South Carolina, known as the Palmetto State, is the smallest of the southeastern states and is one of the richest in history and enduring influence on national events and development.
South Carolina, known as the Palmetto State, is the smallest of the southeastern states and is one of the richest in history and enduring influence on national events and development. A blend of diverse cultures, including European, Native American, and African American, produced notable social, artistic, political, military, and cultural accomplishments. The state has been among the richest and the poorest in the United States and has known both victory and harsh defeat.
The first human inhabitants of what is now South Carolina arrived around 13,000
At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, there were thirty to forty separate Native American nations in the region, including Cherokee, Saluda, Catawba, Wateree, Congaree, Wando, Waccamaw, and Coosaw. All these names, and many others, were preserved in place names in South Carolina.
By 1521 the Spanish had explored the Carolina coast, and on August 18, 1525, Saint Helena’s feast day, they sighted and named an island and a sound in her honor; both would retain the name Saint Helena. Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón founded a short-lived Spanish settlement on Winyah Bay near modern Georgetown in 1526, and in 1562, the French under Jean Ribaut challenged the Spanish by establishing a small fort on an island in what they named Port Royal Sound.
The Spanish returned in 1566 and established Santa Elena, also on Port Royal Sound, which grew into a settlement of considerable size and was for a time the capital of all Spanish colonies in North America. However, under increasing pressure from the Native Americans and the English, the Spanish abandoned Santa Elena in 1587 to consolidate their position at St. Augustine in northern Florida.
In 1663 King Charles II of England granted extensive lands, named “Carolina” after himself, to eight Lord Proprietors, chief among them Anthony Ashley Cooper, earl of Shaftesbury. Cooper, along with English philosopher John Locke, drafted an elaborate Fundamental Constitution for the colony. In April, 1670, the first settlers arrived. Within ten years they had established the city of Charleston at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. Settled largely by English inhabitants of Barbados, the new colony prospered from the production of crops including rice, indigo, and cotton. The wealth of these crops, and the plantation systems they fostered, was gained only through the knowledge and labor of large numbers of African slaves. Long before the American Revolution, there were more blacks than whites in the colony. Along the South Carolina Sea Islands, they created their own distinctive culture, including the Gullah language, a mixture of African, Caribbean, and English languages.
Early threats to the colony included struggles with the Native Americans and raids by pirates such as the notorious Blackbeard (Edward Teach). These dangers were increased by proprietary incompetence, and in 1729 South Carolina became a royal colony. South Carolina was a leader in the move for American independence, and during the American Revolution more than 130 battles and skirmishes were fought in the state. In June, 1776, British naval forces were repulsed from Charleston but returned and captured the city in 1780. The battles of Kings Mountain in 1780 and Cowpens in 1781 helped turn the tide of the war in favor of the Americans. Partisan leaders such as Francis Marion, known as the Swamp Fox, played an essential role in the struggle for independence.
South Carolinians Charles Pinckney and John Rutledge were highly influential in drafting the U.S. Constitution, and they were instrumental in having it adopted by the state legislature in 1788. However, as with many others in the state and throughout the South, they wished to restrain the powers of the federal government, especially regarding the highly sensitive issue of slavery.
It was because of this concern that South Carolina, along with other southern states, increasingly insisted upon the doctrine of state’s rights. Senator John C. Calhoun became the chief spokesperson for the South, and while he helped to fashion compromises that kept South Carolina in the Union, he also advocated nullification, the doctrine that a state could declare invalid within its borders an act of the national government. During the Nullification Crisis of 1832-1833 President Andrew Jackson ordered U.S. Navy ships to Charleston to enforce federal law. The election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860 prompted South Carolina to become the first state to secede from the Union on December 20, 1860.
On April 12, 1861, the Civil War began, when Confederate troops fired on Union-held Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor. During the war, Union troops quickly captured the sea islands around Port Royal Sound, liberating thousands of slaves and placing Charleston under a four-year siege. After General William Tecumseh Sherman’s Union army completed its March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah, it “let South Carolina howl” as it swept through the state, forcing the Confederates to abandon Charleston and Columbia, the state capital. Sherman largely blamed South Carolina for the war because it was the first state to secede, and he punished it harshly.
South Carolina was readmitted to the Union in 1868, and a Reconstruction government mingled social and educational reforms with blatant corruption. In 1876, under the leadership of former Confederate general Wade Hampton, white South Carolinians reclaimed their hold on the state. For almost a hundred years, the memory of Civil War and Reconstruction ensured that South Carolina would remain a solidly Democratic state. It was only during the civil rights era of the 1960’s, when the Democratic Party became closely associated with that effort, that many white South Carolinians turned to the Republican Party. Senator Strom Thurmond, who had run as a Dixiecrat in 1948 to protest the Democrats’ civil rights platform, became a Republican in 1964. In 1974 James Edwards was the first Republican elected governor after Reconstruction.
After the Civil War, agriculture remained South Carolina’s primary source of income. In the 1880’s the textile industry greatly increased, due in large part to the hydroelectric power available upstate. Textile plants drew workers from the farms and rural areas to create a new and thriving industry, until the Great Depression brought economic disaster in the 1930’s. The New Deal of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought to remedy these problems in part by the creation of the Santee Cooper Project, one of the largest hydroelectric and navigational efforts in North America, which helped advance South Carolina’s economy into the twentieth century. During and after World War II, large military bases throughout the state provided additional economic benefits.
However, agriculture and textiles remained the state’s major sources of income until the early 1970’s, when modern industry and technology took hold, best exemplified by BMW’s 1993 decision to locate its first car-manufacturing plant outside Germany in South Carolina. By that time, manufacturing had become the state’s number-one industry in terms of employees and included more than two hundred international companies. Tourism became a major source of income, with visitors flocking to South Carolina’s two hundred miles of coastline and beaches; historic cities such as Camden, Charleston, and Beaufort; and three hundred golf courses, many of them world class and the site of prestigious tournaments.
Modernization in the economy brought increased attention to both an old problem and a new concern: the issue of resolving racial differences among the state’s population and the need to protect the state’s natural environment. South Carolina, with its long and often troubled history, and its abundant natural resources threatened by rapid development and population growth, faced the delicate task of balancing past, present, and future.