For nearly sixty years after the first settlements at Charles Town, the area which is now Darlington County was a heavily timbered pine forestland, inhabited only by a few small Indian tribes, of whom the Cheraws were the most dominant.
Until the early 1730s, no white man had attempted to establish a home this far into the backcountry along the upper Pee Dee River. One of the first people we have any record of was one Murfee, who cleared a plantation on the Pee Dee somewhere in the vicinity of what is known today as Pocket Landing. He was soon joined by an influx of Welshmen from Pennsylvania and Delaware.
In an effort to induce settlers to come to this area of South Carolina, the Colonial Government in 1736 and again in 1737 set aside two large grants of land extending for miles along both sides of the Pee Dee River. This land was for the exclusive use of the Welsh Baptist in Delaware, who were contemplating removal to this Province. The entire length of Darlington County bordering on the Pee Dee River lies within the limits of these two old Royal Grants.
The Welshmen came and started the nucleus of a new civilization in the wilderness, developing new institutions of their own, with little further aid or guidance from the Royal Government. At first, they congregated in the bend of the river opposite the present town of Society Hill, in what is now Marlboro County. There, they founded the Baptist Church of Christ at Welsh Neck in 1738. The surnames of those constituting this church were James, Devonald, Evans, Harry, Wilds, and Jones.
From this bend in the river called the Welsh Neck, the Welshmen cleared new lands up and down both sides of the river, first cultivating flax and hemp, later Indigo and raising cattle. Cheraw Bacon was a popular item in the Charles Town markets of Colonial days. During the several decades immediately prior to the Revolution, the original Welsh domain was peacefully invaded by English, Scotch-Irish, French Huguenot, and German Palatine settlers from other regions. From the inevitable intermarriages that followed, the strict Welsh Baptist identity was eventually lost.
Darlington County, however, continued to be a stronghold of the Baptist denomination well into the nineteenth century. There were no churches of any other faith in the area until about 1789, when Methodist missionaries began to traverse the region seeking converts; their first foothold was in the present Lydia neighborhood, where one of the oldest Methodist churches in South Carolina was founded – Wesley Chapel or the “Gully Church”.
The first and only Presbyterian church in the District for years was the Darlington Church, founded in 1827 by the Scotch-Irish settlers from Marion and Williamsburg District. The Episcopalians of Darlington District were only able to support one church – Trinity Church, founded in 1833 in Society Hill; it would be another quarter century until the second Episcopal church was organized in 1859 near Mars Bluff.
Other than several “Hard Shell” Baptist churches, weak and widely separated, no other denominations were represented in Darlington District until after the Civil War.
The first village and for many years the only village within what is now Darlington County sprang up on a bluff on the west side of the Pee Dee River, across from the original settlements and church in the Welsh Neck. By 1760, this important trading post and boat landing had come to be known as Long Bluff. It was chosen as the site for the Court House after Cheraws District was created in 1768. In this Court House, in 1774, a Petit Jury Presentment of grievances against the British Crown was among the earliest and boldest declarations of rights in the thirteen colonies. Long Bluff continued to be the seat of justice and commerce throughout the days of the American Revolution.
Although the war inflicted severe casualties in lives and property, recovery was not unduly protracted, probably due to the natural increase in population plus the influx of many new settlers from North Carolina.
In 1777, a group of prosperous planters in the area formed the St. David’s Society to promote the cause of education; little was done during the war, but with the return of peace, a schoolhouse – St. David’s Academy – was erected on the first hill beyond the river, about 1 mile from the village of Long Bluff. A few years later, the Welsh Neck Baptist Church removed from the east side of the river to a lot on the hill adjacent to the Academy. A new community began to grow up around the Academy and Church and was named Greeneville in honor of Gen. Greene of the Revolution. The old village of Long Bluff was eventually abandoned in favor of the new village on the hill, which soon changed its name to Society Hill, in honor of the Academy of St. David’s Society. Society Hill, with its old, respected, and influential Baptist Church; its Academy boasting tutors of the highest caliber; and its Library Society soon became the unchallenged cultural center of the Pee Dee Region, a title it held for generations.
