Yerkes Upstate
and Only Way Realty
Your SC Results Team!
with multiple offices to serve YOU better

South Carolina Geographical Regions and Historical Background

Copyright Lawrence Yerkes. All Rights Reserved.

There are a variety of ways for dividing up South Carolina into geographic regions, such as by landform and/or by water and waterway/waterflows.  Names of geographic regions are often used by state and county administration and assigned for convenience and practicallity to corresponding counties. (See "What is Upstate?" for details and examples of county regions).  Let's look at landform and water related geographic regions in South Carolina.

First, You Need the Key

Before continuing, there is one key that you need to keep in mind for best understanding the regions and that is elevation

Where some people think of direction when describing regions of a state (i.e, up/down, north/south, etc.), major regions in South Carolina they think more in terms of elevation as it relates to direction.   The highest elevation is in the northwestern part of the state (i.e., the Blue Ridge Mountains area). As you travel southeast (going down in elevation) through the Piedmont Plateau area you eventually reach sea level and the Atlantic ocean (i.e., coastal area or zone).  That is how everyone orients themselves in the state.   (See "What is Upstate?" for more details and examples.)


Landform Regions

If you divide South Carolina geographically by landforms, you will usually end up with five natural divisions (regions) or six (most used in-state and which we will use [see the Six-Region Geographical Map below]), depending on whether or not you split the Coastal Plain into Inner and Outer Coastal Plans. (If you combine the Coastal Plain(s) and Coastal Zone into one Coastal Plain region you will then, of course, have just four major regions.)  (Anderson public school report highlighting the six regions [PDF],  here's another schoold report [PDF])

If you combine geographic elevatons with climate you will get a three region map such as found on "Best Places to Live in South Carolina Map/Climate".

Historical Background

The Blue Ridge Region is mountainous and has many hardwood forests, streams, and waterfalls.

Geographical Regions
Six-Region Geographical Map of SC

The Piedmont Region is the foothills of the mountains and includes rolling hills and many valleys. The region was once a productive farming area but poor farming practices led to the erosion of the topsoil. The red clay that was left is not good for farming. Waterfalls and swift flowing rivers provided the water power for early mills and the textile industry.  

Piedmont means, "foot of the mountain".  The Piedmont geographic region sits at the foot of the Appalachian mountain and is a plateau of gently rolling hills and valleys.  It's often called the Foothills by locals.  Many businesses, particularly in the upper Piedmont areas, will include "Foothills" in their business name.

The Sand Hills Region is the region that in ancient times was the seacoast and therefore includes relatively flat lands with sandy soil that is not good for growing crops. The Sand Hills region follows the fall zone (or fall line) [1] of the state’s rivers where a drop in elevation results in rapids.  

The Coastal Plain includes the Inner Coastal Plain and the Outer Coastal Plain and makes up two-thirds of South Carolina. Large stands of trees promoted the development of timbering in the region. Well-drained soil, sufficient annual rainfall and a long growing season promoted agriculture.  

The Coastal Zone is a ten mile wide stretch of land from the Atlantic coast inland. It includes barrier islands that protect the coast from erosion due to tides and storms. The coastal zone includes a number of natural harbors. It also includes marshes that were used for growing rice during the 1700s. Today, the region relies heavily on the tourism industry which includes historic sites, golf, and the beach itself.

Source: South Carolina Social Studies Support Document, Grade 3, 2008

Here's an historical geographical map of South Carolina that from the information included appears to originate from prior to the later 1700's (and therefore before the Trail of Tears, also discussed here) [see right side bar for rationale].

SC Districts and Counties 1785
SC Districts and Counties Map, 1785
(Notice "Indian Land" in upper nortwestern area of state on this and prior maps)
SC Districts & Counties Map, 1789-1790
(Notice "Indian Land" is now replaced by Pendelton and Greenville Counties, and continue to evolve into additional counties in subsequent maps)

See History / The Formation of Counties for more details and maps.
[Note: Click/tap on above maps for larger view or view at the link.]



