After Charles II was restored to the English throne, he granted the chartered Carolina territory to eight of his loyal friends, known as the Lord Proprietors, in 1663. It took seven years before the Lords could arrange for settlement, the first being that of Charles Town. The community named for the King Charles I was established by English settlers in 1670 across the Ashley River from the city's current location. It was soon chosen by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, one of the Lord Proprietors, to become a "great port towne," a destiny which the city fulfilled. By 1680, the settlement had grown, joined by others from England, Barbados, and Virginia, and relocated to its current peninsular location. The capital of the Carolina colony, Charleston was the center for further expansion and the southernmost point of English settlement during the late 1600s.
The settlement was often subject to attack from sea and from land. Periodic assaults from Spain and France, who still contested England's claims to the region, were combined with resistance from American Indians as well as pirate raids. Charleston's colonists erected a fortification wall around the small settlement to aid in its defense. The only building to remain from the Walled City is the Powder Magazine, where the city's supply of gun powder was stored.
A 1680 plan for the new settlement, the Grand Modell, laid out "the model of an exact regular town," and the future for the growing community. Land surrounding the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets was set aside for a Civic Square. Over time it became known as the Four Corners of the Law, referring to the various arms of governmental and religious law presiding over the square and the growing city. St. Michael’s Episcopal, Charleston's oldest and most noted church, was built on the southeast corner in 1752. The following year the Capitol of the colony was erected across the square. Because of its prominent position within the city and its elegant architecture, the building signaled to Charleston's citizens and visitors its importance within the British colonies. Provincial court met on the ground floor, the Commons House of Assembly and the Royal Governor's Council Chamber met on the second floor.
While the earliest settlers primarily came from England, colonial Charleston was also home to a mixture of ethnic and religious groups. French, Scottish, Irish and Germans migrated to the developing seacoast town, representing numerous Protestant denominations, as well as Catholicism and Judaism. Sephardic Jews (of Spanish and Portuguese ancestry) migrated to the city in such numbers that Charleston became one of the largest Jewish communities in North America. The Jewish Coming Street Cemetery, first established in 1762, attests to their long standing presence in the community. The first Anglican church, St. Philip’s Episcopal, was built in 1682, although later destroyed by fire and relocated to its current location. Enslaved people also comprised a major portion of the population, and were active in the city's religious community. Both free black and enslaved Charlestonians helped establish the Old Bethel United Methodist Church in 1797, and the congregation of the Emanuel A.M.E. Church stems from a religious group organized solely by African Americans, free and enslaved, in 1791.
By the mid-18th century Charleston had become a bustling trade center, and the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia. Rice and indigo had been successfully cultivated by gentleman planters in the surrounding coastal lowcountry, while merchants profited from the successful shipping industry. As the relationship between the colonists and England deteriorated, Charleston became a focal point in the ensuing Revolution. In protest of the Tea Act of 1773, which embodied the concept of "taxation without representation," Charlestonians confiscated tea and stored it in the Exchange and Customs House. Representatives from all over the colony came to the Exchange in 1774 to elect delegates to the Continental Congress, the group responsible for drafting the Declaration of Independence; and South Carolina declared its independence from the crown on the steps of the Exchange.
Soon, the church steeples of Charleston, especially St. Michael's, became targets for British war ships. A siege on the city in 1776 was successfully defended by William Moultrie from Sullivan's Island, but by 1780 Charleston came under British control for two and a half years. After the British retreated in December 1782, the city's name was officially changed to Charleston.
By 1788, Carolinians were meeting at the Capitol building for the Constitutional Ratification Convention, and while there was support for the Federal Government, division arose over the location of the new State Capital. A suspicious fire broke out in the Capitol building during the Convention, after which the delegates removed to the Exchange and decreed Columbia the new State Capital. By 1792, the Capitol had been rebuilt and became the Charleston County Courthouse. Upon its completion, the city possessed all the public buildings necessary to be transformed from a colonial capital to the center of the antebellum South. But the grandeur and number of buildings erected in the following century reflect the optimism, pride, and civic destiny that many Charlestonians felt for their community.
As Charleston grew, so did the community's cultural and social opportunities, especially for the elite merchants and planters. The first theater building in America was built in Charleston in 1736, but was later replaced by the 19th-century Planter's Hotel where wealthy planters stayed during Charleston's horse-racing season (now the Dock Street Theatre). Benevolent societies were formed by several different ethnic groups: the South Carolina Society, founded by French Huguenots in 1737; the German Friendly Society, founded in 1766; and the Hibernian Society, founded by Irish immigrants in 1801. The Charleston Library Society was established in 1748 by some wealthy Charlestonians who wished to keep up with the scientific and philosophical issues of the day. This group also helped establish the College of Charleston in 1770, the oldest college in South Carolina and the 13th college in the United States.
