The state’s population doubled between 1790 and 1820 as upland cotton spurred development in the Piedmont.

According to the 2000 census, South Carolina ranked twenty-sixth among the states, with a population of 4,012,012 persons. The demographic history of South Carolina reveals a slow and erratic pattern of growth. For most decades since the 1790 census, its growth rate lagged behind the national average. Only since 1970 has South Carolina shown consistent population growth.

An accurate assessment of South Carolina’s population prior to the first federal decennial census in 1790 is difficult. Estimates, however, show that the colony grew slowly from 1670 to 1730 and that most people were concentrated around Charleston. The approximately 150 colonists increased to only about 4,000 whites and 3,000 slaves by 1700. Largely because of the developing rice industry, the population grew to about 30,000 in 1730, including a slave population of approximately 20,000. From 1730 to 1760 the population grew more rapidly as rice became established as the staple crop and the township system encouraged settlement of the interior. The colony’s population reached about 180,000 in the 1770s as white yeoman farmers moved into the backcountry.

The state’s population doubled between 1790 and 1820 as upland cotton spurred development in the Piedmont. Most lowcountry counties experienced little growth. During the next forty years, 1820 to 1860, just over 200,000 people were added to the state, for an increase of only forty percent, well behind the national population growth rate. This reflected a stagnating economy and a large out-migration of planters, farmers, and slaves. Push factors of this migration largely were declining soil fertility and productivity, while available and inexpensive land in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi acted as pull factors.

Few of the European immigrants who swelled population growth in the mid-Atlantic and midwestern states came to South Carolina during the antebellum period. The state also was unable to attract native-born migrants to any significant degree. South Carolina had a total free population of 301,302 in 1860, ninety-two percent of whom were native to the state. About three percent of the population was foreign-born, and only five percent came from other states.

In the decades between 1870 and 1940, South Carolina grew from just over 700,000 to about 1.9 million persons. The state’s growth rate lagged far behind that of the nation and exceeded the national growth rate only twice during this period. The greatest wave of European immigration to the United States occurred between 1890 and 1920, when millions of immigrants flocked to the burgeoning industrial cities of the Northeast and the Midwest. South Carolina, however, did not receive any sizable foreign immigration because of its stagnant economy, entrenched tenant system, small cities, and limited industrial development. This absence of European immigrants left South Carolina and most other southern states outside of what traditionally is known as the “melting pot.” Well-established white ethnic neighborhoods have been relatively rare in South Carolina’s cities, nor have there been rural areas or small towns that are dominated by European people or customs. There was more of a European “melting pot” during the colonial period than during the first half of the twentieth century. Ethnicity in South Carolina usually means blacks and whites, and the white population is relatively homogeneous.

At the turn of the century, out-migration was decidedly to the north and consisted mostly of rural blacks. This caused a major demographic shift from a black population majority between 1820 and 1920 to a white majority since 1920. Push factors behind this out-migration among rural blacks were the lack of economic opportunity, the grinding poverty of tenancy, and the social and economic discrimination characteristic of a segregated society, while the major pull factor was a great labor demand in the rapidly growing industrial cities of the North. Between 1900 and 1940 more than 500,000 blacks left the state, with an additional estimate of 400,000 black out-migrants during the 1950s and 1960s. The major losses of black population occurred in the rural counties of the lower Piedmont and portions of the coastal plain. This loss was not as strong in the rural Pee Dee region, however, where the labor-intensive tobacco industry increased in significance.

The decade of the 1970s marked a significant milestone in South Carolina’s population history. During the 1950s and 1960s a concerted effort by the state to attract manufacturing industries and societal changes associated with the civil rights movement set the stage for population changes that characterized the “Sunbelt South.” Population growth during the 1970s exceeded the growth rates for every decade since 1880, and it exceeded the national average for only the second time during the twentieth century. More people were added to the state’s population in the 1970s than were added during the twenty years between 1950 and 1970. An in-migration began as people from other parts of the country and foreign-born moved to South Carolina. The nonwhite population grew faster than at any other time during the twentieth century, as out-migration slowed and a return migration occurred among some blacks who previously had moved north. The nonwhite proportion of the total population increased for the first time since 1880. Also during the 1970s the number of urban dwellers first outnumbered rural residents. In addition, ethnic patterns began to change as Asians and especially Hispanics migrated to both urban and rural South Carolina.

There also has been a significant redistribution of population in South Carolina since the 1970s. Most of the change occurred in the metropolitan areas, as urban dwellers increased from just over forty percent in 1960 to sixty percent in 2000. The small, compact cities of the 1950s and 1960s have given way to more sprawling metropolitan patterns. Largely because of improved access to the state’s larger cities provided by the expansion of the interstate highway system, it was the suburban fringe and not the central cities that grew the fastest. Some coastal counties, especially Horry and Beaufort, joined the suburban counties as high-growth areas because of the expansion of the tourism industry. A growing component of the growth along the coast has been retirees who are relocating from the North to the Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island areas.

Rural counties have not shared in this expansion, however, and many lost population throughout the twentieth century. Many small towns that once were thriving service centers for a more densely populated countryside now are characterized by empty streets and abandoned buildings. Despite the rapid growth in suburban and coastal counties, South Carolina at the turn of the twenty-first century still had a sizable rural population. Importantly, however, few people who lived in rural South Carolina were farmers. Most of this rural nonfarm population traded off the cost of commuting to jobs in nonagricultural activities for the economies of living in a rural area, but many remained because of strong feelings about place, land, and family.

Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.

Petty, Julian J. The Growth and Distribution of Population in South Carolina. Columbia, S.C.: State Council for Defense, 1943.

–––. Twentieth Century Changes in South Carolina Population. Columbia: School of Business Administration, University of South Carolina, 1962.

South Carolina Statistical Abstract. Annual publication. Columbia: South Carolina State Budget and Control Board, Division of Research and Statistics.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Population
  • Author
  • Keywords South Carolina ranked twenty-sixth among the states, with a population of 4,012,012 persons, more of a European “melting pot” during the colonial period than during the first half of the twentieth century, mill towns, lowcountry, upcountry, “Sunbelt South.”
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date May 22, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2022
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