York County is a county located in the north-central section of the U.S. state of South Carolina. As of the 2010 census, the population was 226,073. Its county seat is York and its largest city is Rock Hill. It is the second most populous county in the Charlotte metropolitan area.
Pre-colonial and colonial history
With a population of nearly 6,000 at the time of first European contact, the native inhabitants, the Catawba were primarily agriculturalists. Hernando de Soto passed through the area in the 1540s in his search for gold. Several decades later Juan Pardo recorded his observation of a predominant Native American tribe, later confirmed to be the Catawba, in the vicinity of present-day Fort Mill, east of the Catawba River.
The colony of South Carolina was founded in 1670. Twelve years later it was divided into three counties. Craven County, which roughly encompassed the northern half of the colony, included the southern half of present-day York County, while the top portion of York County was considered part of North Carolina.
Before the boundaries between the two Carolinas were fixed (several changes took place between 1772 and 1805), the northern portion of York County was part of Bladen County, North Carolina, and in 1750 it was included in the newly created Anson County, North Carolina (the first land grants and deeds for the region were issued in Anson). In 1762 Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, was formed from western Anson and included present-day northern York County. Five years later, the area became part of Tryon County, North Carolina, which comprised all of North Carolina west of the Catawba River and south of Rowan County. This area would remain a part of Tryon County until 1772, when the boundary between North and South Carolina in this portion was finally established.
The first European settlers in the Carolina Piedmont, traditionally called the Upcountry, were Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Rising rent and land prices in Pennsylvania drove them southward down the Great Wagon Road, and they began arriving in the Upcountry west of the Catawba River during the 1740s and settled in present-day York County in the 1750s.
The New Acquisition
After its transfer to South Carolina in 1772, much of the area was known as the New Acquisition. In 1785, York County was one of the original counties in the newly created state of South Carolina, and its boundaries remained unchanged until 1897, when a small portion of the northwestern corner was ceded to the newly formed Cherokee County, South Carolina.
By 1780, the Carolina Upcountry had an estimated population of more than 250,000, predominantly Scots-Irish Presbyterians but with significant numbers of other Protestants from Great Britain. The Scots-Irish settled in a dispersed community pattern denoted by communal, clannish, family-related groups known as "clachans", much the same as in Pennsylvania and Ulster, Northern Ireland. The clachans developed around the Presbyterian Kirks, or meetinghouses, and became the forerunners of the congregations. In York County, the "Four B" churches, all Presbyterian—- Bethel, Bethesda, Beersheba and Bullock's Creek—- are the county’s oldest.
Residents of the Upcountry were initially slow to take sides in the American Revolutionary War, content to remain neutral as long as left unmolested; the conflict was initially viewed as one between the British Crown and Charleston plutocrats. The New Acquisition entered into vocal opposition to Royal authority in 1780 only after three "invasions" of the region: the first by Banastre Tarleton and his "Green Dragoons", and two more by Lord Cornwallis. Most of the state had capitulated to the British after their capture of Charleston, but after the Waxhaw Massacre in nearby Lancaster County in May 1780, residents of the New Acquisition took part in a regional resistance, led by men such as William "Billy" Hill, William Bratton and Samuel Watson. Both the battles of Huck’s Defeat and Kings Mountain, a direct response to the Waxhaw Massacre, were fought in the New Acquisition, and Lord Cornwallis was forced northward, and ultimately to surrender at Yorktown, after facing defeat in the Carolina Upcountry.
Early York County
After the defeat of the British, Upcountry residents enjoyed a greater share of administration in their region and experienced phenomenal growth after the war. In first United States census, in 1790, York County had a population of 6,604; 923 were listed as slaves, and a quarter of the county’s slaves belonged to just nine men. Less than 15% of its population lived in bondage in 1790, while the state averaged 30%.
Establishment of the county seat
A county seat was laid out in 1786 at Fergus's Cross Roads, where several roads converged near the geographic center of the county. The new town was first known as the village of York, or more commonly York Court House. In 1841, the town was incorporated and officially became Yorkville. In 1823 its population, as recorded by Robert Mills, was 441 and included 292 whites and 149 blacks. By 1840 the population had reached 600, and in 1850 Yorkville consisted of 93 dwellings and 617 inhabitants. In the years just prior to the Civil War, the town gained a reputation as a summer resort for many Lowcountry planters trying to escape the malarial swamps of the Lowcountry for the moderate climate to be found in the Upstate. By 1860, the population of the town had topped 1,300, an increase of more than 125% in only one decade. During the Civil War, the town also became a focal point for residents from the Lowcountry as a refugee destination during Federal occupation of their towns.
