History of Spartanburg

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Early Years | Time of Peace | Marching Orders | Times are Changing

Compiled by Susan Thoms of the Kennedy Room of Local and South Carolina History, 2004
Property of the Spartanburg County Public Libraries; duplication is not permitted without consent.

• Established: 1785
• Location: Northwestern section of state
• Fun fact: Nickname is Hub City

Bloody early years

A treaty struck with the Cherokee Indian nation in 1753 opened the frontier of South Carolina to white people. Elijah Clarke was the first white man known to have ventured into this area. Settlers trickled in for the next decade or so, when the pace of migration picked up.

The district was the farthest west the white population was allowed to settle. What is now Greenville County was the international boundary between the colonies and the Cherokee Indian nation.

When Ninety Six District was carved up in 1785, a new district was formed, roughly from the North Carolina border in the north, to the Enoree River in the west and south, to the Broad River in the northeast. It was named Spartanburg District, taking its name from the Spartan Regiment formed at the beginning of the Revolution a decade hence.

Spartanburg bears a proud Revolutionary War heritage. The county has more Revolutionary engagement sites than practically any other locale in the United States. The fiercely independent Upstate settlers rallied ‘round the cause early on, with the Spartan Regiment being formed in the late summer of 1775.

As independent as they were, some could not see the sense in breaking away from the crown. Staunchly Loyalist settlers seethed beside neighbor Patriots. The first engagement seen by local troops involved nary a single British soldier. That winter, the Spartan Regiment was bloodied along with other Patriot troops in a fight against regional Loyalists in the Battle of the Great Cane Break, along the Reedy River.

In July 1776, a new threat erupted. Emboldened by the news of a British fleet at Charleston, the Cherokee swept over the frontier borders in a maelstrom of violence. Whites fled to forts, but hundreds of settlers in the border areas were killed before a counterattack could be formed.

Colonists all along the western frontier raised a large militia, which pursued the Indian forces. As was often the case when European and Indian cultures clashed, many noncombatants suffered. The white militia destroyed scores of Cherokee villages and by mid-1777, Indian aggression collapsed. A treaty was signed in July 1777 forcing the Cherokee to relinquish most of their lands in the Carolinas.

The British regained the colonists’ full attention in 1780, when they captured Charleston in May. The Redcoats began their trek inland over three main routes. Initially, the Patriots thought they were whipped. Their situation seemed hopeless as they faced the might of the greatest military power on Earth. Many laid down their arms and surrendered.

The war very well could have ended then, but for the Brits’ savage violation of their own terms of surrender. At the Waxhaws at the end of the month, a troop of Virginians were slaughtered after throwing down their arms. Homes of independence-minded Carolinians were burned; their properties seized. The Patriots’ anger rose.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was the British order, in direct violation of their own terms of surrender, that the Patriots don the red coat to serve the crown. The Rebels took the order another way, concluding that the violation of their surrender released them from their parole. The time for peace had past.

The clashes that ignited in the ensuing months in Spartanburg District sent shock waves throughout the world. The area saw six engagements in four weeks, beginning in July with the First Battle of Cedar Spring. In quick secession and escalating violence, there quickly followed the battles of Gowen’s Fort, Earle’s Ford and Fort Prince; then came the Second Battle of Cedar Spring and the Battle of Musgrove Mill. These battles set the stage for two decisive engagements.

Nearly two months later, Patriot forces assembled from several states scored a major victory at the nearby Battle of Kings Mountain. The Patriot forces suffered less than 30 killed and some 60 wounded, but the troops of the crown bled red – nearly 160 killed, about 150 wounded and a staggering 760-odd taken prisoner. Most of the crown’s casualties were American Loyalists.

Kings Mountain was a great victory, but it was a merciless one. The British had not seen fit to honor their own terms of surrender. Now 760 men looked to the Rebels for compassion, but they found only hardened hearts. The prisoners were marched to the North Carolina foothills, where the Patriots held a trial and found 36 men guilty of Tory atrocities. They were sentenced to hang, though all but nine were pardoned.

Three months after Kings Mountain, the conflict returned in full fury to the Spartanburg area, when Gen. Daniel Morgan gave British Col. Banastre Tarleton “a devil of a whipping” (sic) at a crossroads known as the cow pens. The battle at this holding area for cattle being driven to market put the British on the road to surrender at Yorktown.

After the war, some Loyalists fled to Canada. The settlers returned to the land, having subdued both the Cherokee and British threats. More settlements grew up in the area, and the new district began to form its government. Court officers originally met at several plantations, but legislative pressure forced them to choose an official site. In January 1787, they approved the purchase of two acres of land from Thomas Williamson for five shillings. The new courthouse was smack in the middle of the county. The town of Spartanburg was born.

Peace, for a while

Spartanburg began emerging as a bustling hub of industry in the mid-1800s. Indeed, it was literally a hub, as the railroad era changed it from a town run through by Indian trails trod over by settlers to a county traversed by steel rails. They all came through Spartanburg, giving the town the look of a wheel hub on maps. “Hub City” became its moniker.

Cotton was what rode the rails hereabouts. The district boasted two textile mills by 1820. Within 30 years, five mills in the county employed 114 people.

The town of Spartanburg had incorporated in 1831, but it remained a small place. Farming was the main occupation, keeping most residents outside of town.

