Charleston was the first permanent European settlement in Carolina, its first seat of government, and the most important city in the southern United States well into the nineteenth century.
(Charleston County; 2020 pop. 139,714). Charleston was the first permanent European settlement in Carolina, its first seat of government, and the most important city in the southern United States well into the nineteenth century. While it thereafter declined in relative size and importance, the city nevertheless continued to act as if it still had a major role to play in the state, the region, and the country; and from time to time it has done just that.
In April 1670 three ships carrying settlers from England and the Caribbean sailed into a harbor of two rivers, soon named the Cooper and the Ashley (after one of the Lords Proprietors financing the colony, Anthony Ashley Cooper). These settlers founded Charles Towne, named for King Charles II of England, at Albemarle Point on the west bank of the Ashley River. Barricaded from local Indians and the Spanish, the town grew steadily and survived a transplanting to Oyster Point at the tip of the peninsula by 1680. Again walls went up, making it the only walled city in British North America.
There was a central gate at what is now the intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets; the city stretched north to what became Cumberland Street, east to the Cooper River, south to later Water Street, and then west to Meeting Street. A “Grand Modell” was drawn up with regular streets, but creeks and marshes (whose bounds reappear when heavy rains cause flooding) impeded settlement. Those residing within the walls were indentured servants, some middle-class English, settlers from the Caribbean, and African slaves.
Although there was the social and cultural mixing common in seaports (the city’s architecture would blend English and Caribbean influences into the ubiquitous Charleston single house), an elite presented themselves quite early in the history of Charleston. They would dominate the small middle class, artisans, and the vast masses of poor whites and African Americans well into the twentieth century. This intermingling of high style and sophisticated continental taste with the language and lore of Africa in a lush subtropical setting would create much of the tension and color of the place’s politics, history, and culture– the writer John Bennett would later say of the mix, “A city . . . with Mediterranean manners and Caribbean ways.”
By the time the colony passed from the Lords Proprietors to the British crown, Charleston had survived hurricanes and threats from Indians, the nearby Spanish, and pirates. The western walls came down by 1720; it doubled in size from its original eighty acres by 1740. As more and more slaves were funneled through Charleston, the city began its domination of the plantation lowcountry. The wealth of some of its citizens, based on rice, indigo, and then cotton, was four times that of the nearest comparable place. The city showed the results. The first recorded performance of an American opera had occurred in Charleston; the St. Cecilia Society, dedicated to music, was founded in 1762; and there were brilliant theatrical seasons. Artists did portraits of patrons, and sons were sent to England for schooling.
This ostentatious display of wealth fueled fulminations against the city. The many acts of God visited upon Charleston, including fires (1740, 1778), hurricanes, and epidemics of smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever, were punishments on the prideful place, many decreed. Yet despite its sinful reputation, the city has also had a distinguished religious history. It was visited by the Wesleys (Methodism’s founders), had the first Catholic church in the Carolinas and Georgia, was home to the South’s first Baptist congregation, and by 1800 supported the largest Jewish population in the country. Later the city would see America’s first Reform Jewish Society, and Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science, would live here briefly.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, Charleston, consisting of the parishes of St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s, was the fourth-largest city in America, and to some, the most handsome. It would have been a great prize had the British attack against it succeeded, but a fleet was repulsed at Fort Moultrie on nearby Sullivan’s Island on June 28, 1776. Although there was tension between Loyalists and patriots, there was relative peace until Charleston came under British siege. They approached from the north, overcoming the defenses at what is still called Line Street. The city fell in May 1780 and remained under British rule until December 14, 1782, when a fleet left with 3,700 loyal whites, 5,000 slaves, and spoils that included the bells of St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (eventually returned).
In 1783 the city was officially incorporated, becoming Charleston after being known as Charles Towne and Charlestown. The first intendant, or mayor, Richard Hutson, was reelected in 1784 in a vicious battle, beginning the trend for many contentious mayoral elections to come. Most of the sixteen thousand people living on the peninsula were poor and had no political spokesmen.
