Both Georgetown and Georgetown County were named for Prince George, who later became King George II of England. Colonial planters and their slaves began settling the area in the early 1700s, focusing on the crops of indigo, and later, rice, cotton, and lumber.
The city started to take shape in 1721 when a petition to establish Prince George Winyah Parish was granted. The parish was based at the Prince George Winyah Church along the Black River, just north of modern-day Georgetown. In 1734, the parish split and the Prince Frederick Parish was created, taking over the initial position on the Black River. As a result, Prince George Parish relocated to the Georgetown’s current location along the Sampit River.
Shortly before the relocation, in 1729, Georgetown’s roads and street names were laid out by Elisha Screven, who is considered the town’s founder. In Screven’s initial plan, areas were reserved for Anglican, Presbyterian, and Baptist churches. The four-by-eight block grid is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. It is flanked by Wood Street, Church Street, Meeting Street, and Front Street.
In 1765, Georgetown was decreed a “pretty little Town” by a traveling Englishman, though in fact the city sits on two other rivers as well – the Waccamaw and PeeDee. (In addition, the Black River and the North and South Santee flow into the surrounding county.)
When the American Revolution began in 1775, it all but stopped the indigo trade out of Georgetown, which primarily exported to England. Luckily for Georgetown, the transition from indigo to rice was an easy one, as the field structures require many of the same types of water distribution. Merchants and plantation owners quickly became rich on “Carolina Gold,” the nickname for rice at the time.
The Civil War and the end of slavery brought a crushing blow to rice production in Georgetown. Competition had already begun in non-slavery-based economies like Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Mississippi, and California. These western states benefited from modern harvesting equipment, but coastal South Carolina’s wet, muddy soil couldn’t support the heavy machines. In the face of these obstacles, rice could no longer sustain Georgetown, and the area harvested its last commercial rice crop in 1919.
Aided in no small part by the rivers that surround it and flow into the Atlantic Ocean, Georgetown was able to rebound by attracting new industries. Timber, paper, and steel industries flourished for much of the twentieth century.
Standing as an icon along Georgetown’s Front Street is the Strand Theater. Built in 1941 as a local movie house, this theater supplied the cultural and entertainment facility to the residents of this waterfront city. The theater would close in the early 1970s and reopen in the early 1980s as a community theater. The Swamp Fox Players occupy the theater and spent more than a year renovating it as a suitable place for theatrical performances. Renovations have continued into modern times and the seats in the balcony are from another Georgetown movie theater that operated from the 1940s through the 1960s known as the Palace Theater.
Historic Photos of Georgetown
The photograph below shows an oil painting that was presented to the city by Harper Bond in 1901 for display in the Georgetown booth at the Charleston Exposition of 1902. The note attached to the photo also adds, “This large painting today hangs in the City Hall. The painting was executed during the administration of Mayor W. D. Morgan and shows some of the 2,000 trees planted by the city during Morgan’s time. The artist was reported to have individually measured each structure and block to paint what appears as an aerial view of the city at the turn of the century.”