In its modern configuration, Charleston County is a long sliver of land—mainland and islands— bounded at the north and south by the South Santee and South Edisto Rivers. It has existed only since 1882.
(919 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 417,981). About 1682, in the first blueprint for South Carolina as an English colony, there was no Charleston County. Charles Towne, as the first city of South Carolina was then called, was the hub of Berkeley County. Charleston District appeared in 1769 as one of seven judicial districts formed to administer law in the colony. In its modern configuration, Charleston County is a long sliver of land–mainland and islands– bounded at the north and south by the South Santee and South Edisto Rivers. It has existed only since 1882.
For two centuries before the Civil War, European and African immigrants along the lowlands that constitute modern Charleston County braved attacks from Indians, Spaniards, and Frenchmen and struggled with heat, malaria, and hurricanes to erect town and country bases. These settlers eventually turned the damp, dark soil to the production of specialized crops to be shipped from Charleston, notably rice, indigo, and Sea Island cotton. As fortunes were made by masters in both city and hinterland, they built substantial houses and lifestyles.
The plantation economy was built on a conjunction of rich soil and slave labor, and declined once these circumstances changed. After the Civil War sounded the death knell of slavery, the county struggled to establish a new identity, new economy, and new society. For a brief time former slaves enjoyed civil and political rights. However, due to resourceful and persistent white opposition, early gains were lost. Pressed by poverty as well as social and political inequities, many former slaves emigrated. Farming declined, and those who stuck with it concentrated on foodstuffs trucked to Charleston or more distant urban markets.
After a long era of readjustment, during which some observers proclaimed its demise, Charleston County experienced an economic as well as social and cultural renaissance. Though the fruits were long delayed, seeds of the revival were planted early in the twentieth century. Significant improvements in infrastructure tied the county together just as the automobile came into general use. Charleston County had been divided by its rivers. The Ashley River was crossed by a public bridge in 1921. In 1929 Grace Memorial Bridge tied the city of Charleston and the northern reaches of the county with its span across the Cooper River. It operated as a toll bridge until it was purchased by the county in 1941. Under the leadership of James Cosgrove, the county put down the first piece of concrete paving– less than a mile long–in 1918.
After 1940, with the aid of federally funded road and harbor improvements, the State Ports Authority at Charleston tapped into a growing world economy and repeatedly exceeded records for tons of goods funneling through the city. An additional economic asset, the United States Naval Base and Shipyard, which opened in Charleston’s northern suburbs in 1901, grew prodigiously during and after World War II. By the 1980s the base encompassed 20,000 acres and employed 35,000 civilians, mostly newcomers drawn from across the southeastern United States. Subsequently, the area of North Charleston was already a thickly settled community by the time of its incorporation in 1972. In 1953, thanks to cold-war threats and the influence of U.S. Representative Mendel Rivers, the Charleston Air Force Base was dedicated as a major military transport facility. In the civilian realm, Charleston Municipal Airport (present-day Charleston International Airport) was situated within North Charleston’s corporate bounds in 1931. It became the busiest airport in the state by the end of the century.
When the naval complex closed in 1996, negative effects were less than had been anticipated. The economy was buoyed by Charleston’s booming container-ship business, as well as high-tech industrial development independent of military spending in North Charleston. Additional strength was added by the fields of health care and higher education, especially by the campuses of the Medical University of South Carolina, the College of Charleston, and the Citadel. Meanwhile, attractive beaches and a historical and cultural texture made Kiawah and Seabrook Islands, Isle of Palms, and Charleston major tourist and retirement attractions.
Most of the growth that took place in the last half of the twentieth century occurred outside the city of Charleston. North Charleston boasted a population of 75,000 in 1995, the third largest in the state. Mount Pleasant, one of seven other places in the county that achieved the status of incorporated town, had a population of more than 40,000 in the year 2000. Its annual growth rate of eight percent was so phenomenal that town leaders felt compelled to establish limits on new residential and industrial construction. The trend toward suburbanization was unmistakable: the city of Charleston, encompassing two-thirds of the county’s population in 1910, accounted for only one-fourth of a total of 309,969 at the end of the century.
Modern government in Charleston County depended on a delicate balance of county officers (county council, school board, sheriff, and coroner) and city or town administrations, all elected by overlapping constituencies and mutually concerned with quality of life. The public agenda at the new millennium includes problems associated with education, an aging transportation infrastructure, and the costs and benefits of prosperity, especially the impact of unregulated growth and congestion. During the year 2000, in a gesture of solidarity, Charleston County Council, which had a budget of $123.5 million in fiscal year 2000–2001, joined forces with some constituent city and town administrations. Together, these overlapping authorities developed a comprehensive plan to address suburban sprawl and save green space; build additional parks, schools, and new bridges; and construct a regional mass-transit-system monorail.
Coclanis, Peter A. The Shadow of a Dream: Economic Life and Death in the South Carolina Low Country, 1670–1920. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Fraser, Walter J. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Lesesne, Thomas P. History of Charleston County. Charleston, S.C.: A. H. Cawston, 1931.
Moore, Jamie W. The Lowcountry Engineers: Military Missions and Economic Development in the Charleston District. Charleston, S.C.: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 1981.