By the 1790s things were improving. A new orphan house rose; it would bring the city much pride and attention, as many of its inmates, orphaned by the diseases bred of poor sanitation, bad water, and seeping privies, would rise to positions of prominence. The College of Charleston, chartered in 1785, opened its doors. George Washington visited in 1791. The South Carolina Jockey Club began running races at the Washington Race Course, and Race Week would become one of the high points of the social season in the antebellum era. After the slave revolts in St. Domingue, there was a second influx of French speakers, following the Huguenots who had come in the 1680s. The refugees brought with them an increasing fear of black insurrection. By 1800 Charleston had a population of 10,104 blacks–slaves and free–and only 8,820 whites; the black majority would continue.
New buildings were going up first in Federal and later in Greek- revival styles. Ansonborough, north of the city market, had been the first suburb. Harleston Village, the site of an early golf course, sported larger houses that were further apart than the cluttered eighteenth-century buildings on Tradd and Church Streets. This gave the western edge of the city a different feel. The land on the south- eastern side of the peninsula, fortified during the War of 1812, led to the development of pleasure gardens in the 1830s and sea walls in the 1840s and 1850s, which came to be known as “the Battery.” Charleston had ceased being the capital of South Carolina in 1786, but state offices were still in the city, later to be ensconced in native son Robert Mills’s Fireproof Building just north of the “four corners of law”–where St. Michael’s Church, City Hall, the courthouse, and the police station (later the U.S. Post Office) met at Broad and Meeting Streets.
In 1822, with trade falling off and the city embarking on a series of improvements, there came a defining (but still not clearly understood) turning point in Charleston’s history. In May rumors of a slave rebellion led by Denmark Vesey, a free person of color, reached the white elite. He and thirty-four others were hanged. So closed and questionable were the court proceedings that facts are hard to discern. The local government built an armory in 1825 for defense of the city that later became home to the Citadel. The fear of further rebellions, abolitionism, and restricting slavery in new territories worried Charlestonians. As its editors, writers, and politicians defended slavery and nullification, the city’s position as the “capital of Southern Civilization” began to take shape in the popular imagination. The city was home to some nationally important gentlemen scientists and naturalists, following an eighteenth-century tradition.
To link Charleston with the growing west, local politicians began to invest heavily in railroad schemes, keeping the city in debt for generations. In 1833 the longest railroad in the world under one management linked Charleston and Hamburg, siphoning off trade from the Georgia cities of Augusta and Savannah. Although trains now brought goods to town, a significant obstacle was that the ruling elite permitted no steam engines or railroad tracks south of present-day Calhoun Street. Quality of life, a constant Charleston theme, was not to be disrupted, so all rail cargoes had to be unloaded and carted through the city to the docks.
Charleston suffered a major fire in its central business district in 1838. In 1849 the city doubled in size as the neck area was annexed. In 1850 John C. Calhoun died, and the city draped itself in black to bury its states’ rights champion. The name of Boundary Street was changed to Calhoun, as in the nullification years Union Street became State Street. Charleston street signs showed the direction in which the South was moving.
The city was the scene of the split Democratic convention in April 1860, as well as the Secession Convention in December that took South Carolina out of the Union. Fort Sumter, in its harbor, was the last toehold of Federal troops in the area. In April 1861, when Southern forces shelled it, it became the site of the beginning of the Civil War. Charleston came under Union shelling in 1863, forcing many to move north of Calhoun Street. The city was abandoned in February 1865, and although the siege had not destroyed many buildings, as much as one-third of the city had been lost in a fire in December 1861. Many of its valuables and records, stored in Columbia, were lost when the capital city burned during Sherman’s occupation.
For fifteen months or so Charleston was the virtual capital of North and South Carolina as it served the military headquarters of the occupying Federal forces. Freed slaves poured in and, along with many of the free people of color who had been the elite of their race, stepped forward to take positions of power. But at the end of Reconstruction, the white elite took the reins of power again. Charleston’s black citizens were unfairly treated and denied rights, and the city suffered race riots in 1866, 1876, and 1919. Despite occasional racial clashes, however, the city experienced less of the militant and violent racism that erupted in other American cities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part of this was possibly due to the physical nature of the city. Until gentrification changed living patterns by the middle and late twentieth century, Charleston had been one of the most integrated cities in the country with blacks and whites living next door to each other. Shared sufferings–poverty; an earthquake in 1886 that caused $6 million in damage and eighty-three deaths; hurricanes in 1885, 1893, and 1911, which killed rice production in the lowcountry; and a common inheritance and alienation from the rest of the country–helped seal the fates of blacks and whites together.
