The majority of visitors to Charleston, South Carolina, are well-versed in antebellum Charleston. But what about the colonial period? The history of Charlestowne, South Carolina, and Colonial Charleston is less well known.
The city’s cobblestone streets and colonial homes in downtown Charleston hint at the city’s colonial history. It also doesn’t take long to learn about the history of Charlestowne, South Carolina, which is a veritable gold mine.
As the first permanent English settlement in the Carolinas, Charles Towne is a history trove waiting to be discovered. Ready to journey through time and discover the fascinating stories hidden within this incredible city?
Then read on:
Table of Contents
Exploring Charlestowne: The Birth of South Carolina
Three ships: the Port Royal, the Carolina, and the Albemarle; left England for the Carolina Province in August of 1669. Captain Joseph West and later Sir John Yeamans were in charge of the fleet. In 1670, the brave settlers landed on the shores of the Ashley River. That date marks the birth of the Carolina colony. Amidst the vast wilderness, they built Charles Towne, a testament to their courage and determination.
The first settlers named their town after King Charles II, who granted the charter to establish the Province of Carolina.
Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site
Nestled in the West Ashley area, the Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site is where the Carolinas began. As you walk through the archaeological sites of:
- The original buildings
- Reconstructed period housing
- And wooden palisades surrounding the fort
You’ll feel as if you’ve stepped back in time. The 2.0-mile loop trail offers a glimpse into the lives of the early European settlers, who forged a new path in this uncharted territory.
Today, visitors can marvel at the Adventure. This 17th-century replica sailing ship that pays homage to the vessels that brought the settlers to these shores. The site stands as a proud reminder of the indomitable spirit of those who dared to dream of a better life in the New World.
King Charles II’s Influence
King Charles II, known as “The Merry Monarch,” played a pivotal role in the establishment of Charlestowne. In 1663, he granted a charter to eight English noblemen, laying the foundation for the Province of Carolina.
That said, the reign of King Charles II was also fraught with religious and political turbulence. His father had been executed shortly before Charles Town’s colonists arrived. The period ultimately sparked revolution. The colonists viewed British taxes and religious restrictions as oppressive. It led them to take a stand against the British crown and fight for their freedom.
Hence why the town is no longer known as Charles Towne. More on that later.
The Ashley and Cooper Rivers: Lifeblood of Charlestowne
The Ashley and Cooper Rivers are the two vital waterways that flow through Charleston. They provided the lifeblood for the bustling port city, enabling trade and transportation to flourish.
The first settlement along the west bank of the Ashley River were instrumental in the city’s growth. After all, they allowed easy access to Lowcountry waterways, which were essential for commerce.
Settlement on the West Bank of the Ashley River
The first European settlement in Charleston was not on the peninsula. The settlers initially believed the point too exposed for their nascent town. After all, they had Native American tribes and the Spanish in Florida to fear.
Instead, they picked a better protected spot on the west bank of the Ashley River, called Albemarle Point.
In 1680, the city relocated from Albemarle Point to its current location on Oyster Point. As the city grew in size and influence, the Ashley and Cooper Rivers played an important role in the community’s survival.
The settlement was frequently the target of land and sea attacks:
- Native American and pirate raids
- Plus sporadic assaults from Spain and France
The other Western European powers continued to contest England’s claims to the area. Charleston’s colonists erected a fortified wall to protect their small settlement. The Powder Magazine, which housed the city’s stock of gun powder, is the only structure that remains from the Walled City.
The rivers acted as a gateway to the Atlantic Ocean, connecting Charlestowne to the wider world and allowing it to become a hub of trade and commerce. And so, it grew into the wealthiest and largest city in South Carolina.
In fact, by the mid-18th century, Charleston was the largest city south of Philadelphia. And it held half of the nation’s wealth, to boot.
Charles Town Harbor
Located at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, Charleston Harbor stands as a testament to the city’s maritime prowess. Not only was it the site of the first shots of the American Civil War, but it was also home to the first successful submarine attack in history. You can visit the Hunley, the first submarine, in North Charleston. As an integral port city, Charleston Harbor was the epicenter of trade and commerce. Goods from around the world passed through its docks.
Charles Town Diversity
Early Charleston hosted a mix of ethnic and religious groups. In a time when pluralism wasn’t popular, Charleston didn’t care where you were from or who you worshipped, as long as you were here to make money.
Unless you were Catholic.
