Thursday, November 06, 2008
Morgan Square is the center of the city of Spartanburg, both historically and geographically. For a time, though, it could be argued that it was not the cultural or economic center of the community. In those years, downtown was crumbling and nearly abandoned, a victim of shifting demographics.
When I was a youngun in the 1980s and early 1990s, Morgan Square was a curiosity on the way from my parents' house to the west side of town. It was a place where I might marvel at the older architecture for a few minutes before we got back to the highway once again. We hardly ever stopped, or looked back.
Fortunately, Morgan Square is doing far better these days. At least in my world, it has once again resumed its role as the epicenter of community life. I live, work and play downtown... something that would have been far less common just ten years ago.
So in tribute to Morgan Square's increasing relevance, I thought you might enjoy hearing about its beginnings to gain an understanding of why things are situated the way they are.
First, a little background:
Although European traders and explorers had been venturing into this area as early as the 1500s, settlement didn't really begin until the mid-18th century. By that time, settlers had begun inching up the Tyger, Fairforest, and Pacolet Rivers, gradually pushing the frontier northwestward towards the mountains. It took a while for the law to catch up to this area, and for much of the mid-century, custom and force were the only governing principles. Militias took care of matters when things got out of hand, and land transactions were handled further away in Ninety Six, SC.
By 1785, the state government was ready to begin subdividing the hinterlands of the state so that the few courts in existence were less encumbered and so that they could gain a firmer grip on these lawless backwoods. In recognition of the Spartan Regiment mustered near modern Glendale during the Revolution, they named this district the Spartanburg County (later District and later still County again).
The first court session was held in June of 1785 at Anderson Mill, a grist mill that still stands on the North Tyger River. There they selected a sheriff and a coroner. The next two court sessions in September and December were held on the plantation of Thomas Williamson, whose land straddled the borders of the Pacolet and Tyger watersheds near the center of the county.
That December session, though, the court decided to establish and build the court house and public buildings on a small hill overlooking Fairforest Creek near where South Church Street crosses the creek now. The next four court sessions (March, June, September and December 1786) were held here until an order from the governor directed the court to be moved back to Thomas Williamson's.
Sometime around the new year, 1787, the decision had been made and the court moved back up to Thomas Williamson's. Williamson transferred two acres of his land to the county and soon afterwards a courthouse, jail, and public square were built. This is now the land that makes up Morgan Square.
But why (other than an order from the governor) was Thomas Williamson's land chosen?
This question seemed to be unanswerable based on the historic record until I began closely examining the oldest map of the county held by the museum. It shows a detailed, if skewed, view of the county along with principal roads, waterways, and points of interest. There are two lines that seem to divide the county into quadrants, running just off of the cardinal directions. Where these lines intersect, a circle is drawn along with the word "Center." Immediately beside this word is written "Williamson's." "Spartanburg" does not appear anywhere on the map.
This would suggest that Williamson's land may have been chosen because of its location in the center of the county (at least as it was drawn in this map and with its original borders). I've never heard this as an explanation, but based on this map and the actual location of the city, it seems to make sense.
Take a look at these places sometime and try to imagine the city being centered on Fairforest Creek or imagine downtown as a rural landscape with its natural hills and streams intact. If things had worked out only slightly differently, that's the way things would have been!
More on Morgan Square's history next time...