There are few other areas in the United States that encompass more history or appeal than Georgetown, South Carolina. As one of the first European settlements in North America in 1526, Georgetown has long been known for its warm hospitality and Southern charm. In 1526, Europeans arrived under the Spanish explorer Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon. The mid-1600s saw English and French settlements appearing along the Rivers, creating trade with the natives.
Georgetown the third oldest city in South Carolina, following Charleston and Beaufort, was founded in 1729 and developed as a formal port of access in 1732. Prior to Georgetown officially becoming a port, all foreign exports and imports had to go through Charleston. With Georgetown as a port of entry, the area’s merchants and planters could do business directly with all ports, bypassing Charleston.
The first stable settlers to the area were the English who were actively involved in the Indian trade. French and Scottish settlers arrived shortly after and increased an expanding English group.
The earliest inhabitants of Georgetown were Native American tribes, which many of the names throughout the Low country region of South Carolina derived from. The Pee Dee, Waccamaw, Winyah, and Santee were among the tribes that called the Georgetown area home. (The Waccamaw still have tribal grounds nearby.)
From the years of early settlement, through the Revolutionary War and up to the beginning of the Civil War, Georgetown thrived, Indigo and rice became the major crops of the area. Prior to the Revolution, the British Parliament encouraged the production of indigo and with an organized market allowed planters to make large fortunes quickly.
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.
After the Revolutionary War indigo was no longer profitable, so the local planters turned to the production of rice. With the vast number of swamps, low-lying areas and the tidal rivers along with the slave labor it made the cultivation of this crop extremely profitable.
These slaves cleared the dense cypress swamps came up with a system of flooding the fields from the rivers by canals, ditches or floodgates. Many of these slaves had the skills and knowledge required for planting, hoeing, sorting and de-husking. In addition, it required very technical skills in clearing the land, drawing off water when necessary and harvesting when ready.
By 1840, the Georgetown District generated nearly one-half of the total rice crop in the United States and the Georgetown port exported more rice than any port in the world. The local variety called “Carolina Gold” was in demand worldwide.
The slave labor was not just involved in heavy labor such as clearing land, but they were also effective bricklayers, butchers, carpenters, farmers and herdsmen. These skilled craftsmen were involved in building large homes, rice mills, slave cabins, barns, and floodgates that flooded and drained the rice fields. They also built rowboats and dugout canoes too.
The Civil War changed the complete landscape of the Georgetown area, as the reconstruction period followed with a social, political and economic turmoil. The rice crops following the war were failures, and rice could no longer support the economy of Georgetown. The combination of the interruption of free labor, competition from Southwestern rice growers, and several devastating hurricanes added up to the end of the once thriving rice trade by the twentieth century.