Notice that the significant region dividers were the backcountry[2]/lowcountry line,  fall line[1] and the area, "Cherokee Lands" [see  "Native Americans of SC" [PDF], Troublesome Boundaries , and History of the Cheroke Indians].  Cherokee Lands is part of the region we call Upcounty and/or Upstate today.

[1]: A fall line (or fall zone) is the geomorphologic break that demarcates the border between an upland region of relatively hard crystalline basement rock and a coastal plain of softer sedimentary rock.  A fall line is typically prominent when crossed by a river, for there will often be rapids or waterfalls. Many times a fall line will recede upstream as the river cuts out the uphill dense material, often forming “c”-shaped waterfalls. Because of these features riverboats typically cannot travel any farther inland without portaging, unless locks are built there. On the other hand, the rapid change in elevation of the water, and the resulting energy release, makes the fall line a good location for water mills, grist mills, and sawmills. Because of the need for a river port leading to the ocean, and a ready supply of water power, settlements often develop where rivers cross a fall line.  The slope of fall zones on rivers played a role in settlement patterns. For example, the fall line represents the inland limit of navigation on many rivers. As such, many fall line cities grew around transferring people and goods between land-based and water-based transportation at this point.  Also, fall lines proved useful for hydroelectric dams such as those at Columbia, South Carolina.  -Wikipedia

[2]: South Carolina’s historic backcountry
was a distinct geographical and cultural region during the colonial period, recognized as a specific place by the region’s inhabitants throughout the eighteenth century. With the passing of the frontier, in part due to the invention of the cotton gin and the introduction of plantation-scale cotton production in the South Carolina interior after 1790, the region came to be known as South Carolina’s upcountry in the nineteenth century (Meriwether 1940). The backcountry extended from a line approximately 50 miles inland from the coast, west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, and north to the border of North Carolina (Figure 1). This area encompasses five of the six main physiographic zones in South Carolina, including the Outer Coastal Plain, Inner Coastal Plain, Sandhills, Piedmont, and Blue Ridge Mountains (Kovacik and Winberry 1987)

Colonial migration into the backcountry began in 1731 with a township plan implemented by Governor Robert Johnson, who intended to encourage settlement of the interior to provide a protective buffer between Indians to the west and southwest and colonial plantations and population centers near the coast...
[from a Southeastern Archaeology 22(1) Summer 2003 report on Cowpen and Howell sites (PDF), map (also from report) is of SC backcountry showing the sites in relation to the colonial township during this period.  Note: Report has some additional historical background on the backcountry that is worth reading if interested.]

Prior to the mid 1700s, South Carolina was almost entirely settled near the coast in the Low Country.  The Backcountry was largely controlled by Native Americans, which left the colony open to attack.  No settlers dared to venture out into the unknown for fear of attack or from becoming lost in the wilderness.   There were very few paths or trails leading to the Backcountry and most of the territory was unsettled (Johnson, pg. 10).  Conditions of the rivers and streams were also very challenging as most were wild rapids that were too treacherous to cross.  The land that many settlers did find was often barren and unable to be settled.  Other areas were covered with swamplands that were unsuitable for agriculture and were infested by dangerous creatures (Johnson, pg. 11)...     Ref: Into the Wild: Settling the South Carolina Backcountry  (8th grade lesson plan, "Historical Background Notes")

See also: Upcountry vs Lowcountry


Examples of non-region geographic maps, showing the correlation to landform regions:


This shows gardening "regions", by county

Maps below provided to give you perspective on how South Carolina state zones fit into the national zones.

The Regional Reports Zone Map  (UPDATE:  Does not appear to be working as intended)



Water / Waterflow / Waterways  Related Regions

South Carolina contains 30,000 miles of rivers and streams that drain waters from the State's 20 million acres of land and eventually flow to the Atlantic Ocean.   Souce: SCDNR-Rivers-and-Lakes


Before proceeding, we need to make sure that we understand the concept of a watershed.

