The Process of Aiken County
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
On March 10, 1871, the governor of South Carolina signed the act to found Aiken County. The county was cut from portions of Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington, and Orangeburg Counties. This was the final step of a four decades long process. Across the decades, there were different people and differing reasons for its creation. This is just a brief summary of the process of founding Aiken County.
Above image: 1849 map of the pre-existing counties. Before 1868, political jurisdictions in South Carolina were referred to as Districts. After the state convention of 1868, the jurisdictional areas became known as Counties. The black outline and crosslines show Aiken County’s new borders as of 1871. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
The Starting Process
Many reasons for the creation of Aiken County have been bandied about by historians of our region. After searching historic newspapers and personal papers from residents of the era, two of the most prevalent reasons for the creation of a new county appear to be the desire for a regional courthouse to be able to conduct legal business and the population growth of Aiken. Other reasons could have been the political shift of power from an agrarian economy political base to a more merchant-tourism political base, but more primary source research is needed to support that theory.
A newspaper from 1866 mentioned that the first discussions for the county began as early as 1827. Although it is optimal to have secondary supporting sources, it is interesting to note the first known petition's date of pre-1835 and the newspaper's date of 1827 date. These two primary sources indicate that the first rumblings of a new county were discussed as early as the late 1820s. Throughout the following years, newspapers would periodically document the efforts to create a new county for our area. At times, the new county would be formed from portions of Barnwell, Edgefield, and Orangeburgh [sic] Counties with the occasional inclusion of Lexington County.
Above image: Petition to create a new county from portions of Edgefield, Barnwell, and Orangeburgh [sic] Districts, undated. After tracking down some of the names on this document and the signers' death dates, we know that this petition was sent before 1835. Courtesy of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History
In the petition shown above, the signers stated that "your Petitioners labour under Great and Sincere inconveniences in Consequence of the great Distance they have to travel to attend the Courts of justice In their Respective Districts..." According to the document, the petitioners claimed that an inhabitant in Barnwell could travel up to 70 miles just to conduct legal business at the Barnwell courthouse. In the days of horse and buggy/wagon travel, this distance could take days if the roads were in poor condition.
Above image: Newspaper article about the exploration of a new county. E.J.C. Wood was an early advocate for the county. The Charleston Daily News, December 01, 1866.
In the book about Aiken businessman E.J.C. Wood, the author noted that, "Naturally, in order to protect their investment [in land], he [EJC Wood] began to devote the greater part of his time to the task of causing Aiken to grow and prosper. He believed that the formation of a new county out of parts of Edgefield and Barnwell counties, with Aiken as the county seat, would be helpful.” (Wandering in the Wilderness, Dr. E.J.C. Wood and William E. Wood, 1945). E.J.C. Wood would become one of the men appointed to the Board of Commissioners in the act that formed Aiken County.
A New Beginning
In 1865, the Civil War came to an end and the residents of Aiken and its surrounding communities began rebuilding their political structure. In 1868, there was a major political shift in representation at the South Carolina State Legislature. For the first time, the majority of South Carolina's Senators and Representatives were men of color. Suddenly, men who had been born free men of color and Black men who had been born into slavery were given the right to vote by the 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During the legislative session of 1870-1871, Barnwell County Representative Charles D. Hayne submitted a bill to form a new county that would be cut from portions of Barnwell, Edgefield, Lexington, and Orangeburg. Hayne had been born a free man of color in Charleston, SC. In his biography that was printed in the Aiken Tribune on November 29, 1873, the reporter stated that although the "idea of forming the new county of Aiken has been discussed periodically in legislative circles in this State for the past twenty years..." it was "Hayne, among others, [that were] the advocates of the measure" and thus residents were "largely indebted" to them for its ultimate success.
After decades of petitions and letters of support, the County of Aiken was finally founded in 1871 through the efforts of a racially diverse group of men, which is even more significant given the era and the conclusion of the Civil War just six years prior.
Please keep reading across the following blog entries for more information about the founders of Aiken County.