A History of Sumter, South Carolina


Sumter County Court House - Sumter, SC (2008)

Sumter has a colorful history stretching back more than three hundred years. In the 1740s, the first English-speaking settlers arrived to establish roots along the banks of the Wateree River. The "Carolina Backcountry," as it was then known, became a predominantly agricultural area originally part of Craven County, later Claremont County. Sumter District (county) was established effective January 1, 1800. When the state capital was moved from Charleston in 1786, Statesburg, located on U.S. Highways 76 and 378, missed being elected the new capital by one vote. According to tradition, Statesburg (now Stateburg) was also considered as the location for the United States Military Academy, now at West Point.

The city of Sumter is the County Seat and the largest city of Sumter County, the eighth-largest metropolitan area in the state of South Carolina. Incorporated as Sumterville in 1845, the city's name was shortened to Sumter in 1855. It has grown and prospered from its early beginnings as a plantation settlement.

The city and county of Sumter bear the name of Brigadier General Thomas Sumter, the "Fighting Gamecock" of the American Revolutionary War. His place in U.S. history is secure as an ardent Patriot and military genius. Brigadier General Sumter was one of the models for Mel Gibson's character in the 2000 movie, "The Patriot" (along with Francis Marion and Andrew Pickens, also from South Carolina), and his service to his country continued for the duration of his long life.

Born in Virginia in 1734, Thomas Sumter settled in St. Mark's Parish in 1767. He founded the town of Statesburg, where his financial interests included a sawmill, grist mill, general store, and a large plantation. He and his wife, Mary Cantey, had one son, Thomas Jr., born in 1768.

During the American Revolution, Brigadier General Sumter fought in numerous skirmishes and battles, including the Battle of Sullivan's Island, the Georgia Campaign, Turnbull's camp, Hanging Rock, Fishing Creek, and Fish Darn Ford. His fierce revolutionary zeal had its origins in an incident involving a Captain Campbell, whose men plundered his home, placed his invalid wife in her wheelchair on the lawn and then set fire to the house. This event so enraged Sumter that he formed and led a band of guerillas in victorious combat against the British, helping to turn the tide in the war for independence.

Following the war, Brigadier General Sumter continued in the service of the young nation, ultimately as a member of the United States Congress, both in the House of Representatives and in the Senate. He retired at age 76 to his beloved "Home House" in the High Hills of the Santee, where he continued to actively manage his business affairs and remained a respected figure in the Statesburg community until his death in 1832 at age 98, the last surviving general of the Revolutionary War. Thomas Sumter is buried in Statesburg, the adoptive hometown to which he gave so much.

In 1912, the city of Sumter became the first city in the United States to successfully adopt the council-manager form of government. It is still in effect today. Sumter's council-manager government combines the political leadership of elected officials in the form of a seven-member City Council headed by the Mayor, with the strong managerial experience of an appointed City Manager, who serves as the chief administrative and executive officer of the city.


Mail service was begun in 1801 for a place designated as Sumterville under order of the postmaster general of the United States. About 1830, a mail route from Charleston to Camden began passing through the village as required by law, since it was a court house town. The village of Sumterville was incorportated in 1845. For many years the mail to Sumter District was carried by stage, but in 1850, mail service by train was started between Wilmington, North Carolina and Sumterville.

At this time Sumter District had twenty post offices: Bishopville, Bradford Institute, Bradleyville, Brewington, Clarendon, Friendship, Fulton, Lodibar, Manchester, Mechanicsville, Mill Grove, Mount Clio, Plowden's Mill, Privateer, Providence, Salem, Statesburg, Sumterville, Willow Grove, and Wright's Bluff. The name of the county seat was shortened to Sumter in 1855. Following the fall of the Confederacy in 1868, Sumter District became Sumter County.


* Sumter was the first city in the United States to adopt the council-manager form of government, now accepted as the nation's standard and used by more than 2,500 municipalities throughout the country.

* The Iris Festival, held every May at Swan Lake Iris Gardens, is a multiple winner of the "Top 20 Events in the Southeast" Award and is South Carolina's oldest continuing festival.

* Swan Lake Iris Gardens is the only public park in the United States with all eight known species of swans and 250 varieties of Japanese Iris.

* Sumter is named for Brigadier General Thomas Sumter, the "Fighting Gamecock" of the American Revolution and one of the models for Mel Gibson's character in the 2000 film, The Patriot.

* The Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross (Stateburg) is the burial site of Joel Roberts Poinsett, U.S. ambassador to Mexico, botanist and namesake of the poinsettia.

* Dalzell, in Sumter County, is the home of Garnay Industries, the world's largest gingko biloba farm.

* Citadel Cadet George Edward "Tuck" Haynsworth, who fired the first shot of the Civil War, was born and raised in Sumter and is buried here.

* Potter's Raid, passing through Sumter and Clarendon Counties, was the last major campaign of the Civil War.

* Shaw Air Force Base, ten miles from Sumter, is home to the 9th Air Force and headquarters for the 20th Fighter Wing of the USAF.

* William "April" Ellison, a freed slave from Statesburg, perfected the cotton gin invented by Eli Whitney.

* Angelica Singleton Van Buren, White House hostess during the Van Buren administration, was a Sumter native.

* Dalzell native Bill Pinkney of the original Drifters was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 alongside the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, and the Supremes.

* Philip Rembert, Sumter's first African-American City Councilman, served in World War II as one of the "Tuskegee Airmen," the fighter pilots whose story was dramatized in the 1995 HBO original movie starring Laurence Fishburne. Three of the Airmen were born or grew up in Sumter County.

* Sumter is the hometown of numerous famous athletes including Baseball Hall of Famer Bobby Richardson and Superbowl veteran Freddie Solomon.

* Sumter High School graduate Shawn Weatherly was Miss Universe 1980.

* The Palmetto Pigeon Farm is the source for squab served at Buckingham Palace.

* Renowned artists Jasper Johns and Granger McKoy both have roots in Sumter.

* The electric refrigerator was invented by a Sumter native, Charles T. Mason, Jr.

* The educator Mary McLeod Bethune, nineteenth-century prima donna Clara Louise Kellogg and Confederate General Richard Heron Anderson were some other notable Sumter natives.


As Sumtersville, the town was granted a US Post Office on July 1, 1802, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Gate. According to Post Office records, the town's name was officially changed to Sumterville in 1828, to Sumter Court House in 1855, and finally simply to Sumter in 1892. Its Post Office has been in continuous operation ever since inception in 1802.


© 2007 - J.D. Lewis - PO Box 1188 - Little River, SC 29566 - All Rights Reserved