History & Heritage
The city and county of Sumter have a colorful history stretching back more than 300 years. In the 1740's, the first English-speaking settlers arrived to establish roots along the banks of the Wateree River. The "Carolina Backcountry," as it was then known, became a predominantly agricultural area called Craven County, later Claremont County. Present-day Sumter County (then known as Sumter District) was established on January 1, 1800. When the state capital was moved from Charleston in 1789, Stateburg, located on US 76/378, missed being elected the new capital by one vote.
The City of Sumter is the seat of Sumter County and the largest city, and the eighth largest metropolitan area in the state of South Carolina. Incorporated as Sumterville in 1845, the city has grown and prospered from its early beginnings as a plantation settlement.
General Thomas Sumter
The city and county of Sumter bear the name of General Thomas Sumter, the "Fighting Gamecock" of the American Revolutionary War. His place in U.S. history is secure as a patriot and military genius. General Sumter was one of the models for Mel Gibson's character in the 2000 movie, "The Patriot" (along with Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens, also from South Carolina), and his service to his country continued for the duration of his long life.
Born in Virginia in 1734, Thomas Sumter settled in St. Mark's Parish in 1767. He founded the town of Stateburg, where his financial interests included a sawmill, grist mill, general store and a large plantation. He and his wife, Mary Cantey, had one son, Thomas Jr., born in 1768.
During the Revolution, Sumter fought in numerous skirmishes and battles, including the Battle of Sullivan's Island, the Georgia Campaign, Turnbull's camp, Hanging Rock and Fish Darn Ford. His fierce revolutionary zeal had its origins in an incident involving a Captain Campbell, whose men plundered his home, placed his invalid wife in her wheelchair on the lawn and then set fire to the house. This event so enraged Sumter that he formed and led a band of guerillas in victorious combat against the British, helping to turn the tide in the war for independence.
Following the war, General Sumter continued in the service of the young nation, ultimately as a member of the United States Congress. He retired at age 76 to his beloved "Home House" in the High Hills of the Santee, where he continued to actively manage his business affairs and remained a respected figure in the Stateburg community until his death in 1832 at age 98, the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War. General Sumter is buried in Stateburg, the adoptive hometown to which he gave so much.
Sumter has a rich African-American heritage dating back more than 200 years to the "King's Highway," the main route from Charleston to what was then known as the "Carolina Backcountry." From their beginnings on the plantations of Stateburg, Sumter's African-Americans have risen to the heights of accomplishment in the fields of politics, education and entertainment. Among those who have left their mark on history are:
James Clyburn, United States Congressman. He is the first African-American to represent South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives since post-Civil War Reconstruction. His list of accomplishments includes Democratic Freshman Class President, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus and House Appropriations Committee. He singlehandedly pushed through Congress the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU's) Historic Preservation Program.
Mary McLeod Bethune, the educator who traveled from the Mayesville cotton fields to the White House, founder of Bethune-Cookman College and special advisor to four U.S. presidents. She also served as a consultant for the United Nations and was honored with a US Postal Service stamp in 1985. In 1974, a memorial to her was unveiled at Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.
Bill Pinkney, the World War II veteran whose musical talent brought Carolina "beach music" to the world and helped define an era. As a singer with the original Drifters, his distinctive tones can be heard on such classics as "Up on the Roof" and "Under the Boardwalk." Along with the other members of the original Drifters, Bill Pinkney was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Freddie Solomon, who tucked a football under his arm and ran with it into the record books. As a player for the Miami Dolphins and the San Francisco 49'ers, Solomon played in two Superbowls. The former All-American was named in 2002 by the University of Tampa as one of "The Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century."
In the life of the old Sumter District, churches filled an important need not only as places of worship, but as community centers where settlers socialized, discussed the issues of the day, relaxed and nurtured one another's spiritual growth. Sumter County is home to numerous churches whose congregations have celebrated their 100-year anniversary. However, four of particular interest in the area pre-date the American Revolution: the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, High Hills Baptist Church (1772) and Salem Black River Presbyterian Church.
The Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross
Highway 261, Stateburg
The area's earliest Episcopal church, St. Mark's Parish near present-day Pinewood, was a difficult Sunday drive for worshippers from the other side of the King's Highway. In 1785, a Chapel of Ease was established in Stateburg for the convenience of those worshippers who found the trip to St. Mark's too arduous. By 1788, the congregation had outgrown the small building and constructed a new one on land donated by General Thomas Sumter. Claremont Episcopal Church had been born, and served the spiritual needs of the Stateburg community for 60 years, until it too was outgrown. The Church of the Holy Cross was built on Highway 261 in Stateburg in 1850.
