. French and Scots settlers arrived shortly after and added to an expanding English contingent. During these early days of settlement most were either traders, planters or producers of naval stores.
From the years of early settlement, through the Revolutionary War and up to the onset of the Civil War, Georgetown flourished. Indigo and rice became the major crops of the area. Prior to the Revolution, the British Parliament encouraged the production of indigo with a bounty. The ready market for the blue dye enabled planters to make large fortunes quickly. With the advent of the Revolution, however, this bounty ended and the planters of the area turned to rice for their economic well being.
Georgetown played an active role in the American Revolution by sending Thomas Lynch, Sr. and Thomas Lynch, Jr. to the Continental Congress where the younger was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. British troops occupied Georgetown from July, 1780 to May, 1781. Many of the skirmishes between Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, and British troops took place in Georgetown County.
As indigo was no longer profitable after the Revolution, the local planters turned to the production of rice. The many swamps and low-lying areas by the tidal rivers and the African labor supply made the cultivation of this crop highly profitable. Enslaved African laborers cleared the dense cypress swamps and cultivated them in rice by a system of flooding the fields from the rivers by canals, ditches or floodgates. These skills required a considerable amount of knowledge and engineering. It required knowledge of planting, hoeing, winnowing and pounding (de-husking). More importantly, it required very technical skills in clearing the land, drawing off water when necessary and harvesting when ready.
By 1840, the Georgetown District (County) produced nearly one-half of the total rice crop of the United States and the port exported more rice than any port in the world. The local variety called “Carolina Gold” was in demand worldwide. This labor intensive crop provided great riches for the planters. Rice plantation workers in the South Carolina lowcountry afforded their masters the highest per capita income in the American colonies and they continued to earn huge profits for their masters up to the Civil War. The enslaved African workers of Georgetown District were the leading producers of rice in antebellum America.
Africans excelled not merely in heavy labor such as clearing land, but were so successful as bricklayers, butchers, carpenters, coachmen, farmers, fishers and herdsmen that they were imported in larger and larger numbers. Skilled enslaved craftsmen build the large houses, rice mills, slave cabins, barns, trunks or floodgates that flooded and drained the rice fields. They built the plantation fleet of flats, rowboats and dugout canoes too.
The Civil War changed the whole way of life for this region. The reconstruction period that followed was a social, political and economic upheaval. The rice crops following the war were failures, and rice could no longer support the economy of Georgetown. The combination of the disruption of free labor, competition from Southwestern rice growers, and several devastating hurricanes spelled the end of the once thriving rice trade by the dawn of the twentieth century.
The need for an economic alternative to rice was met by lumber. The Atlantic Coast Lumber Company was incorporated in 1903. By 1914, it was the largest lumber producing plant on the East Coast. However, in 1932 ACL declared bankruptcy and Georgetown entered a period of immense economic decline. Recovery began in 1936 when International Paper Company built a plant here. By 1942 this plant had become the largest kraft paper mill in the world. Georgetown Steel and an array of other smaller plants have diversified Georgetown’s industrial base. Commercial fishing has become a significant industry. In recent years, retirees and vacationers have contributed greatly to the well-being of the area. Tourism has become an increasingly significant element in the area’s economy.
Georgetown’s long history combined with its diversity of cultures, linkage to the sea, triumphs, defeats and revitalizations have all contributed to create an area known for its charm and beauty.