From the first settlement of the colony of Carolina in 1670 to the present day, foreign migrants have added their own distinctive cultural traits to the state.
Immigration and immigrants have long been a facet of life in South Carolina. From the first settlement of the colony of Carolina in 1670 to the present day, foreign migrants have added their own distinctive cultural traits to the area. Immigration was of course a key issue for the colony’s original proprietors. They could only make a profit if they could attract settlers. In 1670 the colony offered land for rent for a penny an acre for five years. While Carolina did receive migrants from other colonies and the British Isles, its most important early influx came from the British sugar islands in the Caribbean, particularly Barbados. The Barbadian families gave the burgeoning colony a Caribbean influence which remained important up to the Civil War.
The religious tolerance established in the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina attracted other immigrants. Numbers of Calvinist Huguenots who fled France after Louis XIV’s repeal of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 found new homes in the southern part of Carolina. The first Jewish migrants, mostly of Sephardic origin, were also pleased with the tolerant atmosphere and organized their first congregation in 1749. By 1800 Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and eastern Europe were also settling in the state, and in 1854 some of these newer arrivals formed a separate Polish congregation in Charleston. Many Germans and Swiss French also came to South Carolina in the eighteenth century, recruited by colony-appointed immigration agents. In the 1730s, for example, French and German Swiss settlers founded Purrysburg and Orangeburg respectively. Other French and German settlers also came in the 1760s, settling primarily in the Midlands and upcountry. The colony also supported the introduction of Welsh settlers from Pennsylvania to the Pee Dee area in 1739.
The other major immigrant influence in the colony’s interior came from the Scots-Irish. Migrating from Virginia and North Carolina, as well as coming directly to South Carolina from Ireland, they found cheap land in the upcountry. These migrants brought their dissenting Presbyterianism with them and became involved in politics. Some of their offspring, such as John C. Calhoun and Andrew Jackson, both of whom had parents born in the north of Ireland, would be prominent on the national stage. While just as much subjects of the British Crown as the English-and Carolina-born settlers, they were seen as foreigners. Their frontier lifestyle shocked the sensibilities of Englishmen such as Anglican clergyman Charles Woodmason. Their strong support for the American Revolution, however, gave them a chance to define what it was to be an American in South Carolina. Indeed, other white ethnic minorities also used the Revolution to solidify their presence in South Carolina society. In the 1790s the political turbulence in Europe brought numbers of political refugees to South Carolina. Republican radicals from France and Ireland were a large element of this group, but the largest was those fleeing the slave revolution of the French colony of St. Domingue (Haiti). These French-speaking refugees and their slaves made a major impact, particularly in Charleston. Many Charlestonians feared that the St. Domingue slaves harbored some of the radical ideas of the “black Jacobins.” Ultimately, though, the refugees who were white were accepted and absorbed into the host society. Thus, despite these various immigrations, white South Carolina had by the early nineteenth century achieved a certain homogeneity. Whether of English, Huguenot, Barbadian, Scots-Irish, or German stock, one was a Protestant, fairly prosperous, and believed in white supremacy. The Catholics and the Jews, while somewhat different, were accepted into, as Charleston politician Christopher Memminger put it, “the peerage of white men.”
The state of South Carolina did not face its first foreign immigration “problem” until the 1840s and 1850s. The major issue with these new immigrants was that many were poor. Large numbers of Germans (Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish), fleeing political persecution, and Irish, fleeing both political and economic troubles, settled primarily in the state’s towns. The Germans had more skills than the Irish and usually worked as artisans or in merchandising. They also organized their own units for the Confederate army. After the Civil War the Germans exerted some political power in the state, electing John A. Wagener as mayor of Charleston in 1871. Although lower on the economic scale, the Irish also made a political impact, particularly in Charleston. Their votes often proved to be the decisive margin in local elections. Their political import was recognized when Irish American and Catholic lawyer Michael Patrick Connor was nominated by the Redeemer Democrats to run for Congress from Charleston in 1876. Although he lost in a disputed and often violent election, he won the seat in the 1878. The Civil War and Reconstruction period, therefore, sealed the immigrants’ place in South Carolina. They had fought for the state in the Civil War and ultimately against “Radical” rule, and with their native neighbors they would celebrate the Lost Cause with gusto.
