Laurens County is located in the Piedmont Region of South Carolina and is a County of forests and gently rolling hills. The Enoree River separates Laurens from Spartanburg and Union Counties on the northeast. Newberry County borders on the southeast and Greenville on the northwest. The Saluda River and Lake Greenwood separate the County from Abbeville and Greenwood on the southwest.
The original inhabitants of Laurens County were the Cherokee Indians. The first known European in the area was John Duncan, a native of Aberdeen, Scotland, who came from Pennsylvania in 1753 and settled near the modern Newberry-Laurens County line. He liked the lush vegetation and abundant wildlife he found in this area, and he settled along a creek in the northeastern section of the county, not far from the present City of Clinton. Duncan brought the first African-American slave and the first horse-drawn wagon to the area. Duncan's settlement grew and by the mid 1760's a church was established that became known as Duncan's Creek Presbyterian Church, the oldest church in Laurens County.
Four important Revolutionary Battles took place in Laurens County. On July 15, 1776, patriot forces defeated a combines Indian and Tory attack on Lyndley's Fort near Rabun Creek. At the Battle of Musgrove's Mill on August 18, 1780, a force of rebels attacked the British and Tory forces achieving a decisive victory in the two-day battle. On December 29, 1780, a Tory detachment was defeated at Hammond's Store near present-day Clinton. Near the end of the ware, at Hayes Station (eight miles southwest of Clinton) Captain "Bloody Bill" Cunningham attacked a contingent of rebels slaughtering fourteen.
After the Revolutionary War, the Ninety-Six District became the chief governmental unit of the backcountry. In 1785, Laurens County, named for statesman Henry Laurens of Charleston, was one of six counties carved from the district.
To select a site for the county seat, a delegation met at the distillery of John Rodgers, near the present Laurens Courthouse Square. Tradition has it that the men, after imbibing freely, climbed the hill to a level area and chose the spot for the courthouse. More likely, the site was selected for its close proximately to water and because five important roads connecting the upcountry converged at the point. A wooden courthouse, also used as a church and a schoolhouse, was constructed shortly afterwards. An improved courthouse was built between during 1837 and 1838 and subsequently enlarged in 1857 and 1911.
After the Revolution, the upcountry saw immigrant arrive from Pennsylvania seeking cheap land. By 1800, the population of Laurens County stood at 12, 809 of which almost eighty-five percent were white. However, as cotton production expended throughout the antebellum period, the number of slaves in Laurens increase accordingly. Laurens County produced almost 16, 000 bales of cotton in 1850. Ten years later, the county population reached 23, 858, over half of which consisted of slaves. Villages sprang up and briefly thrived during this period at Cross Hill, Waterloo, Princeton , Gray Court, Owings, Ora and Mountville. However, they gradually dwindled with Laurens and Clinton became the dominant towns in the county.
The General Assembly passed an act on March 12, 1785, whereby 6 counties were to be established out of the old Ninety-Six District. Laurens County was one of those counties. The county of Laurens owes its beautiful location to John Rogers, Charles Allen, Jonathan Downes, and others who were deputized by the fourteenth and fifty-first regiments of SC to lay a town. Laurens County derived its name from a patriot, warrior, and statesman, --the Honorable Henry Laurens of Charleston. Henry Laurens was president of the Continental Congress during the Revolutionary War, and later served as an ambassador to France to secure aid in helping the colonies with their independence. Scotch-Irish immigrants out of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia became the predominate settlers of the county.
The town of Laurens (known as Laurensville well into the nineteenth century) became the county seat and the first courthouse was erected in 1786. The current courthouse was built in 1840 and enlarged in 1857.
By 1820, Laurens had become known for its trade of tailor-made clothes. Andrew Johnson, a future president of the United States, and his brother came to Laurens in 1824 and established a tailor shop. By 1840, the area was booming with establishments, including medical practitioners, a fancy confectionery and fruit store, carriage, buggy and wagon shops, tailoring establishments, building contractors, flour and corn mills, and 81 registered whiskey distilleries.
In 1853, Laurens County resident Ann Pamela Cunningham wrote a letter to the Charleston Mercury about the deplorable condition of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon. She began the movement for restoration of this national historic site.
No military action occurred in Laurens County during the Civil War although many native sons served in the conflict. In late April and early May 1865, Union troops passed through the County in pursuit of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who spent two days and a night in the county during his flight from Richmond. During reconstruction, white residents of Laurens County resented the enfranchisement of the newly freed blacks, most of whom supported the despised Republican Party. Whites responded by organizing Democratic Clubs that attempted to influence elections through intimidation and violence. As a result of Ku Klux Klan activity in lower piedmont counties and the Laurens Riot of 1870 that resulted in fighting between blacks and whites near the Courthouse Square, Laurens and eight other South Carolina Counties were placed under martial law in 1871. When Reconstruction ended in 1876 with the election of Wade Hampton III as Governor, Laurens native William Dunlap Simpson became lieutenant governor and later served as Governor and Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court.
After the Civil War, cotton remained the main crop with sharecropping replacing the prewar system of slave labor. Like most upcountry counties, Laurens sought to revive its economy by spinning cotton rather than simply growing it. By the turn of the century, textile manufacturing had become an important part of the Laurens County economy with the Laurens Cotton Mill established in 1895 and Mercer Silas Bailey building a mill in Clinton in 1896. Lydia, Watts and Joanna mills also began operation during this period. Company-built villages appeared around these new textile mills to provide housing for employees, and mill villages remained an important economic and social feature of Laurens county until well after World War II. New railroads also arrived in the late nineteenth century, including the Charleston and Western Carolina Railroad, the Columbia, Newberry and Laurens Railroad, and the Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad.
The Twentieth Century
By the end of the nineteenth century, textiles were becoming very important in Laurens County and the upstate. The Laurens Cotton Mill was established in 1895. Mercer Silas Bailey built the first cotton mill in Clinton in 1896 and both Lydia Mill and Watts Mill were established in 1902.
Education expanded in Laurens County during the late nineteenth century. Pratt Suber became the first county superintendent of education in 1874, Clinton College (now Presbyterian College) was established in 1880, and privately sponsored libraries were formed which evolved in to a county library in 1929.
Until World War II, textiles and agriculture almost totally dominated the economy of Laurens county. A major exception was a large glass bottle manufacturing plant in Laurens. Small one or two-room schools still dotted the countryside. During World War II , soldiers were trained on the campus of Presbyterian College and at a small airfield near Laurens.
During the twentieth century, Laurens County experienced slow but steady growth and retained predominately rural. From a population of 37,382 in 1900, the county grew to 46,974 (69% white, 31 % black) in 1950 and to an estimated 63,300 in 1999 (71% white, 29% black).
After World War II, small rural schools were consolidated, and economic diversification made Laurens count less dependent on the textile economy. Over the past few decades, textiles have been displaced by a wide variety of industries. Michelin, Milliken and Wal-Mart established large warehouse distribution center, Manufacturers to include CeramTec, Torrington, Avery Dennison and Norbord built plants. Several automobile parts suppliers established facilities in northern Laurens county at Fountain Inn to supply BMW's large upstate automobile plant. Retirement Centers have been built by three church denominations.
Because of its upstate location adjacent to the rapidly growing Greenville-Spartanburg area, Laurens County is poised to continue to experience economic and population growth in the twenty-first century.