The majority of the first settlers were from England. And yet this developing seacoast town had a diverse ethnic and religious population. Jews and members of various Protestant denominations were among the immigrant groups from:
- And Germany
Thanks to migration of Sephardic Jews, Charleston hosted one of the largest Jewish communities in North America.
Slaves made up a sizable chunk of the population, and they were also active in the city’s religious community. The Emanuel A.M.E. Church descends from a religious group organized solely by free and enslaved African Americans in 1791. In 1797, both free and enslaved black residents established the Old Bethel United Methodist Church.
The explosion of churches in this period is the source for the modern title, Holy City.
Colonial Charlestowne Architecture
Charlestowne’s storied past is evident in its stunning architecture. Historic structures include:
- The Heyward-Washington House (1772)
- The Joseph Manigault House (1803)
- And the Dock Street Theatre (1736; reconstructed 1937)
Cultural institutions include
- The Charleston Library Society (1748)
- The Carolina Art Association (1858)
- And the South Carolina Historical Society (1855)
The French Quarter
Established in the late 17th century by Huguenot settlers, the French Quarter was the first organized area in Charleston. Home to the city’s most affluent merchants, the quarter is known for its unique architecture. A typical home has stores and warehouses on the first floor, homes above. The intricate designs that define the French Quarter make the area feel like it’s in the south of France.
Today, the French Quarter is a vibrant district filled with restaurants, shops, and galleries. The fusion of historic charm and modern amenities makes the French Quarter a must-visit destination.
Thomas Heyward Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence, built this home between 1770 and 1772. The Heyward-Washington House is a striking example of colonial architecture. George Washington rented the house during his week-long stay in Charleston in May 1791.
It is now owned and operated by The Charleston Museum, the Heyward-Washington House offers 90-minute tours. Tours transport visitors back in time to experience the elegance and grandeur of the period firsthand.
Charles Town in the Revolutionary War
The tale of early Charles Town is one of fortitude and resilience. Fort Moultrie, the first fort on Sullivan’s Island, played a crucial role in the American Revolution. It survived a nine-hour battle against nine warships.
Meanwhile, Charleston County was a hotbed of revolutionary activity. Many battles were fought on its soil.
Charleston County’s Role in the Revolution
Charleston County played a vital role in the American Revolution. The county was a hotbed of revolutionary activity, with many battles fought throughout the region. The Siege of Charleston in 1780 marked a significant victory for the British.
The British occupation of Charleston in 1780 was a turbulent time for the city, but peace returned when the war ended.
Fort Sumter gets all the fame, though it wasn’t first constructed until 1829.
Originally called Fort Sullivan, Fort Moultrie was the first of a series of fortifications on Sullivan’s Island. Constructed with palmetto logs, the fort earned South Carolina the nickname “The Palmetto State.” Fort Moultrie played a pivotal role in the American Revolution.
On June 28, 1776, General Henry Clinton attempted to seize Charleston with 2000 soldiers and a naval squadron. He was hoping to cause a Loyalist uprising in South Carolina. Instead, the 2nd South Carolina Regiment at Fort Moultrie, defeated the naval force.
South Carolina Society: Life in Colonial Charlestowne South Carolina
Life in colonial Charlestowne was shaped by the bustling trade and commerce that defined the city. Rice, the major export of South Carolina, played a significant role in the economy.
The political climate was marked by contrasting perspectives between Northern and Southern delegates.
South Carolina’s Major Export: Rice
Rice was the lifeblood of South Carolina’s economy during the colonial period. It, along with indigo, was the first major cash crop in the region. The largest producer of rice in America, Charleston, South Carolina’s plantations transformed the marshlands. Widening the waterways created an effective network for the transportation of people and goods.
That said, the wealth generated by the rice trade was built on the backs of slave labor.
In modern times, rice is once again being cultivated in South Carolina, with a handful of farms reviving the tradition of rice production.
Northern and Southern Delegates: Political Climate
The political climate in South Carolina during the colonial period was riddled with tension. After all, delegates from the North and South held divergent views on key issues. From the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War, South Carolina’s politics were controlled mainly by two parties:
- The Democratic Republican Party in the early 1800s
- And the Democratic Party, which acted more like the modern Republican Party
The diverse political landscape created an atmosphere of constant debate and conflict.
As former South Carolina Attorney General James L. Petigru declared,
“South Carolina is too small for a republic, but too large for an insane asylum”
The struggle for power and influence shaped the course of South Carolina’s history. It eventually led to the War among the States, as some Southerners still call it.