The precipitation that falls into a valley, and on surrounding interfluves flows downward usually creating a stream or river. The area of land that contributes water to a stream or river is called a watershed, or drainage basin. Small drainage basins generally contribute to streams, while the water from larger drainage basins come together to form large rivers.

Often, small drainage basins or watersheds combine with one another, creating larger and larger networks of drainage basins. All of these combined drainage basins are together referred to simply as a drainage basin, or as one watershed.  -Kidsgeo

Watersheds, the land areas drained by rivers, are sometimes lumped into larger areas called river basins. The map (below) shows four major river basins of South Carolina - the Savannah, Santee, Pee Dee and the ACE (Ashley-Cooper, Combahee-Coosawhatchie, and Edisto). Only the ACE basin lies completely within South Carolina. The others drain parts of North Carolina and Georgia.      Source: SCDNR -Water Basins

See also: Difference Between River Basin and Watershed


Within the 5 major river basins of South Carolina are 29 rivers and watersheds (listed in the chart at the left) and featured on the map below.

SCDNR Rivers, Watersheds and River Basins Map

Source: SCDNR Scenic Rivers Map (also larger map downloadable as PDF)

The SC DHEC (Department of Health and Environmental Control) states that a watershed is a geographic area into which the surrounding waters, sediments, and dissolved materials drain, and whose boundaries extend along surrounding topographic ridges. Each watershed or unit has a unique hydrologic unit code (HUC). Hydrologic unit codes are a USGS cataloging system that arranges watersheds from the largest area or region (2 digits - 03) to the smallest (12 digits - 030502020101). SCDHEC divides South Carolina into 8 major river basins, which include the Savannah River Basin, the Saluda River Basin, the Edisto River Basin, the Salkehatchie River Basin, the Broad River Basin, the Catawba River Basin, the Santee River Basin, and the Pee Dee River Basin. These basins are further subdivided into 185 10-digit watersheds and 960 12-digit watersheds statewide.

View the SC DHEC Watershed Atlas  and it's Interactive Watershed Map from which you can custom print a map. (Indicating 8 Major Rver Basins superimposed over a detailed geographic map)  Here's a basic example:

Note that the 5 vs 8 major river basin counts (see above examples) do not really contradict each other as one is basically made up of more detailed overlapping subsets of the other.

The ACE Basin

Courtesy of Discover South Carolina

The ACE Basin is a coastal region of South Carolina. The Ashepoo, Combahee and Edisto Basin (abbreviated as ACE Basin, spoken as ace basin) is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries along the Atlantic Coast of the United States. Located primarily in Colleton, Charleston and Beaufort counties in South Carolina (along US 17 or Interstate 95 between Hilton Head Island and Charleston), the Ashepoo, Combahee and South Edisto rivers combine into the larger St. Helena Sound and drain a significant portion of the Lowcountry region. The 350,000 acres (1,400 km2) area is renowned for its extensive natural beauty and commitment to preserve marshes, wetlands, hardwood forests, and riverine systems and the various fauna that occupy the area.

The area is made up of many different habitat types, sucas as brachish water tidal marshes, fresh water, wetlands, bottomland hardwoods, pine and radwood uplands, barrier islands and beaches.  Inland areas are forests, with extensive marshes spreading toward the ocean. It is home to abundant plant and animal life, including many endangered species. This region also has a rich history of culture and tradition. 

ACE Basin - Watersheds Affecting the ACE BasinIn the mid-1700s tidal swamps bordering the rivers were cleared and diked for rice culture. After the rice culture declined in the late 1800s, wealthy sportsmen purchased many of the plantations as hunting retreats. The new owners successfully managed the former ricefields and adjacent upland areas for a wide range of wildlife. This tradition of land stewardship has continued throughout the 20th century. Because of their importance to waterfowl, these former ricefields have been identified for protection under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The ACE Basin also has been designated as a world class ecosystem under The Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places program.

