Oconee County, South Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)



Cherokee Name
"Water Eyes of the Hills"


Legislative Act Creating County

First Settled / By

County Evolution by Decade

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1784 / Revolutionary War Veterans

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American Revolution

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Coming Later

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Airports in Oconee County

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A History of Oconee County

Long Creek Academy - Oconee County

Oconee is a Cherokee word meaning "water eyes of the hills." Oconee County was created in 1868 when the South Carolina Constitutional Convention renamed districts to counties and divided Pickens County. Walhalla, created in 1850 by the German Colonization Society, became the county seat, and is the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The railroad played a major role in the development of this area. The Blue Ridge Railroad was completed in 1859, and connected Anderson with Walhalla. When the Atlanta & Richmond Air Line Railway was built in 1873, it led to the creation of the town of Westminster in 1874, named for the church in England, and the creation of the town of Seneca (1873), an Indian name. Newry, near Seneca, is an 1890s textile village, still with some of its nineteenth century charm. Mountain Rest, a picturesque name, is in the mountains north of Walhalla. West Union began as a temperance union. Salem, near Whitewater Falls, is another early community. Fair Play gets its name from a fight.

Oconee County takes its name from the Cherokee word "Ae-quo-nee" meaning "land beside the water." It was formed in 1868 from Pickens County, and the county seat is Walhalla. This area in the northwest corner of the state on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains was home to several Indian tribes, including the Creeks and the Cherokees, but the Indians gave up their lands in treaties signed in 1777 and 1785. After the American Revolution, settlers from other parts of the state began moving in, including the Germans from Charleston who founded the town of Walhalla in 1850.

Stumphouse Tunnel

In 1856 work began on a tunnel for the Blue Ridge Railroad that would have linked Charleston with Knoxville, Tennessee, but the Civil War ended that project; the unfinished Stumphouse Tunnel can still be seen today. Several Revolutionary War heroes moved to present day Oconee County after the war, including Andrew Pickens (1739-1817), Robert Anderson (1741-1813), and Benjamin Cleveland (1738-1806).

The area of present-day Oconee County was home to unknown groups of Indians as early as 300 AD. About 1100 AD, the Etowah Indians probably occupied the region. Muskogeans inhabited parts of the territory previously occupied by the Etowahs from approximately 1350-1600, and recent studies place the arrival of the Cherokees in present-day far eastern Georgia and extreme northwestern South Carolina after 1500. (This date is subject to change in the future as additional materials on the Cherokee are discovered and as the relationships between the Cherokee and other Indian people are redefined.)

In 1760, a bitter war between South Carolina and the Cherokees resulted in the destruction of most of the Lower Cherokee villages, and the loss by the Cherokee of lands south and east of the present-day South Carolina counties of Anderson and Greenville. An attack by the Cherokees on the settled parts of South Carolina in 1776 resulted in one of the early campaigns of the Revolutionary War. The Lower Cherokee villages, most of which were in the area of present-day Oconee County, were destroyed, and all but a few of the Lower Cherokee moved out of the boundaries of present-day South Carolina. Norwood's Station, a guard post to warn of possible Indian attacks was erected along the Tugaloo River in the latter years of the Revolutionary War and apparently continued in operation for a number of years after 1783.

Following the Revolutionary War, Colonel Benjamin Cleveland of North Carolina and a group of his followers received land grants from Georgia and settled along the Tugaloo River. (At that time, the state of Georgia claimed lands on the eastern side of the river in what is today Oconee County.) When these people arrived in 1784, they became the first known domestic white settlers of the area that eventually became Oconee County. After Georgia gave up all claims to the land between the Tugaloo and Keowee rivers by the Treaty of Beaufort in 1787, Cleveland and some other settlers were regranted select lands by South Carolina on the east side of the Tugaloo River.

During the 1780s, small bands of mixed Cherokees and Creeks attacked the small settlements along the Tugaloo River. In 1792, a threatened major attack by the Creeks and dissident Cherokees along the frontiers of the South led to the construction of a small number of outposts, including Oconee Station (after which Oconee County was probably named in 1868.) The entire Stumphouse Mountain Range of mountains was originally called Oconee Mountain, possibly the name of one of the many Indian tribes in the area. By 1799, the Indian dangers had passed and new white settlers moved into the area. The Cherokee sold their remaining lands in what is today northwestern Oconee County in 1816. Native American Indians who lived in what is today Oconee County were a part of the infamous Trail of Tears to Oklahoma reservations in the 1830s.

