The Cheraw and Pee Dee Indians inhabited what is now Chesterfield County at the time of European settlement. Of Siouan stock, the Cheraws were the dominant tribe in the upper Pee Dee. The Cheraws migrated to this area in the late 17th century and maintained a well-fortified village on the river hill close to present day Cheraw. Wars and disease greatly decimated their population after a time, and around 1738 they joined the Catawba Confederacy. They left only their names and well established trading routes. By the time of the Revolution, only a few scattered families of Native Americans remained in the area.
Most of Cheraw's early European settlers were English, Scots, French or Irish. Two of the earliest of these were James Gillespie and Thomas Ellerbe who started a trading center and water mill at the Cheraw Hills around 1740. Welsh Baptists later made their way up river from the Society Hill area. Almost from the beginning African Americans were brought here as slaves. By 1750 Cheraw was one of six places in South Carolina appearing on English maps and was an established village with a growing river trade.
Joseph and Eli Kershaw, who also had business interests in Camden, were granted part of the present town of Cheraw around 1768. Around the same time, the colonial government established St. David’s Parish, with the parish church to be located at Cheraw. The Kershaws formally laid out the street system with broad streets and a Town Green. By 1830, the streets were lined with triple rows of elm trees. Some of the median trees remain, particularly on Third Street, but many were removed at the turn of the century to put in water lines.
The Kershaws called the town "Chatham" after William Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, but this never seemed to have had wide acceptance, and Cheraw or Cheraw Hill continued to be used interchangeably with Chatham. Cheraw has been the official name since the town's incorporation in 1820.
During the Revolution, Cheraw was the center of a terrible civil war. The town was held at various times by both the British and the American partisans, and St. David's church was used by both armies as a hospital. In January of 1781 Gen. Greene's Continentals had a camp of repose just across the river. After the war, the devastation here was so great that it took many years for the area to recover.
Cheraw was at the head of navigable waters on the Great Pee Dee and was thus the shipping center for a wide area. Corn, tobacco, rice and indigo were grown in the more fertile surrounding lands and cattle raising, with the related tanning and curing industries, was a major source of income. Prior to the Confederate War, both the largest cotton market between Georgetown and Wilmington and the largest bank in South Carolina outside of Charleston were located here.
The first bridge across the Pee Dee and the advent of steamship service to Cheraw in the 1820's led to a golden age, and numerous buildings from this period still grace Cheraw's streets. A serious fire destroyed most of the business district in the 1835, but by the end of the 1850's Cheraw was a prosperous, secure town which served as a regional center of business, education, culture and religion.
Citizens of Cheraw played a leading role in South Carolina's secession, and the town became a haven for refugees and a storage place for valuables and military stores during the Confederate War. In March of 1865, Cheraw played unwilling host to more of Gen. William T Sherman's Union troops than any other South Carolina city. They found Cheraw "a pleasant town and an old one with the southern aristocratic bearing", and amazingly they left it that way. Although the business district was destroyed in an accidental explosion, no public buildings or dwellings were burned. However, the county courthouse in Chesterfield was burned and exact dates on many Cheraw buildings are unknown.
Prosperity began to return by 1900 and many fine Victorian and Revival buildings are still in evidence here. Although the Great Depression hit this area hard, it did leave the wonderful legacy of Cheraw State Park and extensive other public lands. Cheraw in the 1960's began to diversify her industrial base, and today Cheraw is a prosperous town that takes pride in preserving her past while planning for the future.