Sumter County, South Carolina, is situated in the center of the state with the Wateree River winding down the western border before emptying into Lake Marion at the county’s southern tip.
Most folks know about our namesake General Thomas Sumter, who earned the nickname of the “Fighting Gamecock” thanks to his pride and tactics as he battled the British during the Revolutionary War.
Before that tumultuous time, the Wateree and Santee Indians lived in an area that came to be known as the “Backcountry” of South Carolina.
After both of those tribes were defeated in the Yamasee War of 1715 and left the area, Scots settlers were expected but never arrived, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
Scots-Irish colonists settled along the Black River in the eastern area of the future county in the 1740s. Settlers from Virginia and Pennsylvania settled along the Wateree in the High Hills of Santee in the 1750s.
EARLY YEARS AND REVOLUTION
The Province of South Carolina was divided into seven districts in 1769 following approval of the Circuit Court Act – Beaufort, Camden, Charles Town, Cheraw, Georgetown, Ninety-Six and Orangeburg.
The Revolutionary War interrupted Thomas Sumter’s life, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia. He was elected as a delegate to the First and Second Provincial Congress and then took part in the Snow Campaign in December 1775, the Battle of Fort Moultrie on June 28, 1776, and the Cherokee campaign from July to October of 1776. Sumter was involved in engagements in Georgia in 1777 and 1778 and on Sept. 19, 1778, he left the army as a colonel and returned to private life.
Sumter was effectively retired by 1780 when the British made a grave mistake by raiding and then burning his home. He immediately returned to action and organized a local militia, which elected him as their general. In the summer of 1780, it is Sumter’s Brigade that is providing the only organized opposition to British forces.
Though several engagements with the British find limited success, the Battles of Rocky Mount, Hanging Rock and Fishing Creek in the summer of 1780 energize patriots in the Upstate and Sumter earns his nickname from pure battlefield tenacity.
Thomas Sumter closes his military career in February of 1782 and a year later helps found the town of Stateburg, where he built a home in the High Hills of the Santee.
In 1783, the state sought to establish lower courts with resident magistrates and thus the seven Districts were separated into counties with the Camden District itself divided into seven counties. Named to carry out this task were Thomas Sumter, Richard Richardson, Frederick Kimball, Thomas Taylor, Richard Winn and Edward Lacy. This commission had to recommend a central place for a Courthouse and jail, according to Cassie Nicholes’ Historical Sketches of Sumter County: Its Birth and Growth.
Two years later, the counties of Chester, Claremont, Clarendon, Fairfield, Lancaster, Richland and York were created. Clarendon and Claremont (the Sumter District) each had two representatives in the General Assembly and one senator.
Between 1776 and 1790, Thomas Sumter serves eight terms in the General Assembly and in 1789 he is elected by Camden District to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He would serve five terms until 1801.)
In 1792, the General Assembly creates Salem County from eastern portions of Clarendon and Claremont counties with the boundaries being Kershaw to the north, Georgetown to the south, Lynches Creek to the east and the Scape O’er Swamp to Black River on the west.
Around 1796, the first commercial cotton crops are planted. More and more Sumterites engage in cotton cultivation and fortunes rise and fall with the price of cotton.
The Legislature in 1798 passes an Act to establish a more uniform system of justice under circuit courts. Clarendon, Claremont and Salem counties are joined together and referred to as the Sumter District.
The state Legislature decides to move the capital from Charleston to a more central location. Thomas Sumter tries to have Stateburg named as the capital but loses by one vote, according to local legend. Nonetheless, his name is attached to the Sumter District in 1800.
SUMTER DISTRICT GROWS
Mail service in 1801 comes to a place designated as Sumterville by the postmaster general.
On Dec. 15, 1801, Thomas Sumter is elected to the U.S. Senate, where he serves until Dec. 16, 1810.
In 1802 a Courthouse was built in Sumterville at Liberty and Broad Streets – now Main Street – but repairs were needed up until 1806. In 1820 the State Board of Public Works decided to build a new courthouse for the Sumter District. The brick building was designed by Robert Mills, state engineer and architect.
Thomas Sumter dies on June 1, 1832, at the age of 97 and as the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War.
The 1840s and 1850s saw railroads change the Sumter District for the better. The town of Manchester had lines running to Camden and Wilmington, N.C., and prospered, as did Sumterville, which reincorporated in 1855 and shortened its name to Sumter. Mayesville grows as a train station fuels its success. It is located near the plantation of Matthew P. Mayes. Lynchburg also grows as a result of a railroad station but soon boasts a school, a carriage and buggy shop and a dry goods store, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia. (Lynchburg is incorporated in 1859.)
