York County History - An Introduction
York County and its largest city, Rock Hill, are located in the piedmont of South Carolina at its border with North Carolina immediately south of the city of Charlotte, NC. Interstate 77 originates in Cleveland, OH and passes through eastern Rock Hill to south of Columbia, SC where it ends at Interstate 26. Today this area is a thriving county with an estimated population of more than 230,500. The County includes the communities of Rock Hill, Fort Mill, York, Clover, Tega Cay, Lake Wylie, Hickory Grove, McConnells and Sharon. Much of the western part of the County is still agricultural and is home to peach orchards, strawberry and vegetable fields, and greenhouse operations. The County is bordered on the west by the Broad River and the east by the Catawba River. Both of these rivers originate out of the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. These rivers, along with major sporting venues and parks located in the County, provide residents with ample recreational opportunities. York County honors its past with several Cultural and Heritage Museums, including Historic Brattonsville, the McCelvey Center and the Museum of York County.
Human habitation of the area began with settlement by the Catawba Indian Nation. They built their homes along the creek and river highlands and made their living by hunting, farming and fishing. Today, they are known for their pottery. Their influence on the area is still felt. Their trading path from Virginia into the region split after crossing the Catawba River. One path went west to the Lower Cherokee villages; the other, south to Saluda. Today the crossing and the trail are known as Nation Ford and Nation Ford Road. As late as the early 1990s, tribal land claims delayed development of residential and commercial properties in Rock Hill and surrounding York County. Since Federal recognition of the Catawba Nation in 1993, settlement of land claims has been rapid. The Catawba reservation is located a few miles southeast of Rock Hill.
Early white settlers came up from Charleston, SC and down from Pennsylvania through Virginia. The Germans, English, Welsh, Irish and French came and moved on, but the Scots-Irish stayed. Early settlement centered on Ebenezerville, currently the area of the Herlong and Ebenezer intersection. Residents built cotton plantations and bales of cotton were shipped downstream through Camden and on to Charleston where they were then shipped to the mills of New England and England for processing and weaving. Originally most of York County was part of North Carolina. A 1772, settlement set the boundary and called the area the “New Acquisition” of South Carolina.
Several Revolutionary War battles were fought on York County soil. The Battle of Huck’s Defeat (or Williamson’s Plantation) on July 12, 1780, was the first British defeat since the fall of Charleston some months earlier. The Battle of King’s Mountain, an encounter between the Over the Mountain Men of Tennessee and the British forces, was fought on October 7, 1780 on land that straddles the SC–NC border in northwest York County.
In the 1840s the Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad Company proposed building a railroad from Charlotte to Columbia, SC. Noise and pollution concerns from citizens caused the surveyors to locate the track about 2 miles east of the community near a rocky area that had been a landmark for travelers. It was labeled on the survey as “rocky hill”. Opening on April 17, 1852, the original post office was called Ebenezer Depot. The name was changed to Rockhill on January 7, 1896, then to Rock Hill on February 20, 1912.
Following the Civil War, the early businessmen were merchants. They borrowed against their resources to stock the stores. When they turned a profit after the first season, they repaid their creditors and purchased a second season’s stock. Banks and utilities soon followed. Instead of shipping cotton north to New England for processing, mills were opened. Included in the mix of business and industry were a buggy and carriage maker, tobacco processor, machine shops, iron works, cannery, furniture-maker and grist mills.
Early residents of Rock Hill attended religious services at a Presbyterian Church in Ebenezerville. When Pine Grove Academy opened, the Methodists borrowed the school building for semi–weekly services. Episcopalian and Baptist denominations opened congregations in members’ homes. Black congregations were quickly organized following the Emancipation. Initial meetings were held in brush arbors. The first formal black congregation organized was Hermon Presbyterian in 1869.
Settlers valued an education to prepare for college or to be able to read the Scriptures. The SC General Assembly granted Ebenezer Academy corporate status in 1821. There is evidence that the school existed prior to that as Job Nelson was hired as principal in 1819. The school building was the second public building constructed in Ebenezerville. The school remained a private institution until the 1880s when the Rock Hill schools were organized. There were two early public schools: Rock Hill Academy (1854-88) which was primarily for boys (also known as Pine Grove Academy for its location) and Pineopolis Academy for girls begun in 1875. During the late 1880s there were two schools operated for black children, one by the Hermon Presbyterian Church and one by the Episcopal Church. The need for a public graded school was recognized in 1886 and fund raising efforts began. By 1901 there were 38 school districts in York County with 102 facilities.
During the 1890s interest in educating the women of the Carolina’s grew. D.B. Johnson began a teacher training school in Columbia. Then Governor Benjamin Tillman also saw a need for business and industrial training for women. Seeing power in joining forces, Tillman and Johnson created the South Carolina Industrial and Winthrop Normal College which has evolved into Winthrop University. A competition was held among South Carolina cities for a host city for this institution, and Rock Hill won a spirited campaign. In 1896, the institution opened its doors in Rock Hill.
During the late 1920s through the mid-40s, the city of York was winter home to several circuses. One was the Barnett Brothers (originally the Ray Rogers circus). It originated in Canada. The name was changed to Barnett Bros in 1933. The show eventually moved to the U.S. and wintered in York, S.C. The title of the show was changed to Wallace Bros, in 1940. The Bennett Brothers Circus also wintered here. They used the time off the road to train and to design new shows. The Barnett Brothers occupied the block bounded by E. Jefferson and Trinity Streets.
Clicking on a book below will provide book information from the York County Library’s catalog. Please consult your local library if you are looking for these books from a location outside York County, or request a book through interlibrary loan.
Brown, Douglas (Summers), A City Without Cobwebs: a History of Rock Hill, South Carolina. University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, SC, 1953.
Hildebrand, Jack D., Rock Hill: Reflections: an illustrated history; Partners in Progress by William G. Moore, Windsor Publications. 1989.
Mendenhall, Samuel Brooks, A Compilation of York County Post Offices, 1960. Presented to the Rock Hill Public Library, September 13, 1960 by S.B. Mendenhall.
Rock Hill Centennial Association, Old Families of Rock Hill, South Carolina by Rock Hill Historical Research Committee and revised by Douglas Summers Brown, Chairman, 1952.
Willoughby, Lynn, The “Good Town” Does Well: Rock Hill, S.C., 1852-2002, Written in Stone, Orangeburg, S.C., 2002.