The Catawba Indian Nation first inhabited the area as hunters, farmers, and fishermen. Today, they are known for their pottery, and their influence in the area is still felt. As late as the early 1990s, tribal land claims delayed development of residential and commercial properties in Rock Hill and surrounding York County, and Federal recognition of the Catawba Nation came in 1993. The Catawba reservation is located a few miles southeast of Rock Hill.
Originally, most of York County was part of North Carolina, but a 1772 settlement set the boundary making it the “New Acquisition” of South Carolina. Early white settlers came up from Charleston and down from Pennsylvania through Virginia. The Germans, English, Welsh, Irish, and French came and moved on, but the Scots-Irish stayed.
Several Revolutionary War battles were fought on York County soil, including the Battle of Huck’s Defeat (or Williamson’s Plantation) on July 10, 1780. This was the first British defeat since the fall of Charleston some months earlier.
In the 1840’s, The Charlotte and South Carolina Railroad Company proposed building a railroad from Charlotte to Columbia, SC, locating the tracks 2 miles east of the community near a “rocky hill” (on the survey) that had been a landmark for travelers. The original post office, opened on April 17, 1852, was first called Ebenezer Depot, then changed to Rockhill on January 7, 1896, and, finally, to Rock Hill on February 21, 1912.
Following the Civil War, the early businessmen were merchants who borrowed against their resources to stock their stores. Banks and utilities soon followed, and mills opened for processing the cotton locally instead of shipping bales from Charleston to New England and England for processing and weaving. Included in the mix of business and industry were a buggy and carriage maker, tobacco processor, machine shops, iron works, cannery, furniture maker, and grist mill.
Early residents attended a Presbyterian Church, followed by the Methodist, Episcopalian, and Baptist denominations. Black congregations quickly organized following the Emancipation; the first black church was Hermon Presbyterian (1869).
Education was valued. Two early schools were the Rock Hill Academy, 1854-1888 (boys) and the Pineopolis Academy, begun in 1875 (girls). The need for a public grade school was recognized in 1886 and fund-raising began. By 1901, there were 38 school districts in York County with 102 facilities. During the 1890s, D.B. Johnson began a teacher training school for women in Columbia. Gov. Benjamin Tillman, seeing a need for business and industrial training for woman, joined with Johnson to create the South Carolina Industrial and Winthrop Normal College, later evolving into Winthrop University. Rock Hill won a spirited campaign to host the new institution, and the college opened its doors in 1896.