The unusual name of Ninety Six was given by early traders in the 1700s because they mistakenly believed it was the estimated number of miles to the Cherokee village of Keowee in the upper South Carolina foothills.
By the mid-1700s, European colonists found it a favorable place to settle. During Ninety Six's early days, troubles with local Indians increased. In 1760, Cherokees twice attacked Fort Ninety Six, built for the settlers' protection. By the early 1770s, Ninety Six village reached its peak with a growing population, twelve houses and a newly constructed court house and jail.
Ninety Six also figured prominently in the Southern Campaign of the American Revolution. The first land battle south of New England was fought here in November of 1775 and in June of 1780, the British fortified the strategically important frontier town. From May 22 - June 18, 1781, Major General Nathanael Greene with 1,000 Patriot troops staged the longest (yet unsuccessful) siege of the Revolutionary War against 550 Loyalists and Provincials who were defending Ninety Six.
The British abandoned and burned Ninety Six in the summer of 1781, but the town was reborn as Cambridge in 1787. Today the Ninety Six National Historic Site protects the British Star Fort and other features of the colonial and Revolutionary era.
Cambridge was the district seat for the Ninety-Six District between 1787 and 1800, when all overarching districts were abolished. In 1800, Cambridge was situated in what is present-day Greenwood County.
Ninety Six was originally a geographical term. Traders out of Charles Town thought that this stopping place was 96 miles from the Cherokee town of Keowee in the Blue Ridge foothills. Following an ancient path worn by Indians, they packed firearms, blankets, and trinkets into the backcountry and swapped them for deerskins and furs. By 1700 or so, this trail, known as the Cherokee Path, was a major commercial artery. Over it flowed goods essential to the prosperity of the young colony.
The region then was a wilderness paradise, with temperate climate, rich soil, vast forests of hardwood, clear-running streams, and abundant game. After the power of the Cherokee was broken in 1761, settlers flooded into the country beyond the Saluda River. Ninety Six lay in the middle of this land boom. The first settler here was one Robert Gouedy, who opened a store in 1751. A veteran of the Cherokee trade, he parlayed that hazardous enterprise into a huge business that rivaled that of some Charlestown merchants. He grew grain and tobacco, raised cattle, served as a frontier banker, and sold cloth, shoes, beads, gunpowder, tools, and rum. He eventually amassed over 1,500 acres, and at his death in 1775 some 500 persons were in his debt.
On the eve of the Revolution, Ninety Six was a thriving village of twelve houses, a sizable court house, and a sturdy jail. At least a hundred persons lived in the vicinity, and the land was cleared for a mile around. On the question of independence, sentiment was probably even more divided than along the coast. In what has been called the first major land battle in the South, 1,800 Loyalists on November 19, 1775 attacked one-third that number of Patriots under Major Andrew Williamson gathered at Ninety Six. After several days of fighting, the two sides agreed to a truce. But Patriot spirit was running high, and the lowcountry leaders soon mounted an expedition that swept away most organized Loyalist resistance. Yet crushing the king's friends did not bring peace to the backcountry. Instead, a savage war of factions broke out that lasted until 1782.
Major General Nathanael Greene's siege of 1781 did considerable damage to the town of Ninety Six. The departing Loyalists in July, however, set fire to the few buildings still standing and even tried to destroy the Star Fort. Within a few years a new town began to arise near the site of the old one. Taking the name Cambridge in 1787, it flourished for a while as a county seat and the home of an academy. The loss of the court house in 1800 started a decline from which the town never recovered. By mid-century, both old Ninety Six and newer Cambridge were little more than memories.
With Ninety Six destroyed, those returning to resettle the area following the Revolutionary War, decided to re-establish the former community in a different location. In August of 1783, the new town was laid out near the former location of Holmes Fort on 180 acres that had been among the 400 acres confiscated by the South Carolina General Assembly from Loyalist James Holmes. The land was vested to seven trustees who were responsible for laying out the town and establishing a public school.
Those who had held lots in Ninety Six prior to the war were given the opportunity to exchange their lots for ones in the new town, which was renamed Cambridge in 1787. The Cambridge town plat consisted of two rows of five squares bisected by a north-south oriented thoroughfare named Guerard Street. Each of the towns ten squares were subdivided into eight rectangular lots measuring 208 ft by 104 ft that faced streets 50 feet wide running perpendicular to Guerard Street. Five town lots were reserved for community buildings including the Ninety Six Judicial District court house, church, meeting house, market, and jail. In 1785, the College Act was passed, which brought the construction of a small college at Cambridge.
In addition to the College of Cambridge, brick court house and jail, the town had at least three taverns, a blacksmith, a shoemaker, a tailor, more than a dozen shops, numerous doctors and lawyers, and a post office. At its height, the population of Cambridge was about 300 residents. But prosperity at Cambridge would soon prove to be quickly fleeting.
Cambridges downfall began less than a decade after its founding, when the size of the Ninety Six Judicial District was reduced in 1791 and abolished altogether in 1800. After the loss of the six-county Judicial District seat, merchants began to leave as well. By 1803, low attendance forced the trustees of the College of Cambridge to dispose of all properties belonging to the institution. Conditions in Cambridge deteriorated further when influenza (called the great plague by inhabitants of the area) ravaged the town in 1815. The decline of Cambridge continued over the next two decades as the towns of Greenwood and Hamburg lured residents away.
By 1835, the Presbyterian church established in 1784 had only one surviving member, who sold the property and building. The slow death of the town included the termination of stagecoach service in 1845, the razing of the court house in 1856, and the closing of the post office in 1860. Those few who remained as residents of Cambridge following the 1850s dwindled in number as one-by-one they died off, and their children moved away in search of jobs and new places to make a living. Most notable among these was the new community of Ninety Six founded two miles to the north of Cambridge, where the establishment of the Greenville and Columbia Railroad line in 1852 and more traveled highways brought more contact with the outside world and the greater opportunities afforded by an ever increasing industrial national economy.
Located in Abbeville District (county) at the time, Cambridge was granted a US Post Office on March 20, 1793, and its first Postmaster was Mr. James Wilson. This Post Office was closed on March 29, 1860. On November 19, 1898, the US Post Office Department granted a Post Office to a second incarnation of Cambridge, established in Greenwood County. This PO was permenently closed on August 15, 1908.