A sizable portion of the ACE Basin has been protected via a public-private partnership with contributing properties. A collaboration of federal, state, local, and private efforts have led to the preservation of 250,000 acres of land, with stakeholders controlling various interests. The umbrella organization for these efforts is the ACE Basin Task Force.                                                                                       Sources: SC DNR and Wikipedia

The Edisto River is the largest of the three rivers that form the ACE Basin, and is the longest blackwater river in North America. It flows more than 300 miles from its headwaters near Aiken, South Carolina down to St. Helena Sound and the Atlantic Ocean.

Estuaries are essential habitats for wildlife.

Two-thirds of the fish and shellfish caught in the United States depend on estuaries for their survival.
Wetlands on the shores of estuaries protect human communities from flooding by acting like a giant sponge during storm events.
Estuaries provide important recreational opportunities ... such as  swimming, boating, fishing, birding, hiking, and hunting.
Estuaries are important nursery grounds for many larval and juvenile marine species.
Estuaries provide important resting and feeding grounds for many migrating birds.

SC ACE Basin Salt MarshSpartina is th most abundant and ecologically importan plant in the ACE Basin's salt marshes. It is very tolerant of salt.  It provides the bulk of detritus to the marsh community, providng a major link in the food web.  Many animals call this plant home.

Detritus is an organic stew of nourishment and energy that feeds all living organisms in the estuary.  Its a term that means “disintegrated matter” ... a slurry of decomposed marsh grass (spartina) and animal matter in a solution of algae and bacteria. Tides carry detritus to all areas of the estuarine marsh.

What's the Smell?   This smell comes from a mix of ingredients:
Saltwater ... Prevailing winds spread the odor of a mineral mix of table salt, magnesium, epsom, calcium, potassium, and lime.
Chlorophyll ... Marsh grasses release a green leafy smell, especially after a good rain.
Decay ... Marsh muds are full of ammonia compounds from decomposing plants and animals, releasing gaseous nitrogen into the air.
Sulfur ... When marsh mud is dug or disturbed, hydrogen sulfide (smells like rotten eggs) is released.

In addition to the ecological value of the ACE Basin, the region is also rich in history.  Historic landmarks such as old plantation homes, forts, cemeteries and churches are preserved.  Cultural traditions are passed from generation to generation.

The ACE Basin has been inhabited by humans since the Native Americans settled here, about 6,000 years ago. As a matter of fact ... Edisto, Combahee, and Ashepoo are names of Native American tribes that lived in the area. Artifacts, such as arrowheads, and evidence of their subsistance can still be found today. The French and Spanish established settlements in the 16th century. However, the Indians continued to dominate the area, until they were displaced by later European settlements. Large scale agriculture and timber production began. Slavery was introduced to manage the cultivation of rice.

A unique culture ... Gullah ... developed. Through the Gullah, African traditions continue today through culinary practices, folklore, song, and language. The artistry of basket making is one of the most visible ongoing practices of the Gullah.   

Source: Ace Basin Activity Book

Surface Water

ACE Watersheds (Salkahatchie, Edisto, and Santee)The ACE Basin Characterization study area is located in the lower coastal plain of South Carolina; however, the headwaters of many of its rivers and streams originate in the middle or upper coastal plain. All of the surface water flowing into the ACE Basin eventually empties into the Atlantic Ocean via St. Helena Sound (SCWRC 1972). The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources recognizes two river sub-basins in the ACE Basin: the Edisto River sub-basin and the Combahee-Coosawatchie River sub-basin.

The Edisto River sub-basin is entirely within South Carolina and drains the following four tributaries: South Fork Edisto River, North Fork Edisto River, Edisto River, and Four Hole Swamp.

