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United States: South Carolina

° Charleston ° Georgetown

Map of North and South Carolina available by clicking on the image.
Map of North and South Carolina, c. 1839
David H. Burr

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.

Reproductions of Archer's Creek are available by clicking on the image.
Shipbuilding at Archer's Creek, South Carolina
by French Colonists left behind by Ribault. 1562

Slaves also comprised a major portion of the population, and were active in the city's religious community.

When eight English noblemen known as the Lords Proprietors were granted the Charles Towne territory by King Charles II as a reward for their loyalty, the grant came with an express command to develop the area into a profit-making venture. Fortunately, the area came with a natural deep-water port, perfect for establishing trade. Soon trade in lumber, deerskins, and indigo established Charles Towne's wealth and prosperity, and the invention of the cotton gin and improvements in the rice crop cultivation helped boost the area's economy. By 1750, Charleston was the fourth largest city in colonial America and the largest city south of Philadelphia. It was also the wealthiest, thanks in part to additional trade through Georgetown and Port Royal. Rice and indigo had been successfully cultivated by gentleman planters in the surrounding coastal low country, while merchants profited from the successful shipping industry.

As Charleston grew, so did the community's cultural and social opportunities, especially for 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.

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 slave labor. Slaves 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 a massive slave revolt planned by Denmark Vesey, a free black, was discovered in 1822, such hysteria ensued amidst white Charlestonians and Carolinians that the activities of free blacks and slaves were severely restricted.

Ships in the Harbor of Charleston, South Caroling in the 1840s.
Ships in the Harbor of Charleston, South Carolina
1840s

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.

Seaport of Charleston, South Carolina.
Seaport of Charleston, South Carolina.
Reproductions available by clicking on the image.

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, only to be interrupted by the Civil War.

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.

Confederate Bombardment at Fort Sumter.
Confederate Bombardment of Fort Sumter
Charleston Harbor. April 1861

The war shattered the prosperity of the antebellum city. Freed slaves were faced with poverty and discrimination. Industries slowly brought the city back to a renewed vitality.

The New York Times
New York, New York, December 18, 1861

THE CHARLESTON CONFLAGARATION
Full Particulars from the Charleston Papers of Saturday.
The Loss Estimated at Seven Millions.
About Six Hundred Buildings Destroyed on the First Day.
THE ORIGIN AND PROGRESS OF THE FIRE.

CHARLESTON, Saturday, Dec. 14, 1861.
The Charleston Courier gives a list of between two and three hundred sufferers by the recent fire, and says the loss Is estimated at $7,000,000.

Mr. Russell, in whose sash and blind factory the fire originated (at the foot of Hazel Street along the waterfront), says the cause was the negligence and treachery of Negroes. The Mercury of the 14th gives a list of five hundred and seventy-six buildings which were totally destroy by fire on Wednesday alone. One Negro woman was burned to death. The Mills House was several times on fire, and considerably damaged.

Augusta, Friday, Dec. 13. The Charleston Mercury of this A. M. says that the fire destroyed five churches. The Cathedral, St. Peter's, (Episcopal) the Cumberland street, (Methodist,) and the Circular Church, also the Institute Hall, St. Andrew's Hall, Apprentices' Library Hall, the Southern Express office, the Palmetto Savings Institution, the Art Association Hall, the Cotton Press and Cameron & Co's foundry are destroyed.

Before midnight the fire had assumed an appalling magnitude, and Meeting-street, from Market to Queen, was one mass of flame. As tenement after tenement was enveloped in flames, the panic became awful, and thousands of families evacuated their houses and filled the streets. The buildings in the lower part of the city, where the fire broke out, wore principally of wood, and extremely inflammable, which accounts for the remarkably rapid progress of the fire. At midnight the Circular Church and Institute Hall were burning, and the proximity of the flames to the Charleston Hotel and the Mills House, caused them to lie evacuated by their inmates . . . All the buildings on Kingstreet, from Clifford nearly to Broad, were destroyed before 3 o'clock. Gen. Ripley, who superintended the movements of the troops who arrived on the scene at about this time ordered several buildings on the route of the conflagration to be blown up. After some delay this order was executed, but not before the theatre, Floyd's coach factory, opposite the Express office, the old Executive building, and all the houses from this point to Queen-street had caught fire, and were destroyed.

Historical reprint of the Union Fleet bombarding Fort Sumter c. 1863.
Union Fleet Bombarding Fort Sumter to
retake Charleston Harbor from the Confederates.
c. 1863

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