In 1785, Darlington County was one of three counties created out of old Cheraws District. After some controversy, the site of the Court House of the new county was located on the plantation of John King, Sr. on Swift Creek, about the geographical center of the area. The Court House was built a short distance south of the King residence at the intersection of two roads. Lots were laid off surrounding the Court House by Josiah Cantey, Deputy Surveyor, but his plat has never been found. The village thus created was first known as Darlington Court House.
By 1820, other villages had sprung up throughout the district: Mechanicsville, near the river, about 10 miles below Society Hill on the road to Georgetown; Springville, more a summer resort than a village, but boasting an academy and a post office; and Kelley Town, not far from Black Creek in the Northwestern portion of the district.
Hartsville came into being as a village around Capt. Thomas E. Hart’s Store and post office in the early 1840s; Lamar (then known as Mims’ Cross Roads) grew around a crossroads store and post office on the Capt. George Mims Plantation in the early 1850s. About the same time, Leavensworth came into being as a village, centering around John F. Wilson’s store and grist mill, at an intersection near the center of his immense plantation, originally owned by Dr. Nathan Leavensworth. There was also a school, a U.S. Post Office, and a resident physician, Dr. John J. Wilson. In the late 1850s, Dovesville (then Dove’s Depot) grew around a C&D Railroad Depot built on the plantation of Daniel Dove soon after the tracks were laid across his land.
With an ever increasing acreage devoted to the planting of cotton, the overall wealth of the district grew considerably during the first half of the Nineteenth century. As it was throughout the entire South, this cotton economy was vitally dependent on the system of slavery- and the concentration of that class was heavy in Darlington District in the last decade prior to the war. The ratio of population as revealed by the United States Census of 1850 shows that whites were outnumbered by blacks nearly two to one.
In the ante-bellum period, the wealth of the district was, for the most part, concentrated in the eastern half of the area, which was made up of numerous huge plantations, each an independent community within itself. With a few notable exceptions, the western portions of the district contained smaller and less prosperous plantations and farms, and fewer slaves.
With agriculture having dominated the way of life in the district from the first settlements in the 1730s, it is not surprising that the planters of the area as early as 1768 organized a Planters Club about which little is known. Again, around the early 1840s, another attempt was made to form Planters Society, but likewise no record exists concerning this group. On May 5, 1846, the Darlington District Agricultural Society was formed for the purpose of “promoting the planting interests” and is still active to this day, being the second oldest such group in the state and one of the oldest in the nation. The first officers of the Society were W.E. James, President; Rev. J.M. Timmons; Rev. Robert Campbell; I.D. Wilson and Robert Rogers, Vice Presidents.
During the Civil War, Darlington County escaped Sherman’s torch, being out of the direct line of the Federal advance. There were no battles fought on her territory, and only several minor skirmishes. However, detachments of the main force did pass through the district by way of Kelley Town and New Market, confiscating supplies and livestock over a wide area. But Pioneer cabins and palatial ante-bellum mansions were left standing.
In 1868, the name Darlington District (in use since 1798) was changed to Darlington County, and provisions were made for a Township system of county Government patterned after that of the New England states. However, the system was unsuitable for this region and never developed as originally intended.
In 1888, Darlington County, one of the larger counties of the state, lost almost one third of its territory toward the formation of the new Florence County; again, in 1901, it lost an additional 50 square miles of territory at the formation of the new Lee County.
From the time of Gov. Williams’ cotton factory, there was no further serious attempt at manufacturing of any nature until 1883, when a cotton mill was built in Darlington under the leadership of Major James Lide Coker. Within the following twenty years, Major Coker had also organized at Hartsville the Carolina Fibre Company and the Southern Novelty Company; both factories focused on the conversion of southern pine into paper and paper products.
Agriculture has, however, continued to be the mainstay of Darlington County until the present day; cotton was King until dethroned after World War One by flue-cured tobacco, which was introduced to Darlington planters in the late 1880s. Since World War Two, the industrial growth of the county has been very favorable and promises to provide an alternative to the decline in agricultural pursuits, which are expected in the next generation.