Before the arrival of European civilization, Cherokees farmed along the clear, cold rivers and took their game from the meadows and towering forests of what is now Pickens County. Spanish explorers followed the trails and rivers into the Southern Highlands in the sixteenth century, and other nations soon followed.
In 1670, England made a settlement on the coast and named the land Carolina for King Charles. Naturally, European traders were not long in finding paths to the Lower Cherokee capital on the Keowee River. In these hills and river valleys, fortunes in hides and furs could be secured in exchange for European tools and firearms, pipes, housewares, beads and clothes.
Loyalty to these British traders only hastened the doom of the Lower Cherokees. Tensions between tribes developed over the question of white encroachment, and Tories sometimes incited Indian attacks against "disloyal" white neighbors.
In the mid 1700s, the British established Fort Prince George on the banks of the Keowee River to provide some protection for the settlers to the area. By the time of the Revolutionary War, Fort Prince George had been abandoned, but its presence had provided the impetus for the destruction of the Cherokee nation.
In August of 1776, the anger among white settlers, Cherokees, and other tribes erupted. The South Carolina Militia, under Major Andrew Williamson, began a sweep of death and destruction through Cherokee towns and villages.
Three years later, at Tamassee in present-day Oconee County,
General Andrew Pickens led the last great battle against the Cherokees
in South Carolina. The tough, dour general was a master of negotiations
as well as war. In 1785, he invited tribal representatives of the Cherokees,
Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws to his home, Hopewell, located on what
is now part of the Clemson University campus.
A small pocket of Cherokees remained in the northern mountains well into the 1800s. General Pickens, one-time Indian fighter, chose to be near them in his old age. He moved to Tamassee, where in 1817 he died peacefully in the shade of a cedar tree. His memory lives on in "Pickens' County," a legacy of Cherokees that remains in such place names as Eastatoee, Keowee, Oolenoy and Saluda.
A year or more before Gen. Pickens "Hopewell Treaty," white settlers were already recording deeds on the Twelve Mile and Keowee Rivers. Settlers were largely Ulster Scot, German and English, with occasional French Huguenot stock, like Andrew Pickens' ancestors.
This settlement area was initially called the Washington District, and later, the Pendleton District. As the population grew, the Pendleton District was split and the area including present-day Pickens and Oconee Counties was renamed the Pickens District (formed in 1828).
The district seat of Pickens District was on the Keowee River. Here, a courthouse anchored the town which grew on what is now the site of Duke Power Company's Keowee Dam and Oconee Nuclear Station.
Forty years after the formation of the Pickens District, following a Civil War that saw more than its share of locals serve bravely, the district was divided into Pickens and Oconee Counties. The town of Pickens was moved, brick and board, 14 miles east to its current site. All that is left standing of "Old Pickens" is the sturdy brick Presbyterian Church, now quite literally "the little old church in the wildwood." Several buildings that stood on the "Old Pickens" site are still in existence in Pickens and Oconee Counties, including the Hagood-Mauldin house just off Main Street in Pickens.
Cotton was undisputed king of the red hills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The coming of the Richmond and Danville (later Southern) Railroad in 1873 not only made it easier to haul cotton out, but to bring in machinery as well.
Big industry was first represented by the Norris Cotton Mill (1895). Five years later, Pickens County boasted three cotton mills, 37 sawmills, 10 shingle mills, four brick mills, two railroads and two banks. There were 26 churches, each at the heart of a community which also usually included a school.
Country life is still a popular choice in Pickens County, although the family farm has mostly given way to diverse jobs and careers in the ever-widening variety of business and industry. We are an increasingly cosmopolitan community. Still, many in local businesses and professions take pride in roots that go back to a settler's cabin on Oolenoy or Twelve Mile, back to a time when the Cherokee cooking fires were barely cool.
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