The Mill & The Mountain: Richard Pearis

Milling Around Greenville, South Carolina

The Mill & The Mountain: Richard Pearis

Greenville, South Carolina 29617, United States

Created By: Seeking Abraham Project

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Atop Paris Mountain, you can tell why this city and county became a legendary place for mills--fast moving water off this mountain and the "Blue Wall" of the Appalachians to our north, cooler climate compared to the rest of the state, and rocky soil that did not lend itself to large-scale cultivation (but surrounded downstate by counties with plenty of fertile soil for cotton production). Most days, you can see the smokestacks of the old mills dotting the skyline of the city.

Greenville's history begins with a figure of extreme ill-repute or peaceful co-existence and paternalist among natives, depending on who you ask. He's a good figure to begin understanding Greenville's complicated economic and cultural history. It all starts with Richard Pearis and his mill--on the land below this mountain that now carries his name (the misspelling perhaps historic justice to such a figure).

Cherokee lands were taken by Richard Pearis, a trader who founded Greenville first mills in 1768. In a piece by Archie Vernon Huff Jr., Pearis was described by an Indian interpreter as “a very dangerous fellow who will breed great disturbances if he is left alone, for he will tell the Indians any lies to please them” (14-15). Yet other sources say that Pearis “continued to trade with the Cherokees, who apparently held him in high regard and according to some accounts gave him 100,000 acres of land, where he built a house, trading post, mill, and storage building,” according to his descendants.

Pearis not only used western technologies to build and make this life for himself; he also took a Cherokee woman as a second wife and fathered two children by her (who were raised by the Cherokee woman's family). Apparently, this delicate balance allowed him to be a landowner within Cherokee lands (by marrying into the tribe), but also keeping enough distance to stay in positive relation with other parts of the tribe not allied with the wife's family.

Pearis is going to create the mold for dozens of mill developers: heady pursuit of wealth and resources, combined with fatherly control hoping to "improve" the local population; the rhetoric of big promises for better life sometimes only panning out minimally or not at all; and as we will see, a certainty that he had been the victim of schemes against him.

In November of 1773, Pearis was found guilty of holding Indian land and was forced to give up the land that he had previously believed was gifted to him by the Indians. Without the proper documentation of this gift, there was no evidence to show that the land was ever under ownership by Pearis. Pearis became a Loyalist in the American Revolution because of his hopes to regain his land. During the war, Pearis was captured and sent to Charleston for nine months. When he was released, he discovered that his house and plantation were burned by backcountry opponents in July of 1776. In addition, Pearis’ family had been captured. After a while, Pearis found his family and moved to the Bahamas with them. In 1794, Pearis passed away while living in the Bahamas.

Lemuel J. Alston acquired most of the land from the war, and in 1797, offered a portion including the falls area as the site for the county's official courthouse.

Despite the murkiness of this history, Pearis, not Alston, appears on nearly all city histories, and a life-size representation of Richard Pearis is held at the Upcountry History Museum. Mid-twentieth century city planners created a representation of Pearis’ Greenville plantation, "Great Plains," on a historical marker near the Reedy River.

The mill city had its mill founder, warts and all.

Suggested Reading:

  • Huff, Archie Vernon. Greenville: The History of the City and County in the South Carolina Piedmont. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Whitmire, Beverly. Richard Pearis, Bold Pioneer. Greenville, SC: Proceedings and Papers of the Greenville County Historical Society, 1962-1964.

This point of interest is part of the tour: Milling Around Greenville, South Carolina


 

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