York’s history spans a period from its first settlement of the area by the Catawba Nation, through its charter in 1785, to today’s Metrolina boom.
The first English contact with the Catawba was in 1673 when a delegation from Charles Town sought help from them in subduing a hostile tribe. The Catawba, always friendly to the Europeans, played a great part in South Carolina’s, as well as York’s, history.
The first white settlers came here in the early 1750s, having migrated south from Pennsylvania and Virginia. Of the major groups settling Pennsylvania, the English came first; the Scots came later. The first Scots in Pennsylvania appear to have come directly from Scotland. Later it was those from Ulster, Ireland, who made up the larger portion of the Scots. In the early 1700s the Scotch Irish, who were Calvinist Presbyterians, became dissatisfied with the Irish Catholic persecutions and royal legislation that restricted their religious and personal freedom. During times of hunger and famine, they began migrating by the thousands to America and then south. In 1755 American Indian troubles from the French and Indian War also brought many people south to York County.
Due to a combination of events and the large population of Scotch Irish settlers, the region around York County became critical to the outcome of the Revolutionary War. Unlike militias in the Northeast, Carolina and Georgia Patriot militia were battle hardened and were led by capable commanders. There were hundreds of guerilla strikes, skirmishes, and battles in South Carolina, and a heavy concentration of those battles were in this area. It is here that British fortunes were reversed, and the British began to lose the war. Patriot militia, Loyalist militia, and British Legion units crisscrossed the county. Armies led by British Generals Charles Cornwallis and Charles O’Hara and by Patriot Generals Thomas “the Gamecock” Sumter and Daniel Morgan were also in this county. Key combatants traveled the crossroads that became the city of York.
On March 12, 1785, four years after the British surrender at Yorktown, the County of York was chartered by the South Carolina legislature. It covered 685 square miles and was created when the old Camden District was divided into seven counties. Pennsylvania county names, brought south by the settlers, were given to three of the new counties: York, Chester, and Lancaster. County charters included a mandate to build a courthouse and jail, from which a village was expected to grow. A tax was created to cover the cost of “building the court houses, prisons, pillories, whipping posts and stocks.”
The charter legislation required that the courthouses and public buildings be placed at the most convenient location within each county. The geographic center of York County was determined, and it was found to be near a crossroads where seven or more paths (later roads) met. The crossroads was on land recently owned by brothers John and William Fergus. In court minutes of the discussions about where to locate the courthouse and jail, the justices called the central location “the crossroads at Fergus’s old place” and “Fergus Crossroads.” The county and city of York were founded in 1786 when the courthouse and jail were built at the crossroads, Liberty and Congress Streets were named, and a village plan was laid out with uniform lots along each street. Yorkville became its name.
By 1823 there were 451 people living in Yorkville—292 Whites and 159 Blacks (“negroes”). There were 80 houses in the town, 52 mechanics, eight lawyers, two physicians, and one clergyman. There were eight stores, five taverns, one male and one female academy, and a printing office.
Yorkville was officially incorporated on December 7, 1841. W. I. Clawson was the first mayor, with Stanhope Sadler, F. M. Galbraith, T. H. Simril, and B. T. Wheeler as wardens. The population of the town at that time was about 800.
Yorkville’s population swelled to 2,000 in the boom decade between 1850 and the outbreak of the Civil War. During this time of prosperity, the King’s Mountain Railroad connecting Yorkville to the main line was built in 1852. Cotton was king and was grown throughout the county. This crossroads town had become a prosperous cotton center.
Rose’s Hotel was built in 1852 by Dr. E. A. Crenshaw—the same year as the railroad. It was sold to Columbia hotelier William E. Rose in 1853. Rose’s Hotel was referred to in the Low Country as one of the most palatial hotels in the Upcountry. Its architecture, its regionally known services, and its rich contribution to local and national events make it a very historic place. It has been restored to its original elegance and now serves as attractive apartment homes.
