South Carolina: Charleston Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

South Carolina’s oldest city and one of the most historic cities in the country. Its elegant homes, magnificent parks, and beautiful waterfront make the city one of the most visited in the United States.

Site Office

Historic Charleston Foundation

40 E. Bay Street

Charleston, SC 29401-2547

ph.: (803) 723-1623

Since its founding more than three centuries ago, Charleston has had a turbulent history, one marked by earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, devastating fires, and military bombardment and occupation. Yet, the city has managed not only to survive but also to maintain its position as one of the country’s most historic sites. Charleston, in fact, has retained a remarkable collection of magnificent gardens, stately churches, and thousands of buildings representing nearly every period of U.S. architectural history.

Early History

Charleston’s history as a city began in 1663 when King Charles II of England granted eight loyal friends proprietorship to a large chunk of the future United States, which they named Carolina. (The territory was divided into North and South in 1729.) Seven years later, in April, 1670, 148 settlers landed on the banks of the Ashley River at a spot they named Albermarle Point after the oldest proprietor. Within a few years the name was changed to Charles Towne in honor of King Charles II. Today, Charles Towne Landing, the site of that first permanent settlement, is a state-owned nature preserve and a permanent historic complex that brings to life the experiences of those first settlers.

By the end of the first decade, the settlement moved to a parcel of land between the Ashley and Cooper (then called Etiwan and Wando) Rivers, because the site was better protected against Spaniards, pirates, and Indians. At this time, a group of French Huguenots joined the English colonists. In 1704 Charles Towne became one of the three walled cities on the North American continent.

The settlement site provided an excellent location for trade and commerce. Charles Towne quickly emerged as a thriving seaport and one of the great trading centers in the thirteen colonies and the British Empire. In the 1600’s and early 1700’s, planters introduced rice, indigo, and cotton, which became the cash crops for much of the wealth accumulated by Charlestonians, allowing them to enjoy the good life and build huge houses and plantations, many of which can be visited today.

Plantation Homes

Magnolia Plantation, for example, is the 250-year-old ancestral home of numerous generations of South Carolina’s distinguished Drayton family. The plantation is famous for containing fifty acres of what many consider to be the world’s most beautiful garden. Several other Charleston plantations are impressively preserved, including Middleton Place (built in 1755), whose landscaped gardens are the country’s oldest; Drayton Hall (built between 1738 and 1742), a landmark preserving some of the oldest and finest Palladian architecture in the United States; and the Boone Hall Plantation (built in 1743), often described as the country’s most photographed.

During its formative period, the city established a number of firsts–the first public election in the Carolina territory (1670); the colonies’ first planting and exporting of rice (by 1690); the country’s first insurance company, the Friendly Society for Mutual Insurance of Houses (1731); the first newspaper in South Carolina (1732), which after 1739 was edited by America’s first female editor; the first opera in the colonies (1735); and the first prescription drugstore, which opened its doors in 1780.

Religious Freedom and Churches

From its beginning, the Carolina colony passed laws that allowed a great degree of religious freedom–freedom that contributed to the colony’s rapid growth during the prerevolutionary period. By the early 1700’s, many religious denominations–French Huguenot, Anabaptist, and Quaker, among others–were worshipping peacefully together in Charles Towne. Later in the century, they were joined by Presbyterian, Jewish, Lutheran, Methodist, and Roman Catholic congregations.

Today, Charleston can aptly be described as a “City of Churches.” Organized in 1681, the Circular Congregational Church established the first Sunday school in South Carolina and today is the only Huguenot church remaining in the United States. The First Baptist Church was founded in 1682, when the congregation of the Anabaptist Church in Kittery, Maine, fled the colony and settled in Charles Towne. Congregated in 1761, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is the city’s oldest surviving church building and one of the city’s few churches to retain its original design. George Washington worshipped in St. Michael’s during his tour of the South in 1791.

