Edgefield County Historical Society 



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   Arthur Simkins, Father of Edgefield County

Edgefield County

     Present-day Edgefield County was first settled in the 1750’s, then a portion of a vast unsettled region of virgin forests, abundant wildlife and Indian tribes. From the time of the first settlements through the period of the American Revolution, this area was part of the Old Ninety Six District which included all of the northwestern portion of South Carolina. During most of this period there were no courts, law enforcement or local government. In 1785, immediately following the Revolution, the state legislature addressed the lack of governmental structure by dividing the Ninety Six District into smaller counties, including Abbeville, Laurens, Newberry and Edgefield. Local courts, law enforcement agencies and governing bodies were established for each of these counties.

     At that time, Edgefield County was far larger than it is today, encompassing 1,720 square miles. The seat of government for this broad district was located on an “Old Cherokee Path” which was the approximate geographical center of the district. The “Publick Lot” was identified as early as 1785, and a “gaol” (jail), clerk’s office and courthouse were built during the next several years. However, it was not until 1792 that Arthur Simkins, a prominent settler and political leader, officially conveyed to the “Judges of the Edgefield County Court” the 2¼ acres where the Town Square and Courthouse are now located.

     In the last half of the 19th century and early in the 20th century, as citizens demanded more local political control, the counties of Aiken (1871), Saluda (1895), Greenwood (1897), and McCormick (1916) were created, taking substantial parts of Edgefield County. Today Edgefield County encompasses only 481 square miles, roughly one-fourth of its original size.


The Name "Edgefield"

      The origin of the name “Edgefield” is shrouded in mystery. There are six principal theories as to how the name may have come to be applied to this county and town: (1) Robert Mills, in his 1826 Statistics of South Carolina, said that the district was so named because it was at the edge of the state. (2) Others have believed that the name came about because the district line was just beyond the edge of the Revolutionary battlefield at Ninety Six. (3) There is a tradition that the courthouse site was near the edge of a field where a 1751 battle took place between the Yuchi (Euchee) and Monongahela Indians. (4) There is also a compelling theory that the courthouse site was at the edge of “Cedarfields,” the plantation of Arthur Simkins, who was intimately involved in the creation of the new county. (5) It is possible that this district was named for Edgefield, England, a small village in Norfolk, the name of which dates back at least as early as the 12th century. (6) Some local historians believe that it is more likely that the name is derived from the fact that the courthouse site was near the edge of “Rogers’ Old Field,” where, in 1781, a small band of Patriots routed a much larger company of Tories. As one of the most significant local Revolutionary War victories for the Patriots, this battle may have inspired the name for the new county. Regardless of its origin, and despite its relative simplicity, the name “Edgefield” is remarkably unique, with only a few other places in the world sharing this name.


Political Heritage

     Beginning early in the 19th century, Edgefield developed a strong tradition of political leadership, contributing ten South Carolina governors, five lieutenant governors and seven United States Senators. Many of these leaders practiced law; others were soldiers and planters.

     George McDuffie led the state in the Nullification Movement of the 1820’s and 30’s, in which South Carolina sought to invoke the power of a State to nullify a federal law with which it disagreed.  William Barrett Travis and James Butler Bonham led the fight for Texas Independence at the Alamo.  Preston Brooks propelled South Carolina towards Secession. Francis Pickens and Milledge Bonham led the state during the War Between the States. Martin Witherspoon Gary and Matthew Calbraith Butler led the 1876 effort to “redeem” the state from radical Republican rule. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman led South Carolina’s farmers in the 1890 campaign to wrest control of the state from the ineffective “Bourbon” leaders.

     In the 20th century, Strom Thurmond established a remarkable record of courageous leadership, spanning an extraordinary period of over three quarters of a century.  Educators Benjamin Mays and Charles Gomillion provided key leadership in the civil rights movement.

     William Watts Ball, an eminent South Carolina journalist and historian, wrote: “Edgefield has had more dashing, brilliant, romantic figures, statesmen, orators, soldiers, adventurers, and daredevils, than any other county of South Carolina, if not of any rural county of America.”


A History of Violence

     From its earliest history, Edgefield developed a reputation for violence. The bloody fighting of the Cherokee War of 1760 was followed by years of lawlessness and retribution during the Regulator period. During the American Revolution this same extreme violence was continued with Patriots and Tories engaged in a vicious and bitter civil war. In 1816, an itinerant minister, Parson Mason Locke Weems, who had lived in Edgefield, published “The Devil In Petticoats,” a dramatic sermon chronicling the deeds of the legendary murderess Becky Cotton. He lamented, “Will the Lord have mercy upon Old Edgefield! For sure it must be pandemonium itself, a very District of Devils!” In the antebellum period, many Edgefield men were participants in the tradition of dueling. Among the famous Edgefieldians who dueled were George McDuffie and Louis T. Wigfall. In 1856 Congressman Preston S. Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts on the floor of the U.S. Senate. The 1878 Booth-Toney shootout, the 1903 shooting of newspaper editor N.G. Gonzales by Lt. Governor James H. Tillman, and the 1941 Timmerman-Logue affair, all garnered national publicity, perpetuating Edgefield’s reputation for violence. Over the years, violence in Edgefield was decried with alarming frequency in its newspapers. It has been said that blood has been shed on every square foot in the Town Square. By the end of the 20th century a number of eminent historians, journalists, and novelists had written extensively about Edgefield’s violent past.

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