Georgetown, South Carolina, is a captivating place brimming with history and allure. Its rich heritage dates back to 1526, when it is believed to have witnessed the first European settlement in North America. Today, Georgetown stands as a vibrant city with a population of 9,000, renowned for its warm hospitality and quintessential Southern charm.
Established in 1729, Georgetown holds the distinction of being the third oldest city in South Carolina, following Charleston and Beaufort. It gained official port of entry status in 1732, relieving the region's merchants and planters of the need to pass through Charleston for all foreign imports and exports. This designation allowed direct trade with all ports, bypassing Charleston and eliminating the additional duties and freight costs associated with it.
The initial English settlers in the area were actively involved in the Indian trade, followed by French and Scots settlers who joined an expanding English community. During these early settlement years, the primary occupations revolved around trade, plantation farming, and naval stores production.
Georgetown flourished from its early settlement period through the Revolutionary War and leading up to the onset of the Civil War. Indigo and rice emerged as the dominant crops in the region. Before the Revolution, the British Parliament encouraged indigo production by offering a bounty, resulting in rapid wealth accumulation for planters due to the high demand for the blue dye. However, with the Revolution, the bounty ended, prompting planters to shift their focus to rice cultivation to sustain their economic well-being.
Georgetown played an active role in the American Revolution, with notable figures such as Thomas Lynch, Sr. and Thomas Lynch, Jr. representing the city in the Continental Congress, and the latter signing the Declaration of Independence. British troops occupied Georgetown from July 1780 to May 1781, and numerous skirmishes between Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, and the British forces occurred in Georgetown County.
As indigo lost its profitability after the Revolution, local planters turned to rice production. The region's abundance of swamps and low-lying areas along tidal rivers, coupled with the availability of African labor, made rice cultivation highly lucrative. Enslaved African laborers played a crucial role in clearing the dense cypress swamps and employing intricate methods such as flooding the fields from rivers through canals, ditches, or floodgates. This process required extensive knowledge and engineering skills, encompassing planting, hoeing, winnowing, pounding, as well as land clearance, water management, and harvesting techniques.
By 1840, the Georgetown District (County) contributed nearly half of the total rice crop in the United States, making it the world's leading rice-exporting port. The local strain known as "Carolina Gold" garnered international demand. The labor-intensive nature of rice cultivation resulted in substantial wealth for the planters. Georgetown's enslaved African workers emerged as the primary rice producers in pre-Civil War America.
African slaves excelled not only in strenuous labor, such as land clearing, but also showcased their skills as bricklayers, butchers, carpenters, coachmen, farmers, fishers, and herdsmen, leading to a significant increase in their importation. These skilled craftsmen constructed large houses, rice mills, slave cabins, barns, floodgates, and even the plantation fleet of flats, rowboats, and dugout canoes.
The great upheaval known as the Civil War wrought profound transformations upon the very fabric of this region's existence. It was a period of societal, political, and economic tumult, marking the onset of a new era: the Reconstruction. In the aftermath of the war, the once thriving economy of Georgetown suffered a severe blow as the rice crops failed, rendering them unable to sustain the local trade. A convergence of factors, including the disruption of free labor, competition from rice growers in the Southwest, and the relentless onslaught of devastating hurricanes, culminated in the demise of the once-prosperous rice industry by the advent of the twentieth century.
However, the pressing need for an alternative economic foundation paved the way for a significant transformation, and the timber industry emerged as a beacon of hope. In 1903, the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company was duly incorporated, swiftly ascending to become the largest lumber producer along the Eastern seaboard by 1914. Alas, the winds of fate were not kind, and in 1932, the Atlantic Coast Lumber Company declared bankruptcy, plunging Georgetown into a period of profound economic decline.
Nevertheless, the indomitable spirit of resilience ignited a flicker of hope, and in 1936, the International Paper Company constructed a plant within the region. Within a span of six years, this very plant burgeoned into the largest kraft paper mill in the entire world by 1942. Georgetown, in its ardent pursuit of recovery, also witnessed the emergence of Georgetown Steel and a myriad of smaller industrial establishments, thus diversifying its industrial foundation. Furthermore, the art of commercial fishing emerged as a vital sector within the local economy.
In recent times, the influx of retirees and vacationers has played an instrumental role in bolstering the region's prosperity. The allure of Georgetown's rich historical tapestry, with its interwoven threads of diverse cultures, symbiotic relationship with the sea, as well as its victories, defeats, and subsequent revitalizations, has endowed this area with an exquisite charm and resplendent beauty. It is no wonder, then, that tourism has burgeoned into an increasingly vital component of the region's economic landscape.
Georgetown stands as a testament to the enduring passage of time, the evolution of cultures, and the cyclical nature of triumphs and setbacks. It is a place where history unfolds its enigmatic pages, leaving an indelible mark upon its landscape, and beckoning visitors to embrace its captivating allure and timeless grace.