Charleston became more prosperous in the plantation dominated economy of the post-Revolutionary years. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized this crop's production, and it quickly became South Carolina's major export. Cotton plantations relied heavily on the forced labor of enslaved Africans. Enslaved men, women, and children were also the primary labor force within the city, working as domestics, artisans, market workers or laborers. Many black Charlestonians spoke Gullah, a dialect based on African American structures which combined African, Portuguese, and English words.
By 1820 Charleston's population had grown to 23,000, with a black majority. When Denmark Vesey’s planned uprising of enslaved people was discovered in 1822, hysteria ensued amidst white Charlestonians. As a result, the activities of free and enslaved blacks were severely restricted. Hundreds of African Americans and some white supporters involved in the planned uprising were held in the Old Jail. It was also the impetus for the construction of a new State Arsenal in Charleston.
As Charleston's government, society and industry grew, commercial institutions were established to support the community's aspirations. The Bank of South Carolina, the second oldest building constructed as a bank in the nation, was established here in 1798. Branches of the First and Second Bank of the United States were also located in Charleston in 1800 and 1817. While the First Bank was converted to City Hall by 1818, the Second Bank proved to be a vital part of the community as it was the only bank in the city equipped to handle the international transactions so crucial to the export trade. By 1840, the Market Hall and Sheds, where fresh meat and produce were brought daily, became the commercial hub of the city. The slave trade also depended on the port of Charleston, where ships could be unloaded and enslaved people sold at markets.
In the first half of the 19th century, South Carolinians became more devoted to the idea that state's rights were superior to the Federal government's authority. Buildings such as the Marine Hospital ignited controversy over the degree in which the Federal government should be involved in South Carolina's government, society, and commerce. During this period over 90 percent of Federal funding was generated from import duties, collected by custom houses such as the one in Charleston. In 1832 South Carolina passed an ordinance of nullification, a procedure in which a state could in effect repeal a Federal law, directed against the most recent tariff acts. Soon Federal soldiers were dispensed to Charleston's forts and began to collect tariffs by force. A compromise was reached by which the tariffs would be gradually reduced, but the underlying argument over state's rights would continue to escalate in the coming decades. Charleston remained one of the busiest port cities in the country, and the construction of a new, larger United States Custom House began in 1849, but its construction was interrupted by the events of the Civil War.
In 1860, the National Democratic Convention convened in Charleston. Hibernian Hall served as the headquarters for the delegates supporting Stephen A. Douglas, who it was hoped would bridge the gap between the northern and southern delegates on the issue of extending slavery to the territories. The convention disintegrated when delegates were unable to summon a two-thirds majority for any candidate. This divisiveness resulted in a split in the Democratic party, and the election of Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate. On December 20, 1860, the South Carolina legislature was the first state to vote for secession from the Union. They asserted that one of the causes was the election to the presidency of a man "whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery."
On January 9, 1861, Citadel cadets fired the first shots of the Civil War when they opened fire on a Union ship entering Charleston's harbor. April 2, 1861, shore batteries under the command of General Pierre G. T. Beauregard opened fire on the Union-held Fort Sumter in the harbor. After a 34-hour bombardment, Major Robert Anderson surrendered the fort. Cadets from the Citadel, South Carolina's liberal arts military college, continued to aid the Confederate army by helping drill recruits, manufacture ammunition, protect arms depots, and guard Union prisoners. The city under siege took control of Fort Sumter, became the center for blockade running, and was the site of the first submarine warfare in 1863. In 1865, Union troops moved into the city, and took control of many sites, such as the United States Arsenal which the Confederate army had seized at the outbreak of the war.
After the eventual defeat of the Confederacy, Federal forces remained in Charleston during the city's reconstruction. The war had hindered the prosperity of the antebellum city, yet it freed all those African Americans forcibly held in bondage. While many newly freed people struggled with poverty and discrimination due to racist attitudes of white residents, African Americans faced a future free from the physical and mental abuse of their enslavers.
Industries slowly brought the city and its inhabitants back to a renewed vitality and growth in population. As the city's commerce improved, Charlestonians also worked to restore their community institutions. In 1867 Charleston's first free secondary school for blacks was established, the Avery Institute. General William T. Sherman lent his support to the conversion of the United States Arsenal into the Porter Military Academy, an educational facility for former soldiers and boys left orphaned or destitute by the war. The William Enston Home, a planned community for the city's aged and infirm, was built in 1889. An elaborate public building, the United States Post Office and Courthouse, was completed in 1896 and signaled renewed life in the heart of the city.
In 1886 Charleston was nearly destroyed by a major earthquake that was felt as far away as Boston and Bermuda. Few buildings escaped damage. Coupled with fires, hurricanes, tornados, several wars, and urban renewal in the 20th century, it is extraordinary how many of Charleston's historic buildings remain. Today the city's community buildings help to make Charleston one of the most complete historic districts in the country, with more than 1400 historically significant buildings.
Last updated: February 22, 2018