The Civil War was felt deeply but seen little by most Spartans. Best estimates are that the county furnished between 3,000 and 4,000 soldiers to the Confederate cause. Some 24 companies were raised here by 1862. In addition, African-American soldiers made up five Union regiments bearing the name of South Carolina.

Between 13 percent and 35 percent of South Carolina’s white male population died as a result of the war. Spartanburg County suffered the fourth highest deaths-per-thousand rate in the state with 137.7.

William Tecumseh Sherman didn’t show his red head here, a fact that saved property and public records. The area that had been so bloodied some 85 years before stayed free of engagements throughout the Civil War.

Reconstruction was hard on Spartanburg. The economy had atrophied during the war, and the vaunted 7th Cavalry camped on its doorstep. The Carolina Spartan thought it newsworthy to mention the appearance of the relatively new Ku Klux Klan in town in its November 24, 1870, issue. The Spartan intoned: “This is the first time our town has been visited by these outlandish gentry, and we hope it will be the last.”

It wasn’t to be. Klan activity in the Upstate drew such attention that a U.S. congressional subcommittee investigating Southern outlaw groups heard testimony in the summer of 1871 in four S.C. counties: Spartanburg, Union, York and Richland.

Marching orders

Reconstruction’s end in 1877 ushered in a new era in the county’s economic life. The local textile industry began a major expansion around 1880, when Southern industry started to threaten New England’s hold on textiles. Hub City was perfectly poised to become a major player in the field, with its blend of a textile base with easy access to interstate and global transportation.

The end of the 19th century was a remarkable time, as Spartans marched to the clacking of spindles. Between 1880 and 1910, industrialists built nearly 40 textile mills in Spartanburg County. By 1901, the county boasted more than a half-million spindles.

Catastrophes such as fires and floods failed to dim Spartanburg’s love affair with cotton. The new century brought new challenges, none as daunting as the World War. Hub City’s transportation bounty again placed it in the forefront of the times. In mid-1917, the city leased the federal government nearly 2,000 acres west of town. In a remarkable construction effort, the camp was ready that fall when nearly 30,000 soldiers became the first of more than 100,000 to train at Camp Wadsworth.

Spartans did more than support the training camp. More than 4,000 of them are estimated to have served in the Great War, 2,897 as draftees; 138 made the ultimate sacrifice.

After the war, the textile industry continued to gain strength. New England’s textile base was waning, spurred by labor woes and costs. The Great Depression proved to be the greatest threat to the textile industry. As the economy atrophied, organized labor strengthened. Mill workers found their united voice, and the result at times was bloody.

It took a second World War to unite the country to a common cause and, again, Spartanburg was ready to do more than its share. Camp Croft was constructed south of Spartanburg in 1940. Final estimates are that between 200,000 and 250,000 infantrymen were trained at the camp in nearly five years.

It was a time of upheaval. Construction of the camp uprooted hundreds of residents, most of them farmers. The war reached into every household. In the fall of 1944, the Herald-Journal reported that some 18,000 Spartanburg County men had been inducted into the military – more than 14 percent of the county’s total population. Of those, 399 died serving the cause.

At the height of the war, Camp Croft’s payroll was $2.5 million per month, which paid more than 13,000 military personnel and civilians. This cash flow had a significant impact on the local economy, which benefited through commercial transactions with the camp.

“The times they are a-changin’”

After the war, Americans were ready to get back to work, but Spartanburg’s textile-based economy was undergoing a shift. Little did villagers know, but the end of WWII marked the decline and eventual demise of the mill village. Rising wages and automobile ownership unleashed textile workers from the mill.

The Korean War stole more men, but the impact on the county as a whole was not nearly as dramatic as previous international conflicts.

The local postwar economy saw a rise in mill consolidation, outside investment and a decline in union membership. By the end of the 1950s, the mill society had virtually disintegrated – the mill villages were gone, village infrastructures turned over to the county, the heyday of textile-league baseball had past and black citizens were becoming tired of being second-class citizens.

The times, indeed, would change. The 1960s was a time of flux, with African Americans and young people coming to the forefront, demanding new freedoms. The Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War removed all niceties from the conflicts. Spartanburg, though, remained a calmer county than many. School integration was achieved quietly, without bloodshed, and blacks began to achieve better footing in the work force.

In 1950, blacks made up less than 5 percent of the county’s textile employees; by 1967, that figure had nearly doubled. But in a county where more than 20 percent of the population was African American, it seemed literally the least that could be done.

The county found a new economic source beginning in the 1970s, when international companies began to take notice of local opportunities. As the textile industry began to disintegrate, foreign firms started making substantial investments in the Upstate. Industries such as Michelin, BMG Entertainment and Alcoa Fujikura provided a tax base and jobs for a county whose economic bedrock had all but washed away.

In 1992, the county made international news by landing the BMW Manufacturing Corporation plant. Today, Spartanburg boasts more than 90 international companies, representing some 15 countries, and is a major reason South Carolina is known as a leader in foreign investment.

In 2005, the city of Spartanburg renovated Morgan Square as part of a rejuvenation of its downtown. Companies such as J.M. Smith Corp. and Advance America Cash Advance Centers Inc. have their headquarters in downtown Spartanburg.

Spartanburg remains Hub City. The spokes of Spartanburg’s hub, which once radiated out along Indian trails, then steel rails, now extend wirelessly across international space.