The legacy of these political divisions can still be felt today, as the state continues to grapple with the challenges of its past.
Where to learn more about Colonial Charlestowne, South Carolina
Some of the top historic sites in and around Charleston, South Carolina, interpret the history of the colonial era in Charleston.
Many of these historic sites are in our Charleston, SC, Visitors Guide to top attractions and activities here.
- Charlestowne Landing
- Fort Moultrie
- And the Heyward-Washington House
Some other historic attractions include:
Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
Magnolia Plantation and Gardens is both:
- The oldest public tourist destination in the Lowcountry
- And the oldest public gardens in America
The Drayton family founded it in 1676. It first welcomed visitors in 1870 to view the renowned gardens’ tens of thousands of exquisite flowers and plants.
Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site
Dorchester was inland from colonial Charleston along the Ashley River. It thrived from 1697 until the outbreak of the Revolutionary War near modern North Charleston. The Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site gives a glimpse into the state’s early history.
The Powder Magazine
Between 1713 and 1820, the Powder Magazine, the state’s oldest public structure, served as an arsenal on occasion. Interact with historians and view exhibits related to the state’s colonial military history at this museum. It’s been open since 1903. The Powder Magazine also has one-of-a-kind gift shops and special programming.
Drayton Hall Plantation
Drayton Hall explores the people of the land, from Native Americans to the people who sold the land to John Drayton. And the Drayton family itself. Discover the processes and people that went into making Drayton Hall a successful plantation. During the Revolution, the Drayton family home served as the headquarters for both the British and Continental Armies.
Middleton Place, a National Historic Landmark, has the oldest landscaped gardens in the United States. The Garden Club of America has dubbed the 65-acre property “the most important and interesting garden in America.” The 1755 House Museum’s extraordinary:
- Family furniture
- Rare books
- And portraits
Depict four generations of the Middleton Family. As the birthplace of a signatory to the Declaration of Independence, Middleton Place had a major impact on American history.
Charles Pinckney National Historic Site
The Charles Pinckney National Historic Site is dedicated to exploring:
- Charles Pinckney’s life
- His role in the formation of the United States Constitution
- His plantation
- And the transformation of colonial America into a young country
The Old Exchange Building is a must-see for all tourists visiting Charleston. This building made crucial contributions to our country’s struggle for independence. It was also significant to our young nation. Members of the entire colony gathered at the Exchange in 1774 to elect representatives to the Continental Congress. These men were tasked with drafting the Declaration of Independence. South Carolina declared its independence from the British monarchy on the steps of the Exchange.
The Charleston Museum
The Charleston Museum, America’s first museum, was founded in 1773. It works to preserve and interpret the natural and cultural history of Charleston and the South Carolina Lowcountry. Learn more about this rich and varied past by visiting the Museum and its two National Historic Landmark homes. This top of Charleston museums is in the heart of one of America’s Most Historic City.
Old Slave Mart Museum
The Old Slave Mart Museum, located at 6 Chalmers St., focuses on the history of this specific building and site. It uses records of slave sales that occurred here to tell the story of Charleston’s involvement in the interstate slave trade.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Charleston, South Carolina, known for?
Charleston is renowned for its colonial history, stunning beaches, and incredible cuisine. It is the oldest city in South Carolina and home to the first public college, museum, and playhouse in the United States. It also boasts America’s first golf club, established in 1787.
North America’s longest cable-stayed bridge, the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, spans Charleston Harbor. It connects historic Charleston with Mount Pleasant.
Why is Charleston SC so wealthy?
Charleston’s history of trade and commerce made it the wealthiest city in the South from the colonial era to the Civil War. Rice and sea island cotton exports generated great wealth for many merchants and landowners. Charleston was also a major hub of the American slave trade.
That said, Charleston lost its wealth after the Civil War, when the majority of its assets were freed. The influx of money to rebuild after Hurricane Hugo and new arrivals have stimulated the city back into a wealthy one today.
Is Charles Town the same as Charleston?
No, Charles Town and Charleston are not the same. European colonists established Charles Town in 1670. Residents later renamed it to Charleston in 1783, officially changing the spelling of the city name.
Why is the Civil War history so much better known in Charleston?
On December 20, 1860, South Carolina was the first state to vote to leave the Union. The South Carolina legislature stated a cause was the election of a president “whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery.” On January 9, 1861, Citadel cadets at Fort Sumter opened fire on a Union battalion, sparking the Civil War.