Discover Aiken: Men from different backgrounds came together to build Aiken County 150 years ago

·8 min read

Sep. 26—In 1871, then South Carolina Gov. Robert K. Scott signed the legislative act that authorized the creation of Aiken County on March 10.

Even though it happened 150 years ago, during the turbulent era following the Civil War known as Reconstruction, the date is easy to pinpoint.

Much more difficult to determine, however, is the person or persons who should get the credit for being the founding fathers.

"It's a complicated story because it was a decades-long process," said Lauren Virgo, executive director of the Aiken County Historical Museum. "There were multiple men involved with it across the decades, all with their own various reasons why they wanted to found Aiken County."

In January 2020, while preparing for the county's sesquicentennial celebration, Virgo began doing research into the county's early history and the events that took place beforehand.

"I've had help," she said. "I've got a great team of volunteers and staff who have been working with me, traveling to Columbia and putting everything together. It definitely has been a team effort."

One resource was Isabelle Vandervelde's book, "Aiken County: The Only South Carolina County Founded During Reconstruction."

It contains lots of useful and interesting information, but the assertion by the book's title can be disputed because Oconee County was established during that same post-Civil War time period from 1865 to 1877.

"When Isabelle was doing all her work back then, there wasn't really a website for archival material for the state of South Carolina and now there is," Virgo said. "You can go to scmemory.org, and a lot of institutions are starting to put their records online."

Virgo also searched the Library of Congress website Chronicling America and visited the South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

She and her colleagues studied newspapers and a variety of documents while looking for particulars.

Based on what they discovered, Virgo came up with a list of the names of nearly 30 racially diverse men she believes played significant roles in Aiken County's founding.

If she had to pick only one, Virgo said, it would be Charles D. Hayne.

He was born a free man of color in Charleston. He later became a tailor and then a politician.

Hayne was a state representative from Barnwell County when he "submitted" the bill that led to Aiken County's founding during the 1870-1871 legislative session.

But "one of the things that was hinted at in Isabelle's book was an earlier start to the county," Virgo said, so she did some digging.

Long before the 1870s, she found, residents of the current Aiken County area were sending petitions to the legislature that asked for a new county to be created.

According to an 1866 newspaper article, "this subject (the founding of a new county) has been advocated with varying success since 1827."

Virgo and her associates found two petitions. One, they believe, was written in the late 1820s or early 1830s, at a time when counties were known as districts.

"One of my volunteers went through all the names that were listed as petitioners and found their death dates," Virgo said. "Enough were found to confirm that it (the petition) was pre-1835."

The other petition, Virgo believes, was filed later but before the 1860s.

One reason people wanted a new district or county was because of the distance they had to travel to courthouses.

"If you lived near the Hamburg area, your courthouse was in Edgefield," Virgo said. "If you lived in the Beech Island area, your courthouse was in Barnwell."

A trip by wagon or carriage could take a day or longer.

Others thought a new county would enhance the value of their real estate investments. And there also was the belief that it would help the town of Aiken, which was founded in 1835, grow and prosper.

In addition, increased political clout was a motive.

Over the years, there were various legislative bills that sought to establish a new county, but they were tabled and killed.

Virgo doesn't know why exactly and would like to do more research to figure that out.

"I have my suspicions, but I don't have them backed up by primary sources yet," she said. "The Edgefield District pre-Civil War and the Barnwell District pre-Civil War were very powerful financially and politically. They were powerful enough to make sure that their districts weren't divided, so that's my working theory."

The area that is now Aiken County had some valuable assets such as textile mills, a railroad, the Savannah River port town of Hamburg and potteries.

But after the Civil War, the power shifted.

"The people who were born into slavery or who were born free men of color were now given the right to vote and given political opportunities to run for government positions," Virgo said. "For the first time, these men, who were disenfranchised for so long, had a voice. In 1868, the white majority in the South Carolina legislature changed to a Black majority."

That shift, in Virgo's opinion, breathed new life into the effort to create a new county in this part of South Carolina.

There still was opposition, but a bill introduced during the 1870-1871 legislative session prevailed.

Woodbury was proposed as a name for the new county and so was Randolph before the legislators "settled on Aiken," Virgo said.

The legislative act included a plan for the appointment of a Board of Commissioners, and the members were divided into two groups, which Virgo likes to refer to as committees.

One group was in charge of establishing the boundaries of Aiken County, which was formed from parts of Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington and Orangeburg counties.

Fred Arnim was its chairman.

The other group's task was to find "suitable" structures that could be used as public buildings or sites where such buildings could be constructed.

Samuel J. Lee was its chairman.

A plot of land and home near the Aiken Train Depot was purchased from Graniteville Mill founder William Gregg, and the house served as Aiken County's courthouse until 1881.

In addition to Arnim and Lee, others on the Board of Commissioners included M.F. Maloney, Prince R. Rivers, J. L. Jamison, Edward Ferguson, James N. Hayne, E.J.C. Wood, P.R. Rockwell, and J.A. Greene.

Also on the Board of Commissioners were W.H. Reedish, Benjamin Byas, Charles D. Hayne, John Wooley, Levi Chavis and J.H. Cornish.

Some of the men served on both committees.

The legislative act instructed the members of the group that dealt with boundaries to select "two competent surveyors" to assist them.

"Several of the people who became powerful politically in the future in Aiken County came from this Board of Commissioners," Virgo said

In October 1872, the first election for state legislators and local officials in Aiken County was held and, collectively, they were ethnically diverse, based largely on what Virgo discovered in census records.

Charles D. Hayne, who was biracial, won the state senate seat.

The four state representatives elected were Lee, Rivers, Gloster Holland and William B. Jones.

Rivers and Holland were Black. Lee was biracial, and Jones was white.

"For a long time, Jones was a considered to be a Black man (by local historians)," Virgo said. "But a descendant came forward last year and said, 'My ancestor was one of the founders of Aiken County, and he was a white gentleman.'"

Virgo didn't just accept the descendant's claim as fact. She went looking for a secondary source and found it in state legislative records from the 1930s.

In them was a "write-up," Virgo said, that probably was included because of the 50th anniversary of Aiken County's founding. That written account stated that Jones was the only white member of the first Aiken County legislative delegation.

In 1872, three county commissioners were elected: Edward P. Stoney, William Peel and Samuel B. Spencer.

Stoney was biracial, and William Peel was white.

Virgo isn't sure whether Spencer was Black or biracial.

"I need to do a little bit more research on him," she said.

Among the others voted into office were Sheriff Hiram Jordan, Probate Judge Henry Sparnick, Clerk of Court Joseph Quash, and Auditor James Harling.

Joining them as new Aiken County officials were Treasurer Simeon Beaird, School Commissioner John Gardner and Coroner Francis L. Walker.

Gardner was Black. Beaird was biracial. And Jordan, Sparnick and Walker were white.

Census records found by Virgo listed Quash as biracial and also as Black in different years. She doesn't know what Harling's race was.

"I haven't found him yet," said Virgo of Harling. "I'm going to continue going down that trail."

Virgo believes that the race of the founders is a relevant part of the history of Aiken County's creation.

"To me, this is what is so fascinating," she said. "Six years after the Civil War ended, you have this group from different backgrounds and races coming together and working together to build this county. It was a divisive and painful time, and I think that shows a glimmer of hope in the darkness of this country's history. It's part of the conversation that needs to be discussed. All of these men, to varying degrees, brought something to the table."

From a gender standpoint, however, Aiken County's founders lacked diversity.

"Women were left out of the history books during this period, even though you know women had to be involved somehow," Virgo said. "It was very disappointing not to see any representation."

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