Historic Camden

Early Camden History

The beautiful landscape that comprises the modern town of Camden has been inhabited for literally thousands of years. Unnamed yet not forgotten Native American tribes once hunted and eventually farmed this rich area; their pottery and tool remains are found scattered across various places both inside and outside the city limits.

Historic Camden, South CarolinaThe recorded history of Camden begins in the 1730s, making it the oldest inhabitedinland city in South Carolina. King George II commissioned eleven townships in the colony of South Carolina. One of these townships was to be made along the Wateree River, and was named Fredericksburg after the Prince of Wales.

Two Native American tribes, the Wateree and the Catawba, were indigenous to the area. The Wateree, who inhabited a town at the fork of the Little Pine Tree Creek and the Big Pine Tree Creek, were initially hostile to the new settlers and eventually were forced out of the area. Relations were much friendlier with the Catawba. Right around the 1750s, while the Quakers were building a community at Friends’ Neck, a Catawba leader by the name of King Haiglar came into power. A depiction of this patron saint of Camden adorns the old opera house to this day. Pine Tree Hill eventually became Camden roughly around the 1770s.

The aforementioned Quakers left a cemetery which contains the graves of many famous Civil War generals, a South Carolina governor, and other famous Camdenites. The oldest graves can be easily spotted and they date back to the 1700s. During this time period, the township of Fredericksburg became Pine Tree Hill. Enter the famous Kershaw family when Joseph Kershaw came to the area in 1758 and established a store as part of a larger Charleston operation. Kershaw was a shrewd and savvy businessman that almost single-handedly grew Camden into the most important trading post in the South Carolina back country. Camden prospered because of its strategic location as a crucial link for goods flowing to and from Charleston.

Camden: Revolutionary and Civil Wars

Camden figures quite prominently in the American Revolutionary War. Its leading citizens advocated for independence from the British and Joseph Kershaw took command of a regiment from the Camden district. Several loyalist regiments also came from the district once it was evident that Charleston would fall. The British General Lord Cornwallis took control of the town peacefully in June of 1780. The Battle of Camden would unfold a few months later in the stifling heat of August 16th, 1780. The American forces under the command of General Horatio Gates (the public hero of Saratoga) were routed by the British Cornwallis. While still a tactical loss for the Americans, the later Battle of Hobkirk’s Hill fought on April 25th, 1781 substantially weakened the British forces who would retreat ten days thereafter.

Revolutionary War Battle Historic Camden, SCUnfortunately, British forces razed Camden and the adjoining Log Town. This ultimately lead to the rebuilding of Camden according to the original grid-like plan instead of the uncontrolled growth along the old Catawba Indian trading path. Camden was able to remake itself as the inland city in South Carolina. While no battles were fought at Camden during the Civil War, many prominent soldiers and officers hailed from the city. This includes Joseph Brevard Kershaw (who figured prominently at Gettysburg) and would later serve as President of the State Senate and a judge.  Six Confederate Generals were from Camden and over 80% of the white male population enlisted. Camden was once again razed in War, this time by a detachment of American soldiers belonging to General Sherman. Perhaps the most famous name from Camden during this period is Mary Boykin Chestnut, whose diary would prove invaluable for antebellum and Civil War life. Her home, Sarsfield, still survives in Camden.

Modern Camden Emerges

In the antebellum period and after, Camden saw much progress and growth. It remained a town with an important position along a vital trade route. This was probably most evident in the growth of Kirkwood, which had become a popular resort destination for plantation owners. It was a type of suburb of Camden and boasted a resort and beautiful large antebellum homes. Unfortunately, many political decisions gradually decreased the influence of the city itself. The size of the district was drastically reduced and Columbia won out in the bid for an important railroad hub prior to the Civil War. An extension was later erected to Camden, but the influence had already waned in many respects.

Camden would stubbornly continue to grow, as it has to this day. Camden incorporated in 1890 as a city. It would eventually annex Kirkwood after the Civil War on multiple occasions with the final annexation coming in 1906. The remnants of Camden’s rich history can be found throughout the city. The city would go on to produce many famous names including two WWI Medal of Honor recipients: John Canty Villepigue and John P. Richardson III, the baseball hall-of-famer Larry Doby, banker and political advisor Bernard Baruch, film and theater actor Samuel E. Wright (Sebastian in theLittle Mermaid and Mufasa in The Lion King on Broadway), and several current NFL (Vonnie Holiday and Bobby Engram) and CFL players (Richie Williams).

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