Antebellum York County and the Civil War
With the introduction of the cotton gin in the 1790s, the county's economic prospects increased as the importance of "King Cotton" grew, and slavery become an integral part of the economy. In 1800, 25% of all white families in the Upcountry owned slaves, but by 1820 nearly 40% were slaveholders. Slave ownership increased significantly in York County between 1800 and 1860, though most slaves worked on small and medium sized farms rather than large plantations. In 1800, whites made up 82.10% of the total population in York County, but by 1860 the white percentage of the total population had dropped to 62.50%. Figures from 1860 reveal slave holdings in York County were relatively small, with approximately 70% of all farms holding fewer than 10 slaves and less than 3% of the farms with 50 or more.
The proportion of York District farms in 1860 was:
In 1825 only three post offices operated in all of York County, at Yorkville, Blairsville and Hopewell, but by 1852 York District had 27. The county's first newspaper, The Yorkville Pioneer, was established in 1823, and ran for little more than a year, and was followed by several others until The Yorkville Enquirer, which remains in publication today, was begun in 1855.
Chartered in 1848, the Kings Mountain Railroad Company began construction of a connecting line between Yorkville and the Charlotte and South Carolina Railway at Chester completed in 1852. Rock Hill, located on the Charlotte and South Carolina, rapidly developed as a transportation center in eastern York County, from a crossroads with 100 residents in 1860.
More than a dozen academies were operating in the county at the outbreak of the Civil War. The most famous was the Kings Mountain Military Academy in Yorkville, founded in 1854 by Micah Jenkins and Asbury Coward.
On the eve of the Civil War, York District was one of the more populated districts in Upstate South Carolina. In 1860, there were 4,379 white males in York County. There were 14 infantry companies formed in York County after war was declared. Of the 4,379 white males, 805 were killed and hundreds more were wounded. As a result, during the war the York District would have the highest death rate of any county in South Carolina. Only one minor battle was fought in the York District, the battle for the Catawba Bridge at Nation’s Ford in 1865.
Postbellum York County and early industrialization
During Reconstruction many of York County's larger property owners were forced to sell off portions of their land to smaller farmers: The size of the average farm in York County dropped considerably while the number of small farming operations increased. Late-19th century agriculture in York County was characterized by relatively small farm operations and an ignorance of soil qualities and the benefits of diversification, which eventually led to the agricultural difficulties of the 1890s and 1920s and 1930s.
Railroad development continued in York County after the war’s end, and in 1880 the Rock Hill Cotton Factory, the first steam-powered cotton factory in South Carolina, ushered in a new era of agricultural expansion and industrial development. The Rock Hill Buggy Company, founded by John Gary Anderson, eventually grew to become the highly successful Anderson Motor Company, the first automobile manufacturing facility in the South. Concurrently, Rock Hill’s population increased from 809 to over 5,500 from 1880 to 1895.
Cotton production remained the dominant agriculture in early 20th century York County, and the textile industry continued to develop. Rock Hill became the hub of this industry, while mills blossomed throughout the county. South Carolina's peak cotton crop was harvested in 1921 and thereafter, cotton production began a long and steady decline, due in part to the boll weevil and soil erosion. The New Deal programs of the 1930s prodded farmers into switching to crops, and cotton gradually became less and less important to the economy.
In 1904 the Catawba Dam and Power Plant was completed. The Catawba Power Company had been founded in 1899 by William C. Whitner, Dr. Gill Wylie and his brother Robert Wylie. Construction began in 1900 and when finally completed, the dam and power plant were one of the most important engineering accomplishments in the southeastern United States. The venture eventually led to the formation of Duke Power Company, and a later series of dams and hydroelectric facilities were built on the Catawba in both North and South Carolina. The Catawba Power Plant sparked the industrialization of the Catawba Valley; by 1911 more than a million textile spindles were powered by it.
By the late 20th century, York County faced increasing developmental pressure from Charlotte and the decline of small-scale farming; however, much of York County remains rural in character.