Walking along streets lined with ancient live oaks draped in Spanish moss, visitors of Georgetown delight in discovering that our quaint seaside town has played a large role in the history of South Carolina and the United States.
Georgetown was founded in 1729 at the confluence of five rivers: the Black, Great Pee Dee, Small Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Sampit. It is the third oldest city in South Carolina, following Charleston and Beaufort.
The earliest residents of the Georgetown area were Native American tribes, which are responsible for many of the names assigned to natural features throughout the Lowcountry region of South Carolina. The Wee Nee (black-water or dark-water people), Pee Dee (coming and going), Waccamaw, Winyah and Santee were among the tribes that called this area home. The Waccamaw still have tribal grounds nearby.
In 1526, Europeans arrived under the Spanish explorer Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon. The mid-1600s saw English and French settlements appearing along the dark rivers, creating trade with the natives. It wasn’t long until the natives were dominated — in many instances enslaved — and eventually very nearly disappeared from the region.
In 1729, Elisha Screven laid the plans for Georgetown and developed the city in a four-by-eight block grid. The original city grid is listed as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. It bears the original street names, lot numbers, and has many original homes. In 1732, Georgetown became an official port of entry, allowing the area’s merchants and planters to deal directly with traders. Previously, all foreign exports and imports had to pass through Charles Town (later renamed Charleston).
Indigo became Georgetown’s main crop in its early years because, prior to the Revolutionary War, British Parliament encouraged the production of indigo with a bounty. A blue dye produced from this native plant was coveted by English royalty and citizens and enabled planters to make large fortunes in a short period of time. Other exports included deer skins, rice and lumber products. Large lumber mills in Georgetown produced pine beams and boards, naval stores, cypress shingles and cross ties, and live oak framing for ships, with millions of tons of lumber products being shipped to the Northeast.
With wealth grew a culture, a society and lifestyle which became an important facet of Georgetown. Along with legitimate commerce, the barrier island-lined coast of the Carolinas attracted many notorious pirates who preyed on the ships sailing to and from the port of Georgetown and nearby Charles Town.
Georgetown played an active role in the American Revolution, sending Thomas Lynch Sr. and Thomas Lynch Jr. to the Continental Congress where Lynch Jr. was one of 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence. Georgetown was occupied by British troops from July 1780 to May 1781 and many of the skirmishes between Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, and British troops took place in the marshlands surrounding the city.
After the war, indigo was no longer lucrative since trade with England stopped, so local planters turned to the production of rice. The many swamps and low-lying areas by tidal rivers and the African labor supply from the slave trade made the cultivation of this crop highly profitable. Enslaved African laborers, who brought much of the knowledge about rice cultivation with them, cleared the dense cypress swamps and produced rice by a system of flooding the fields from the rivers by canals, ditches or floodgates.
By 1840, the Georgetown District (County) was the wealthiest area in the 13 original colonies, producing nearly one-half of the total rice crop of the country and exporting more rice than any port in the world. The local variety of rice called “Carolina Gold” was in demand around the globe, which provided great wealth for plantation owners. Other exports included cotton and lumber products.
Africans were also skilled bricklayers, butchers, carpenters, coachmen, farmers, fishers and herdsmen. Skilled enslaved craftsmen build the large houses, rice mills, slave cabins, barns, flats, rowboats, dugout canoes and floodgates called trunks that flooded and drained the rice fields.
Of course, a lot changed after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation freed enslaved Africans. However, the reconstruction period that followed was filled with social, political and economic turbulence. The rice crops failed and could no longer support Georgetown’s economy. In addition to the lack of free labor, competition from Southwestern rice growers and several devastating hurricanes ended the once-thriving rice trade by the start of the 20th century. Through the decades that followed, new industries rose to sustain Georgetown.
The lumber industry came to Georgetown as Atlantic Coast Lumber Co. was incorporated in 1903, and by 1914 it was the largest lumber-producing plant on the East Coast. However, in 1932, during the Great Depression, the lumber company declared bankruptcy and Georgetown entered a period of immense economic decline along with many other areas of the country.
Recovery began in 1936 when International Paper Co. built a plant in Georgetown. By 1942, the local plant had become one of the largest paper mills in the world. Since then, the Georgetown steel mill and an array of other smaller plants diversified the city’s industrial base. Georgetown’s port prospered during the 1970s through 1990s as a break bulk port, handling Indian jute, Russian glass, Canadian lumber, steel, pulp and paper from IP, and many other products.
But with the advent of container shipping, Charleston’s port prospered while Georgetown’s port suffered. By the end of 2016, no ships brought cargo in or took cargo out of the Port of Georgetown, mostly due to silting of the channel leading to the port in Winyah Bay. Due to rising costs and a lack of funding to pay for dredging the canal, the future of Georgetown’s port is unclear.
More recently, the commercial fishing and tourism industries have become vital to Georgetown’s economy.
Tours, by land, by car and by boat, are giving almost daily in Georgetown and its surrounding waters. The city’s historic Front Street area boasts five museums – the Gullah Museum, the Georgetown County Museum, the Rice Museum, the South Carolina Maritime Museum and the Kaminski House Museum. More than 60 buildings in the district have National Register of Historic Places status. The Harborwalk connects Front Street’s quaint shops and restaurants with the water, where visitors dock their boats to take a stroll in our historic city.