The major freshwater rivers draining the Combahee-Coosawhatchie River sub-basin are the Salkehatchie, Coosawhatchie, and Ashepoo rivers. The Little Salkehatchie and Salkehatchie rivers are the major tributaries to the tidally influenced Combahee River. The Combahee and Ashepoo Rivers drain into the ACE Basin; however, the Coosawhatchie River drains outside of the Basin into Port Royal Sound. The freshwater-saltwater interface for the Combahee and the Ashepoo rivers are located about 24.8 km (40 mi) inland and 18.6 km (30 mi) inland, respectively.

Source: SC DNR


See also: 
ACE (owned by SC DNR)
SC's Ace Basin - National Geographic   
Visit: Things to Do and See    
Dynamics of Salt Marsh




The definition of an estuary varies as each estuary is unique in its own way. The simplest definition of an estuary is any place where freshwater joins and mixes with saltwater. But more typically, an estuary is defined as a partially enclosed coastal body of water, having an open connection with the ocean (for example, via a river), where freshwater from inland is mixed with saltwater from the sea. Estuaries typically occupy coastal areas where effects from the ocean are reduced but still influential. Forces like tides, waves, and major storms from the sea play a vital role in an estuary’s development and morphology as they provide energy to help mix the fresh and salt waters and distribute sediments. This mixing creates a brackish (slightly salty) environment where the salinity in the water is between 0.5 and 30 grams of salt per liter, or 0.5 to 30 parts per thousand (ppt or ‰)

Estuaries contain salt water and fresh water in different proportions over the length of the estuary and over the course of the day, with more salt water during high tide and less at low tide. Because they are shallow (in North Carolina, less than thirty feet deep), sunlight penetrates the water, allowing plants to grow. The rivers that feed the estuaries deposit sediments rich in nutrients, which settle onto the sand and mud of the estuary floor. These conditions create unique habitats for both plants and animals, and provide an environment for biological diversity in species (of fish, shrimp, crabs, clams and oysters) that are able to adapt to the brackish conditions. Estuaries are also good nurseries as they provide a place for these species to hatch and grow before they migrate to the sea to live out their adult lives. It was estimated in 1967 that 80–90% of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts had estuaries. This number has drastically declined over the years due to human development and population growth along the coast, and farming, for example.

Estuaries are bodies of water along our coasts that are formed when fresh water from rivers flows into and mixes with salt water from the ocean. In estuaries, the fresh river water is blocked from streaming into the open ocean by either surrounding mainland, peninsulas, barrier islands, or fringing salt marshes. This mixing of fresh and salt water creates a unique environment that brims with life of all kinds -- a transition zone between the land and sea known as an estuary. The estuary gathers and holds an abundance of life-giving nutrients from the land and from the ocean, forming an ecosystem that contains more life per square inch than the richest Midwest farmland.

The most widely accepted definition of an estuary is that of Pritchard (1967):  a semi-enclosed coastal body of water having free connection with the open sea and within which sea water is measurably diluted with fresh water derived from land drainage. While this definition does not, however, include "negative estuaries", those in which evaporation exceeds freshwater input from runoff and precipitation (e.g., Laguna Madre, Texas) (Stickney 1984), it does hold for estuaries in South Carolina which are all "positive estuaries" (freshwater input exceeds evaporation).

Estuaries generally are highly productive systems (production of organic matter) and serve as habitats (particularly nursery areas) for most important commercial and recreational species of fish, clams, oysters, crabs, and shrimp. In addition, their shores are often the sites of cities, factories, and ports. Estuaries are extremely important resources which must serve a variety of interdependent, often competitive interests.

Pritchard (1967) classified estuaries based on their geomorphology as follows:

1) Drowned River Valleys - Also called coastal plain estuaries, these are former river channels and flood plains that have been inundated during Holocene sea level rise.