Ironically, however, just as the new white immigrants were finding their place, immigration to the state declined. Charleston, for example, was, thanks to European immigration, majority white in 1860 but majority black by 1870. These racial demographics scared many South Carolina leaders. The post–Civil War period saw an increase in official interest in immigration. Not since colonial times had South Carolina had such a major government effort to attract foreign immigrants. The impetus for these efforts was the desire to replace black labor. Many planters became disillusioned when their former slaves refused to work under conditions of virtual peonage. Even more disturbing to them was the black embrace of the hated Republican Party. After the war, the state appointed a Commissioner of Immigration, the aforementioned John A. Wagener of Charleston, whose task was to attract northern European immigrants. He published a forty-eight-page pamphlet entitled South Carolina: A Home for the Industrious Immigrant which touted the benefits of coming to the state. In Barnwell County, one landowner offered to give fifty acres to immigrant families who would improve the land. This immigration effort, however, proved unsuccessful, as only a few hundred immigrants took up the chance to come to South Carolina.
The General Assembly revived immigration efforts in 1881 when it established a Bureau of Immigration. The bureau advertised for European migrants in New York City, organized cheap rates of transportation, and hired a translator to work with the immigrants when they arrived in Columbia. At the cost of about $10,000, the bureau managed to bring in about eight hundred people. Many of the new arrivals, however, did not stay in the state.
The final major effort to bring European immigrants was pushed by Benjamin Tillman in the first decade of the twentieth century. In a quest to solve the “race problem” he hoped that northern Europeans would take over from blacks in the fields of South Carolina. Tillman made numerous speeches advocating this policy and even experimented by renting some of his own land to white immigrants. Also, between 1904 and 1908, some of South Carolina’s textile mill owners tried to attract skilled foreign labor. The Cotton Manufacturers Association provided funds to pay for immigrant fares. With this money, the State Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Immigration sought to recruit immigrants directly from Europe.
A few hundred came, including groups of Germans, Austrians, and French who arrived in Charleston on board the Wittekind. As in the previous efforts, however, the state failed in its avowed task. First, Tillman insisted on northern Europeans and openly condemned attempts to recruit southern European, especially Italian, immigrants. While some Italians, Greeks, and Lebanese settled in the state, they were few in number. More Jews came, too, and turned one of Charleston’s shopping districts into “Little Jerusalem”; but, again, their numbers were only in the hundreds. Second, these hundreds who did arrive had no real desire to live as tenant farmers in a poor state. They either moved to town and opened stores or left the state altogether. The final death knell came when the federal government disallowed the state from prepaying immigrants’ passage to the United States.
In the 1920s federal laws establishing a quota system further hindered foreign immigration. Those foreigners who did enter the United States after 1924 were simply not attracted to South Carolina, its economy, or its politics. In 1940 the foreign-born population of South Carolina stood at 4,915, which was over 5,000 less than it had been in 1860. (Meanwhile, the total population had more than doubled.) The state’s white population was thus even more homogenous than it had been on the eve of the Civil War.
It was not until 1970 that the foreign-born population in South Carolina seemed to climb again. A new burst in high-tech industrialization and the spread of air-conditioning brought some immigrants back. The opening of the BMW plant in Greer brought the German population in South Carolina to over seven thousand in 2000. The construction and tourism boom also brought in immigrants. According to the 2000 census, there were over 45,000 immigrants from Central and South America living in South Carolina, making them the largest foreign-born population in the state. The fact that many people from these areas work here temporarily, “illegally,” or both, means that this statistic is probably an underestimate. Whatever the true number, it seems certain that, for the first time in over a century, immigration and integrating immigrants have become major issues in the Palmetto State.
Dunn, Richard S. “The English Sugar Islands and the Founding of South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 72 (April 1971): 81–93. Gleeson, David. The Irish in the South, 1815–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Rogers, George C., Jr. “Who Is a South Carolinian?” South Carolina Historical Magazine 89 (January 1988): 3–12.
Rosengarten, Theodore, and Dale Rosengarten, eds. A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.
Stathakis, Paula Maria. “Almost White: Greek and Lebanese-Syrian Immigrants in North and South Carolina, 1900–1940.” Ph.D. diss., University of South Carolina, 1996.
Strickland, Jeffery G. “Ethnicity and Race in the Urban South: German Immigrants and African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina, during Reconstruction.” Ph.D. diss., Florida State University, 2003.
Synnott, Marcia G. “Replacing ‘Sambo’: Could White Immigrants Solve the Labor Problem in the Carolinas?” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1982): 77–89.