What later became Oconee County was considered to be a part of the old Ninety-Six, Washington, and Pendleton districts. In 1826, the Pendleton District (comprising Anderson, Pickens, and Oconee counties) was divided into Anderson District (county) to the southeast and the northwestern portion into Pickens District (county), named for Revolutionary War hero Brigadier General Andrew Pickens, who lived on the eastern side of the Seneca River near present-day Clemson University. Pickens District stretched from Anderson District to the south to the North Carolina state line to the north, and from Greenville District on the east to the Tugaloo River and the Georgia state line on the west.

The town of Pickens Court House on the western side of the Keowee River near the Duke Power Dam on SC-183, often called Old Pickens, was the first District Seat of the Pickens District. A new court house was established in the 1840s a bit further east, and it too was named Pickens Court House. When the District was divided in 1868 into Oconee and Pickens counties and Walhalla became the county seat of Oconee, Old Pickens disappeared into a ghost town, its inhabitants moved to Walhalla or to the new Pickens further to the east. Some of the notable area land-marks included Knox's Bridge, Harris Shoals, Mullen's Ford, Jenkins Ferry and Jarret's Bridge on the Tugaloo River, and Fair Play, Rockwell, Townville, Snow Creek, Bachelors Retreat, Kilpatrick's, Mason's, Steel's, Horse Shoe, Colonel's Fork, Bounty Land, Richland, Oconee Station, West Union, Smeltzer's Mountain, High Falls, Stumphouse, Henderson's, Whetstone, and Cheohee.

In 1850, a small groups of Germans under the leadership of General John A. Wagener and the German Colonization Society of Charleston, SC, founded and settled the town of Walhalla. The name comes from Nordic-Germanic mythology and means "Garden of the Gods." Their plans of continued German immigration and settlement in Walhalla were interrupted by the Civil War, and afterwards German immigration never reached the point to keep the town significantly German. When Pickens District was divided into Oconee and Pickens counties in 1868, Walhalla was made the Oconee County seat.

A number of Irishmen came to Stumphouse Mountain in the mid-1850s to build a tunnel for the Blue Ridge Railroad. The town of Tunnel Hill, located above Stumphouse Tunnel and built by Irish workers, was perhaps the largest town in extreme northwestern South Carolina in the mid and late 1850s. The Blue Ridge Railroad was chartered to connect Charleston with inland areas of commerce near the Mississippi River, but for economic reasons and the Civil War, was never completed any further than Walhalla on the South Carolina side of the mountains. The old railroad right-of-way and bed can still be seen crossing the mountain terrain several miles north and west of Walhalla, and Stumphouse Tunnel is today a tourist attraction on the National Register of Historic Places.

After the American Civil War, the Atlanta & Richmond Air Line Railway (now the Norfolk Southern Railway) was built through Oconee County in the 1870s, and the present towns of Seneca and Westminster came into being. Richland and Fort Madison subsequently developed along the railroad line but have not survived to the present as towns. Large textile mills were built in the upstate in the 1890s, with Newry in southeast Oconee County remaining as one of the earliest, least-altered textile villages in extreme northwestern South Carolina. The Lonsdale Manufacturing Co. built a textile plant near Seneca in 1901. It is now operated by Westpoint Steverts Manufacturing Company, employing 600 people.

The mountain town of Salem was chartered in the early 1900s. Special schools for rural and mountain children originated between 1910 and 1930, with the Long Creek Academy and Tamasee D.A.R. School, where the adult education program in South Carolina was founded, One of the first soil conservation districts in the United States was located slightly west of Seneca on the Quincy Adams farm. This farm has now been developed into a community of homes, churches, and schools and is now a part of the incorporated city of Seneca. Approximately one-fourth of
Oconee County is now owned by either Clemson University or the United States Forest Service. Located in the hills of Oconee County and surrounded by the government forests are the mountain communities of Long Creek, famous for its apple industry, and Mountain Rest, once an overnight stopping point for persons on their way from Walhalla to the mountains of North Carolina.

The construction of huge government and private lakes starting in the 1950s turned Oconee County into an ideal tourism, recreation and retirement area. Oconee County is a land of natural beauty and a somewhat diverse population. It is also the home of a rare windflower, the Oconee Bell, first recorded by Micheaux in the late 1700s. In the late 1960s, Duke Power Company purchased huge tracks of lands on either side of the Whitewater and Keowee Rivers, and the Oconee Nuclear Station is one of the largest industries of the county and surrounding areas. Keowee Key, 10 miles north of Seneca near Salem, an exclusive retirement community, attracts many out-of-state retirees, particularly from Northern and Midwestern states. Keowee Key has over 2,000 inhabitants, 880 homes and 300 condominiums. Occupying a land once inhabited by American Indians, almost everyone living in Oconee County might be termed newcomers.