There were flurries of economic improvements, but for the most part the city remained impoverished. The 1901–1902 South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition on the outskirts of town, staged to encourage investment, failed. Governor Benjamin Tillman railed against the aristocrats and pleasure lovers of Charleston as merchants openly flouted the restrictive alcohol and vice laws. The city was out of sync with the rest of the state and the country. Visually, too, it differed. The lack of prosperity for a century had saved its old structures from destruction and modernization. It seemed to be asleep, looking backward to a more glorious time.
World War I began the waking of this sleeping beauty. The navy base located north of the city in 1901 became headquarters of the Sixth Naval District. Thousands of service men and workers moved in. With Europe closed and the Florida land boom in progress, tourists were venturing down the twisted, unpaved streets. In the 1920s Mayor Tom Stoney coined the phrase “America’s most his- toric city,” and the city marketed itself as the home of a dance, the Charleston, that may have sprung from its African American citizens. The link was made complete in 1929 when the Cooper River Bridge opened, allowing highway travelers to drive into town. To counter the changes brought by automobiles, the arrival of the wealthy, and the appearance of gas stations where mansions used to be, citizens founded the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings in 1920 and later passed the first historic preservation laws in the country. The latter, done in 1931, made the city’s 1783 motto Aedes Mores Juraque Curat (She guards her buildings and her ways) prophetic.
As old and new collided, the inheritors of the old ways began to deal with change. An artistic movement called the Charleston Renaissance resulted, and for a brief moment writers such as DuBose Heyward, John Bennett, Herbert Ravenel Sass, and Josephine Pinckney and visual artists such as Alfred Hutty, Elizabeth O’Neill Verner, and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith led a southern cultural awakening. Intrigued, the American composer George Gershwin based his opera Porgy and Bess on the novel and play Porgy by DuBose Heyward. The humble beggar, in his goat cart, has been the vehicle to take the city to audiences all over the world.
When Porgy and Bess had its Charleston premiere in 1970, it gave the city the opportunity to integrate socially at cultural functions at the moment when the city (and the state) was celebrating its three hundredth anniversary. Such integration was made possible only after the federal judge J. Waties Waring of Charleston declared that separate facilities were per se unequal, which made him a pariah in his native city. Rivers High School, the first public high school in the state to do so, integrated in 1963. But a tense hospital strike by black workers had the city under martial law in 1969.
Those coming to celebrate the state’s birth at Charles Towne Landing, the city’s original site, could look across the river to a much-changed place. Marshes south of Tradd Street had been filled in, and suburbs west of the Ashley had been annexed. The military base, the port, and tourism drove the local economy. The international Spoleto Arts Festival began in 1977 and merged tourism, culture, and business, contributing to the city’s image and economy. In the 1980s a great battle erupted over the redevelopment of a block of downtown for a hotel convention site. It pitted business interests against preservationists, both of whom said they represented the best interests of the city. There was much fear of financial loss in the 1990s, but the city survived the closing of the navy base.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the city was competing with its incorporated neighbors Mount Pleasant and North Charleston to house the Hunley, the Confederate submarine lost in its harbor and then recovered, while others fought bitterly for and against the expansion of its container port, the second largest on the East Coast. As the nature of the city changes, its detractors and defenders become more passionate. Called one of America’s most livable cities one year, it is noted for its congestion the next. It is not just a downtown but also suburbs, rich and poor, black and white, and immigrant. Like one of its eccentrics whom citizens pride themselves in accommodating, Charleston continues on, confident in its self-proclaimed destiny as one of America’s most significant cities. “[A]ll untroubled in her faith,” the Confederate poet Henry Timrod had testified earlier, “she waits the triumph or the tomb.”
Fraser, Walter J. Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Raven, James. London Booksellers and American Customers: Transatlantic Literary Community and the Charleston Library Society, 1748–1811. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Rosen, Robert. A Short History of Charleston. San Francisco: Lexikos, 1982