In 1854 the Yorkville Female College was established at the corner of College and East Jefferson Streets. This building was later used as a portion of the McCelvey Elementary School, which has been remodeled over the years. Now known simply as the McCelvey Center, it is managed by the Culture & Heritage Museums.
In 1855 Micah Jenkins and Asbury Coward, young Citadel graduates, established the King’s Mountain Military School. It was closed while they served in the Civil War. Colonel Jenkins was killed in the war, but Colonel Coward returned to Yorkville and reopened the school. This building no longer stands, but it was later the main building of the Episcopal Church Home for Children, an orphanage which became known as York Place.
In 1860 a gasworks was installed on West Liberty Street near the recently built recreation center on White Rose Lane. Yorkville was the first town in the Upcountry to have gaslights. The old Chronicler columnist in the Yorkville Enquirer newspaper wrote that the town was lighted as London was.
During the years of the Civil War there were no battles in the county, but a very large number of York County citizens served in the Confederate army. The county suffered one of the highest per capita casualty rates, leaving a very large number of widows. Events during Reconstruction after the war created anger and resentment, and the county became a hotbed of gang and Ku Klux Klan activity, along with eight neighboring counties. York County was the most violent of the nine counties, so it became state headquarters for the Eighteenth U.S. Infantry and Seventh U.S. Cavalry—sent by President Grant to arrest members and restore order in the region.
In the late 1800s textile manufacturing created an economic surge, creating employment, commerce, real estate development, population growth, expanded rail service, and the need for a larger county courthouse. A new Congress Street courthouse was completed in 1915, designed by noted architect William Augustus Edwards. It is the fourth county courthouse to occupy the site and is individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The courthouse underwent major restoration and preservation completed in 2016. The first courthouse was a squared-log structure built in 1786. The second was a brick structure built between 1799 and 1803. The third courthouse was built in 1825 and was torn down in 1914 to make way for the present one. It had been designed by the noted architect Robert Mills of Charleston, the first American-born and American-trained architect. Mills designed the Washington Monument, U.S. Treasury Building, and other outstanding buildings.
Many historic homes and buildings still stand in York. (Voters approved changing the name to York in 1915.) Some existing structures were built before 1800, and many others are well over a century old.
York has many historic and beautiful churches. The first church established in York was the Independent Presbyterian Church in 1821. In 1864 its remaining members transferred to Yorkville Presbyterian Church. The oldest denomination that still exists is Trinity United Methodist, organized in 1824. First Presbyterian Church was organized in 1842, Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in 1852, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in 1853, Wesley United Methodist Church in 1863, Clinton Chapel AME Zion Church in the 1860s, First Baptist Church in 1866, Divine Saviour Roman Catholic Church in 1938, and Abiding Presence Lutheran Church in 1957.
In 1976 as a part of the American Revolution Bicentennial, the inner-city area of York was formally surveyed, and in 1979 it was designated the York Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. National Parks Service and the South Carolina Department of Archives and History. It is one of the largest small-city historic districts in the state, consisting of 340 acres and containing over 180 historic structures and landmarks. Many more historic places are outside the historic district. It helps make York a beautiful and historic city.
York is inhabited by descendants of settlers, slaves, slave owners, and American Indians. The streets honor presidents named Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Madison, and Roosevelt. A main street named Liberty is reminiscent of York County’s major role in the American Revolution.
For nearly a century cotton was king in York. Proof of the importance of cotton are some remaining textile buildings—Neely’s Manufacturing Company, Cannon Mills, and Lockmore Mills—all of which used cotton grown in the area. The York Oil Mill (cottonseed oil and meal) was also a thriving industry in this cotton-growing area.
Compiled by Anne T. Allison from original research and text by William Floyd Allison in Yorkville to York, edited by Dr. Edward Lee, 1998, presented by Yorkville Historical Society.
Edited by Russell M. Propst based on 2014–2016 research. Updates were made, and paragraphs related to the Revolutionary War and Civil War/Reconstruction were added.