In 1791, slaves and free blacks founded the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church as the “Free African Society.” It was here that African American Denmark Vesey laid plans for his famous slave insurrection in 1822. Authorities found out about the rebellion, however, crushed it, and closed down the church. The establishment of The Citadel, the Charleston-based state-supported military academy, resulted from the fear caused by the nearly successful slave revolt.

The Revolutionary War

By 1775 Charles Towne had become one of the wealthiest cities in the colonies. The following year, South Carolina’s Provincial Congress established the first independent state government in the colonies and Charles Towne began playing an important role in a series of events leading to the American Revolution. When war broke out, the British attempted to take Charles Towne, but soldiers defending the city repelled the attack. In 1779 Charles Towne successfully defended itself again from the British, but beginning May 12, 1780, the British put the city under siege for six weeks and it fell. The British were able to hold the city until December 14, 1782, when they were forced to evacuate.

In 1783 the city was incorporated and renamed Charleston. It remained the state capital from 1776 until 1786, when Columbia, the present capital, was founded.

During the following century, Charleston continued to be a city of revolutionary ferment. By the early 1830’s, tariffs had trebled on iron, salt, all woolen and cotton goods, and some other commodities produced by the South. Charlestonians, like other South Carolinians, were angered. When South Carolina’s state legislature met to discuss and debate the issue in 1833, it passed the Ordinance of Nullification and nullified the act increasing the tariffs and declaring no duties should be paid after February 1, 1833.

The Civil War

In December, 1860, Charleston was thrust into the events leading to the Civil War when delegates at a convention in the city decided to sign the Ordinance of Secession. Shortly thereafter, Major Robert Anderson of the Union army sent the women and children from Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island to Fort Jackson on James Island and quietly moved his garrison to Fort Sumter, an unfinished federal fort in Charleston Harbor. Confederate leaders sent a commission to Washington, D.C., to negotiate the surrender of Fort Sumter as well as Forts Johnston, Moultrie, and Castle Pinckney.

Then on April 12, 1861, Charleston became the scene of one of the most dramatic events in U.S. history when Confederate troops began shelling Fort Sumter, igniting the Civil War’s first military engagement. The skirmish ended quickly, and on April 14, Major Anderson surrendered the fort. One Union soldier was killed during the bombardment, and another died when a gun prematurely exploded during surrender proceedings.

After surrendering Fort Sumter, Union forces regrouped, and soon they controlled the Atlantic coast from Georgetown, South Carolina, to Smyrna, Florida, with the exception of Charleston. They blockaded the city, but the Confederacy remained defiant and determined to defend the city at all costs. In the words of Major General Robert E. Lee, the defenders would, if necessary, “fight street by street and house by house as long as we have a foot of ground to stand on.”

Despite four years of deprivation and heavy shelling, Charleston did manage to hold out until late in the war, thanks largely to the blockade runners who brought in vital supplies. On April 14, 1865, four years to the day Confederate troops forced Major Anderson to take down the stars and stripes from the flag staff of Fort Sumter, Anderson, now a general, stood on the spot and raised the same flag over the fort’s ruins.

Slow Postwar Recovery

After the war, Charleston’s economy was devastated. These hard times, however, were responsible for the preservation of many of Charleston’s historic structures. Residents had no money for demolition or rebuilding.

In 1886 the city suffered another catastrophe. At 9:30 in the evening of August 31, Charlestonians were startled by a low rumbling sound followed by a sharp tremor. Then they heard a great roar, increasing in volume and accompanied by violent vibrations. Chimney walls and buildings toppled. This was the second natural disaster to hit Charleston in less than a year. In the fall of 1885, a cyclone had swept the city, causing more than $1.5 million in damage.

Earthquakes in Charleston were nothing new. One hit in 1763, followed by two others in 1811 and 1812, and another in 1843. In 1857 a tremor shook the city so severely many Charlestonians began to hold prayer meetings asking for deliverance. The earthquake of 1886, however, was the worst in the city’s history. More than 90 percent of the brick buildings suffered damage to some extent; the wooden buildings fared a little better. Property damage was a staggering five million dollars.

