Oconee County, South Carolina, is located just to the West of Clemson and is abutted by the States of North Carolina to the North and Georgia to the West. The county seat is Walhalla which takes its name from mythology. Much of Oconee County is bordered by Lakes Hartwell and Keowee with Sumter National Forest land in in the mountainous North. The Pickens-Oconee line runs along the western edge of Clemson and the University.
The Clemson Campus and the neighborhoods to its south and southeast were part of Oconee County until the county line was redrawn on February 20, 1967, trading ten square miles of land on the southern border for wilderness along the northern border of Pickens County and Oconee County.
Oconee County makes up the northwestern tip of South Carolina and is known as the "Golden Corner of South Carolina." The county gets its name from the Creek Indians who lived in the area and had a settlement called Ukoona, which means "water eyes of the hills." Over the years the Seneca, Muskogen, Etowah, Creek and Cherokee tribes made this their home.
The area of present-day Oconee County was home to unknown groups of Native-American Indians as early as 330 A.D. About 1100, 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 Cherokee in present-day far Eastern Georgia and extreme northwestern South Carolina after 1500 A.D. (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 Cherokee resulted in the destruction of most of the Lower Cherokee villages, and the loss by the Cherokee of the lands south and east of the present-day South Carolina counties of Anderson and Greenville. An attack by the Cherokee on the settled parts of South Carolina 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 Station, a guard post to warn of possible Indian attacks, was erected along the Tugaloo River between the states of Georgia and South Carolina 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 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 re-granted select lands by South Carolina on the east side of the Tugaloo River.
During the 1780s, small bands of mixed Cherokee and Creeks attacked the small settlements along the Tugaloo River. In 1792, a threatened major attack by the Creeks and dissident Cherokee 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, 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 part of the infamous Trail of Tears to Oklahoma reservations in the 1820s.
Oconee County was a part of the old Ninety-Six and Pendleton districts. In 1828 the Pendleton District (comprising Anderson, Pickens and Oconee counties) was divided into Anderson District to the southeast and the northwestern portion into Pickens District, named for Revolutionary War hero 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 west side of the Keowee River near the Duke Power Dam on S.C. Highway 183, often called Old Pickens, came into being too as the District Seat. 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 moving to Walhalla or new Pickens further to the east. Some of the notable area landmarks 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 group of Germans under the leadership of General John A. Wagener and the German Colonization Society of Charleston, South Carolina, founded and settled the town of Walhalla. The name comes from the Nordic-Germanic mythology and means "Gardens of the Gods." Their plans of continued German immigration and settlement in Walhalla were interrupted by the War Between the States, 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-1860s 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 construction of the railroad was interrupted by the war and never resumed. The old railroad right of way and bed can be seen crossing the mountain terrain for several miles north and west of Walhalla, and Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel is today a tourist attraction on the National Register of Historic Places.
After the war, the Atlanta and Richmond Air Line Railway, later the Southern Railway, and now the Norfolk Southern, was built through Oconee County in the early 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 Company built a textile plant near Seneca in 1901. it was later operated by Westpoint Stevens 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 Tamassee 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 and Ploma 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 quarter 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 wildflower, the Oconee Bell, first recorded by French botanist Andrew Micheaux in 1788. In the late 1960s, Duke Power purchased huge tracts of land on either side of the Whitewater and Keowee Rivers, and Oconee Nuclear Station was constructed, one of the largest industries of the county and surrounding areas. Keowee Key, ten 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.
- Shealy, Rev. George B., Walhalla, S.C., "The Heritage of Oconee County, Vol. 1, 1868-1995, The Blue Ridge Arts Council, Seneca, South Carolina, 1995, Library of Congress card number 95-61417, page 20.