For two centuries, the non-Indian residents of Oconee County have welcomed new arrivals; however. there are problems associated with an increased population and uncharted growth and change. The construction of large lakes displaced many people and drastically altered the landscape of the county. At present, rising real estate values in some areas of the county threaten to displace families who have resided there for several generations. Land in parts of the county is being altered through development or as a result
of theories on land and forest management.

In 1868, Pickens County, named for Brigadier General Andrew Pickens, soldier of the Revolution, was divided into Oconee and Pickens counties, and Oconee (the name is of Indian origin) is the state's extreme northwest county, on the 34th parallel of north latitude. Its area is 650 square miles, of which 200 square miles are mountain and 450 are undulating terrain, the soil belonging mainly to the Cecil series. The mean altitude is 1,060 feet.

The official readings of the weather bureau show for the last eight years an annual mean rainfall of 61.8 inches; mean temperature of 60.3 degrees; a maximum of 101.5 degrees, and a minimum of 8.5 degrees. The growing season is 210 days.

The population is, white, 23,719; colored, 6,398.

Walhalla (Garden of the Gods), population 2,068 in 1920, estimated now at 2,500, is the county seat. Other towns are Seneca, 1,460 (estimated 2,000) ; Westminster, 1,847 (estimated 2,200) ; West Union, 306 (estimated 500).

The double track Washington-Atlanta main line of the Southern Railway runs 25.70 miles, by Seneca and Westminster, through the county. The Blue Ridge Railway, of which Walhalla is the northern terminus and Anderson the southern, has 19.45 miles in the county, crossing the Southern Railway tracks at Seneca.

Forty miles of paved highways are under construction or approval and there are 25 miles of waterbound macadam and 70 miles of topsoil. In the county system are 1,800 miles of road. Appropriations for road construction, 1926-27 amount to $1,237,000. The Piedmont Air Line traverses the county along the main line of the Southern Railwas tracks and the Wade Hampton Memorial highway from Walhalla to Cashiers, N. C., is to be paved in 1927.

Clemson college, on the homestead of John C. Calhoun, is in Oconee. The county has nine accredited high schools, 60 graded schools for whites and 31 for Negroes. The school term is seven to nine months. At Tamassee is the D. A. R. Industrial School for Girls. Long Creek academy is for both boys and girls. At Seneca is a junior college for colored girls and boys. The school enrollment last year was about 12,000.

Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Seventh Day Adventists, and Roman Catholics have churches.

In the county are five cotton mills with approximately 130,000 spindles, and 2,500 employees. Three oil mills, three planing mills, two ice plants, one handle factory, 30 saw mills, are operated. Lumbering is an important industry. Pine, oak, poplar, hickory, ash, walnut, dogwood, persimmon, chestnut, maple and locust are marketed.

Nantahala Forest Reservation embraces 40,000 acres of forest-covered mountain land on which the government practices scientific forestation. Cut over lands yield new crops of timber trees in 25 years.

Gold and copper have been mined. Mineral-bearing tracts are being acquired for future development.

The chief industry is diversified agriculture. Four-fifths of the area is adapted to successful farming. Cotton, corn, wheat, rye and forage, are the principal crops. Cattle, hog and poultry raising is on the increase. Dairying is profitable. Apples, peaches, pears and berries are in their native element. Commercial orchards are multiplying. Oconee apples have taken highest prizes at the state fair for years. Farm and home demonstration agents are employed annually.

Keowee, Seneca and Whitewater rivers are on the east, Tugaloo and Chattooga on the west, with numerous small tributaries. Here nature has been prodigal in her bounties, and the mountains through and among which these crystal waters wind embody more of beautiful prospect and romantic situation than art can figure to the eye, or language convey to the mind. Here the smoke of the wigwam fires once mingled in the skies, and here was laid the scene of Jocassee, that beautiful Cherokee legend so graphically told by William Gilmore Simms.

The streams afford abundance of trout, both brook and rainbow. The forests abound in quail, pheasants, turkeys, squirrels, foxes, deer, raccoons, opossums, wildcats, groundhogs. Game and fish protection is enforced by state officers in cooperation with the wardens of Tri-State Country Club, which has its club house on Whitewater River, 22-miles north of Walhalla.

About three miles to the south and on this river is the Jocassee Camp for Boys and Girls, the only camp of its kind in the state. Representatives from ten states attended the camp for periods of four successive weeks this summer.

Oconee county invites those who seek a home amid attractive surroundings, in an equable, invigorating climate, where the soil, adapted to diversified farming, yields ample reward, the mills and shops furnish employment to thousands and the scenery delights and inspires.

Immediately above, published in "South Carolina: A Handbook," prepared by The Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industries and Clemson College, Columbia, South Carolina, 1927. In the Public Domain. [with minor edits]


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