One of the enduring myths of American history is the centuries-old assertion that the thirteen original colonies were “English” colonies. While they were governed by the English, the colonies were not peopled only by individuals of English ancestry. Almost one-half of Virginia’s white population has been identified as ethnically English. New York, often cited as having one of the more heterogeneous colonial populations, was some forty-four percent English. For all of the colonies in what would become the United States, on average nearly fifty-eight percent of the European settlers were of English descent.
South Carolina was far below the colonial average and had one of the most diverse populations in British North America. For more than two-thirds of its colonial history (1706–1775), settlers of European extraction were a minority of the population. And within the European minority, no single nationality was a majority. Persons of English descent were the largest European ethnic group, comprising some 36.7 percent of the white population. Except for Pennsylvania, this was the smallest English population (in terms of percentage) in the thirteen colonies. Just as the European population was diverse, so were the origins of the colony’s English settlers.
In 1670 a group of about 130 white immigrants arrived in South Carolina. Almost all were from the mother country, but a small number of English men and women were from the English islands in the West Indies. Although there were only a handful of real Barbadians in the first group of 130 settlers in 1670, during the next twenty years a majority of the whites who settled in South Carolina came from Barbados, the prosperous island colony that was often called “Little England.” While the settlers who emigrated from the islands to South Carolina were ethnically “English,” culturally they were Anglo-Caribbean—an important distinction.
In South Carolina, regardless of the islands from whence they came, they were referred to as “Barbadians.” These Anglo-Caribbeans who emigrated from the various English colonies in the West Indies—Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, Nevis, St. Christopher’s, and Grenada—became a powerful presence in the new colony. Quickly rising to prominence, these English settlers who had spent time in the West Indies established the cultural ethos that shaped the development of the colony. The influence of the Barbadians was so pervasive that many historians consider South Carolina to be the colony of Barbados—not of England.
In addition to the Anglo-Caribbeans, settlers from another English colony, Massachusetts Bay, came to South Carolina. In 1695 a group from the town of Dorchester settled on the banks of the Ashley River some twenty miles above Charleston and founded the town of Dorchester. The surrounding land was poor, and the New Englanders never seemed to adapt to their new environment. After several generations, the congregation of New England Puritans voted to move to Georgia.
The mother country furnished the bulk of the English settlers after 1700. And they, too, were a diverse lot, representing any number of counties from the English Channel to the borderlands with Scotland.
Although the English were the largest white minority in the colony, they were a majority of the white population in the lowcountry—about eighty percent. During the first generation of settlement, the English majority in the lowcountry did not welcome non-English settlers. After some Frenchmen were elected to the Commons House of Assembly, an angry petition reflected the ethnocentricity of the majority: “Shall the Frenchmen, who cannot speak our language, make our laws?” Given such attitudes, it is no wonder that many non-English settlers opted to assimilate themselves into the majority population. But as they did so, they altered the Englishness of the colony’s culture.
Given their numbers in comparison to the other eight European ethnicities in South Carolina, it is not surprising that there was a strong English cast to the institutions and society that developed. However, especially in the area of culture, what appeared to be English was not always so. In speech, words and phrases from other ethnic groups crept into general use, and the famed lilting Charleston accent is clearly a result of the impact of West African speech patterns. English architectural and furniture styles were modified for the climate or by artisans from other cultures. For example, one of the best-known pieces of South Carolina–made furniture, the library bookcase in the Heyward-Washington House, appears on the surface to be right out of English design books. On closer examination, however, the detail and construction are unquestionably Germanic.
The various ethnic groups sometimes established self-help or mutual-aid societies that later morphed into social organizations. The impetus behind these groups was an effort to preserve some of their ethnic heritage in the melting pot that was colonial South Carolina. The Scots were the first ethnic group to form such an organization, the St. Andrew’s Society. Seven years later the St. George’s Society, named for the patron saint of England, was founded for the benefit of Englishmen and their descendants.
During the decade after the French and Indian War, almost every European ethnicity in the colony was represented in the Commons House of Assembly. Yet, whether of Scot, German, French, Welsh, or English descent, almost to a man they demanded that South Carolinians were entitled to the “rights of Englishmen.” In fact, the colony’s delegation to the First Continental Congress illustrates the dominance of English political thought. Only one delegate, Christopher Gadsden, was really English. Thomas Lynch’s forebears were Irish, and those of John and Edward Rutledge were from Northern Ireland. Henry Middleton’s ancestors were English but Anglo-Caribbean. The cultural life of the colony reflected the alteration of English models by the diverse elements of the colonial population. However, the reverse was true in the political sphere. By the 1760s the colony’s political life and thought were completely English. The significance of England, the mother country, even to those who were not English can be seen in the remark of the proud Huguenot Henry Laurens, who referred to England as “home.”
Edgar, Walter. South Carolina: A History. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.
McDonald, Forrest, and Ellen Shapiro McDonald. “The Ethnic Origins of the American People, 1790.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 37 (April 1980): 179–99.