Charleston survived once again, exhibiting the resilience it has shown throughout its long history. Today, the chief monuments of the earthquake–the plates and bars on the outside of many city homes–form one of the city’s most distinctive architectural features. They were inserted through many of the city’s houses to steady their upper floors in case the city ever again had to face such a calamity.

At the turn of the century, Charleston made a concerted effort to regain its former position as an important trade center. From December, 1901, until May, 1902, the city held what became known as the South Carolina and West Indian Exposition. To get the project started, Charleston resident F. W. Wagener donated money and a large tract of land. A corporation was established and money solicited.

From its beginning, the exposition suffered a series of setbacks. First, labor troubles almost ended the event. Then came bad weather and rumors that the exposition was closing down. Although the exposition was not as successful as its planners had hoped, Charleston did derive some good from it. Attention was indeed drawn to the city, showing the world its industrial and commercial potential. Once the expo ended, however, there was little evidence to show any permanent relocation of industry to Charleston.

World War II and Economy Recovery

Charleston’s economic fortunes did not change until World War II when the Santee Cooper federal hydroelectric power project, which was completed in 1942, and investment in manufacturing and military installations gave local industry a major boost. By 1984 Charleston was the twelfth largest Atlantic coast port.

Despite its recent economic growth, Charleston has remained linked culturally and historically to the Old South. Indeed, the city has worked hard to strengthen this bond and establish a tradition of respectful care and treatment of its historic structures. This tradition first manifested itself as early as the 1850’s, but Charleston’s first organized preservation effort did not come until 1920, when the villa that Gabriel Manigault had designed for his brother Joseph about 1803 faced the danger of being replaced by a gas station.

To meet the threat, historically minded citizens organized the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings, which was later renamed the Preservation Society of Charleston. The organization is the oldest community-based group of its kind in the United States. After much difficulty, the society successfully preserved the Manigault House. Largely through its efforts, more than seven hundred buildings, or 10 percent of the historic sites built before the 1840’s, have been saved.

Modern Preservation Efforts

In 1947 citizens organized the Historic Charleston Foundation as a nonprofit educational organization with the purpose of preserving the nation’s architectural and cultural resources as represented in Charleston and the surrounding area. The Foundation’s primary efforts have centered in Charleston’s Old Historic District, the oldest such district in the city, which encompasses more than 3,600 rated structures and represents approximately 25 percent of the city’s land mass.

Included are some of the city’s most impressive houses. Built between 1765 and 1769, the Miles Brewton House on King Street is a beautifully proportioned residence that builder/architect Ezra Waite designed. Because of the house’s large size, military troops occupied it twice during wartime. British General Sir Henry Clinton used it as his headquarters during the Revolutionary War, and Union general George Meade and Edward Hatch stayed there when Northern troops occupied Charleston during the Civil War in 1865.

In 1772 Thomas Heyward, a wealthy planter, built a three-story Georgian brick house at 87 Church Street where George Washington stayed in 1791. At 76 Church Street is a mid-eighteenth century house occupied by DuBose Heyward in the 1920’s. Heyward is best known for his novel Porgy (1927), which George Gershwin later set to music as Porgy and Bess, America’s first folk opera.

Today, these houses and many others that predate the American Revolution are still occupied; some are owned by the families that built them. They are a part of the rich architectural tradition that has experienced every epoch of U.S. history.

For Further Information

The literature on Charleston is voluminous, but the following books provide a good introduction to the historic city:

  • Davis, Evangeline. Charleston: Houses and Gardens. Charleston, S.C.: Preservation Society of Charleston, 1975.
  • Marion, John Francis. The Charleston Story: Scenes from a City’s History. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1978.
  • Rosen, Robert R. A Short History of Charleston. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
  • Severens, Kenneth. Charleston Antebellum Architecture and Civic Destiny. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1988.
  • Sully, Susan. Charleston Style: Past and Present. New York: Rizzoli, 1999. A pictorial study of Charleston’s historic buildings.
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