2) Bar-built estuaries, characterized by the presence of barrier islands or migrating sand spits that separate the estuary from the open ocean.

3) Fjords - Estuaries created by glacial scouring; typically U-shaped in cross section, deep, and with a sill at the mouth.

4) Tectonic estuaries - Created by coastal tectonic activity, such as a slip in a fault, that results in sub sea level elevation of part of the coast, which is then filled with sea water and runoff from adjacent uplands.

The South Carolina coastal region is punctuated by numerous estuaries that are drowned river valleys, bar­built, or a combination of both. Those with significant freshwater discharge, such as the Santee and Edisto Rivers, are generally drowned river valleys with large watersheds that drain the Appalachian Mountains and Piedmont Plateau. These rivers occupy broad valleys and have meandering channels, oxbow lakes, distributaries, and extensive sand dune fields. Valleys of major rivers (such as the Santee and Edisto) typically cut straight across the Pleistocene depositional terraces of the coastal plain. Minor rivers, such as the Ashepoo, have drainages that originate within the coastal plain. Their paths are generally deflected by Pleistocene formations; therefore, they do not have extensive sand dunes on their flood plains. Charleston Harbor, Port Royal Sound, and St. Helena Sound are examples of drowned river valleys.

Concomitant with sea level rise, erosion of local headlands and offshore bottoms has provided sediments for the construction of coastal barriers which separate near shore regions from the open ocean. Bar­built estuaries, located behind Holocene barrier islands, drain mostly marsh and have almost no freshwater input. Murrells Inlet, Folly River, and Calibogue Sound are examples of bar­built estuaries. Winyah Bay is an example of the drowned valley­bar built combination.       Source:  Physiography - SC Coastal Region

See also:

All About Estuaries

Physiography - SC Coastal Region

Estuaries and Coastal Wetlands  [PDF]

Estuary Structure and Function; Submarine Groundwater Discharge  [PDF]


Source:  [PDF]

[Return to Top]



Difference Between River Basin and Watershed

A river basin is also known as a catchment area, drainage basin, or catchment basin. It can have smaller sub-basins that combine to form a larger water basin. When rain falls or when ice and snow melts, the water that comes from them flows towards a river basin before exiting towards the river, lakes, oceans, or sea.

River basins are usually separated by ridges, mountains, and hills. The water that comes from different sources, such as rivers, ponds, creeks, rainfall, or melting snow and ice flows through them and into the water basin and out into another body of water, usually a larger one.

These landforms are called watersheds which are the divides or elevations that separate the river basin or catchment area. They are also known as drainage divides because they divide the river system or river basins from other river systems.

A watershed is also a term that is being used in the North American region to refer to a water basin which is smaller in size and flows into a smaller outlet such as a stream or wetland. Watersheds are considered part of a water basin. In other regions of the world, watersheds are the drainage divides that cut through a river system.

While both a river basin and a watershed are land forms, they have different functions in our ecology. One collects water from different sources like the water that comes from the drainage of homes, water from rainfall, and other surface water and moisture. The other divides the river basin or collection point where all the water from different sources converges.


1.A river basin is a body of land where water from different sources converge while a watershed may also mean the same as a water basin, but it also refers to the drainage divide or land form that divides river systems.

2.A river basin drains out towards a larger body of water such as the ocean or the sea while a watershed may drain towards a smaller body of water if it is referred to as a water basin.

3.A river basin collects water and moisture from different sources, such as those that come from the drainage systems of homes, and drains them out into other bodies of water while a watershed divides the river basins or collection points that contain the water that is collected


See also:
What is a Watershed
Basin - National Geographic


[Return to Top]


Yerkes Upstate Real Estate Services


Global Relocation and Referral Services

Personal * Service * Support * Professionalism * Integrity

Providing friendly dedicated service - customized to your needs.

Using state-of-the-art methods to find the right property for you
and/or sell your property at the best possible price.

Yerkes Upstate SC