The Victorian Gothic building is one of few in the United States constructed entirely by the ancient pise de terre (rammed earth) method, used in sections of the Great Wall of China. The stained glass windows were crafted in Bavaria after the designs of the renowned Frederich Auerbach, and in the sanctuary is an Erben pipe organ from New York, installed in 1851 and one of the few working examples of this type. The Church of the Holy Cross was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1973.
One of the most beautiful churches in the state, Holy Cross has been the house of worship for many South Carolina notables. The adjoining cemetery contains many interesting tombstones; among them are those of more than 100 veterans of the American Revolution, the Civil War and WWI. Perhaps the best-known tomb is that of Joel Roberts Poinsett, who died in Stateburg in 1851. Poinsett, a statesman, diplomat, scientist and botanist, served as US Ambassador to Mexico and was responsible for American adoption of European-style military methods. He also introduced to America the beautiful red-leaved plant that graces millions of homes during the Christmas holidays and bears his name--the poinsettia.
Holy Cross has survived earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes and other natural disasters, including a 1903 storm that tore off the 110-foot steeple. At the dawn of the millennium, the church faced the most serious challenge to its continued survival. In 1974, termites were discovered following a partial collapse of the southwest wall due to leakage. In 2001, the termites, thought to have been eliminated, were found to have devastated the entire church interior. During the decade that it took to restore the church to its original beauty, the spirit of this resilient congregation was not dampened, and it celebrated a triumphant re-opening in 2010.
St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Highway 261, Pinewood
The first church organized in Sumter District, St. Mark's origins can be traced back to 1757 with the formation of St. Mark's Parish. The original building was constructed in 1765 and served the congregation for only a few years before being burned by Tarleton's troops. Various calamities continued to befall the church, with the result that the present building, completed in 1856, is the fourth. This beautiful sanctuary, located near Highway 261 in Manchester State Forest, has been a house of worship for six South Carolina governors. Regular services are no longer held, but the simple, elegant building stands as a reminder of an important time in South Carolina history.
High Hills Baptist Church (1772)
Meeting House Road, Stateburg
High Hills Baptist Church, founded in 1772, occupies a plot of land granted to the congregation by General Thomas Sumter. The present building, erected in 1803, is a distinctive landmark in the Stateburg area with its simple green-and-white painted frame structure. High Hills Baptist grew into a strong and influential church under the dynamic leadership of the Reverend Richard Furman, the pastor from 1774 to 1787.
The leadership and members of High Hills played an important role in Sumter County's participation in the American Revolution. In April 1776, it was the meeting place for all the churches in South Carolina for the purpose of electing delegates to attend the Continental Association. Richard Furman, an activist for the Revolutionary cause, was pursued by General Cornwallis to the point that he briefly had to flee the state. Furman later founded one of South Carolina's most prestigious educational institutions, Furman University in Greenville.
High Hills at present has few members and weekly services are no longer held. However, many of the Baptist congregations in the area can trace their heritage to this strong, influential church, including First Baptist, the oldest and largest Baptist congregation in the city of Sumter.
A short distance down Meeting House Road stands another High Hills Baptist Church. The brick church, organized in 1869, was formed by the freed men and women who formerly worshiped in the gallery at the first High Hills Baptist.
Salem Black River Presbyterian Church
Highway 527, Mayesville
Picturesque Salem Black River Presbyterian Church, known throughout the area as "Brick Church," was established in 1759 on a tract of land given by Captain David Anderson near present-day Mayesville. The imposing brick building with its four massive Doric columns was erected in 1856, from bricks made on the grounds of the church.
Over the years, this historic congregation has endured wars, depressions and natural disasters including the Charleston Earthquake of 1886 and 1989's Hurricane Hugo, but it continues to stand in serene testimony to the perseverance of its original Scots-Irish founders. Services are held twice a month. In 2002, a groundbreaking ceremony marked the beginning of the first new construction at Brick Church in more than 100 years.
Near Brick Church on Highway 527 stands Goodwill Presbyterian Church, organized in 1867 by 100 African-American members of Salem Black River Presbyterian. The Goodwill Day School on the church grounds is listed in the National Register of Historic Places.