In 1855 the Sumter District is divided by the General Assembly with the eastern portion becoming Clarendon District.
The next few years would prove trying for the Sumter District as the price of cotton fell, people lost their property in sheriff sales and to devastating fires in Manchester and Sumter.
In December of 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union and area residents prepared for war. Volunteer organizations and relief associations were set up, along with hospitals for sick and wounded soldiers. Sumter District was primarily a distribution center for the Confederacy during the Civil War due to its central location in the state.
On April 9, 1865, the day of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender to General Ulysses S. Grant at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Union Gen. Edward E. Potter was still acting on orders to destroy railroads and infrastructure in the area.
Potter’s army, which came to be known as “Potter’s Raiders,” fought Confederate soldiers in the Battle of Dingle’s Mill about three miles south of Sumterville even as Lee had surrendered. Potter set up camp in the District following the defeat of the Confederacy.
SUMTER COUNTY, S.C.
The district officially became Sumter County in 1868 when the state adopted a new Constitution. A county board of commissioners has jurisdiction over taxes, schools and public works.
Charges of malfeasance against the commissioners would result in the county closing some public schools and suspending currency payments in 1873. Sumter County by then had diversified beyond agriculture and industries included seventy-three flour and grist mills, thirty-one lumber mills and ten turpentine companies, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
In 1902 Lee County is created from the northeastern portion of Sumter County. A reliable railroad network and busy cotton market keeps Sumter engaged and vibrant. In addition to cotton and tobacco, farmers produce grains, legumes, onions, peaches and dairy products.
The Sumter County Courthouse at 141 North Main Street was built by architects William Augustus Edwards and Frank C. Walter in the Beaux Arts style and opened in 1907.
Morris College, a private and historically Black college, is founded in 1908 by the Baptist Educational and Missionary Convention of South Carolina. Situated on North Main Street, Morris College was operating with two buildings by 1911 and graduated its first students that year.
Sumter was one of the first counties in the state to undertake a countywide system of hard-surfaced highways, according to Cassie Nicholes’ Historical Sketches of Sumter County: Its Birth and Growth.
A referendum in 1920 saw the approval of $2.5 million in bonds to construct paved roads. Additional bond issues in 1923 and 1924 increased the amount to $4 million, and over the next few years, there were more than a hundred miles of paved roads, according to Nicholes.
Construction of a highway across the Wateree Swamp and a bridge completed in 1923 at Garner’s Ferry connected Sumter to Columbia directly.
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE
Shaw Air Force Base is established in 1941 and named after Sumter native Ervin Shaw, a pilot shot down over France in 1918. Originally known as Shaw Airfield, it consisted of three 4,500-foot runways and less than 3,000 acres of land. Today, Shaw AFB is home to the U.S. Air Force’s 20th Fighter Wing and headquarters, the Ninth Air Force, U.S Air Forces Central, and U.S. Army Central.
Sumter County’s industrial base continues to be a driving force for the local economy as growth of the manufacturing sector fuels the job market in the twenty-first century.
Agriculture in Sumter County is thriving as abundant crops of peanuts, corn, soybeans, winter wheat, broilers, turkey and tobacco keep us ranked high in the state in terms of output.
Sumter’s downtown has made great strides in the last twenty years and now boasts new restaurants, a new hotel, and a new brewery.
Poinsett State Park is known for hiking and mountain biking while Manchester State Forest has trails for motocross and horseback riding. Nearby Mill Creek Park offers camping for the equestrian crowd. Five public golf courses and numerous city and county parks are also popular attractions.
In addition to Morris College, Sumter County is home to Central Carolina Technical College, St. Leo College, Troy State University and the University of South Carolina-Sumter.
Arts and culture play an important role with the Sumter Opera House, Sumter County Museum, Sumter Little Theatre and Patriot Hall consistently bringing in well known artists and musicians. In June 2018, the Temple Sinai Jewish History Center opened its doors in partnership with the Sumter County Museum.
In 2023, Sumter County residents are enjoying several capital improvement projects such as improved intersections, new gymnasiums, a new animal control facility and a new walking and biking path known as Shot Pouch Greenway that connects Swan Lake-iris Gardens to Dillon Park.
SOURCES: The South Carolina Encyclopedia; History of Sumter County by Anne King Gregorie and Historical Sketches of Sumter County: Its Birth and Growth by Cassie Nicholes.