Under the command of Captain Joseph West, three ships, the Carolina, the Port Royal, and the Albemarle, set out for the virgin continent of America in 1669. The three ships were separated by a strong storm, which damaged the Port Royal and caused the Carolina to land at Bermuda. 150 English colonists, indentured servants, and slaves sailed into Charleston harbor in the spring of 1670.
Bull’s Island provided the first glimpse of what would become the new Carolina colony in March 1670. In April 1670, the adventurers arrived at a promising area that they named Albemarle Point. The Proprietors quickly pleased their king, Charles II, by insisting on naming the settlement Charles Town in his honor. The colony’s enemies included the French, the Spanish, hostile Indian tribes, and pirates. Disease was also rife as a result of poor sanitation and an unpleasant environment.
In February 1671, further settlers landed from Barbados. By 1672, the growing population saw the benefits of transferring across the river to the peninsula area known as “Oyster Point ” because of the piles of opened and discarded oyster shells left there by the Kiawah Indians. Because of its advantageous location between the Cooper and Ashley Rivers, this parcel of property quickly attracted people.
Proprietors intended to avoid the narrow, twisting streets of European cities by utilizing the conventional continental street pattern by the late 1670s. Charles Town was the first in the United States to adopt city planning, with streets laid out in “wide and….straight lines.” By 1680, the remainder of the settlement had been relocated to the peninsula of Charles Town, and the population had grown to 1,000. In the late 1690s, a wall made of local materials (mostly brick, palmetto wood, and tabby) was built to protect the Carolina town from attack. By 1718, the coast had been cleared of most opponents, and the wall, which was no longer necessary, was demolished.
Charles Town grew into a bustling seaport because of its numerous wharves along East Bay Street. Ships transporting raw materials, such as deer skins, rice, indigo, and, later, cotton, were sent to England, and commerce was founded. Ships returned laden with European essentials and luxuries, lending a cosmopolitan air to the developing town. Charleston had the reputation of being a “Little London” among the semi-tropical wilds of the New World even in its infancy. By 1740, Charles Town had become the most important exporting port in North America, and the colony experienced an economic boom.
Colonists discovered early on that the New World was not without its difficulties and dangers, as the coastal town experienced a smallpox epidemic, a fire that destroyed 1/3 of the colony, including 300 houses and a large number of stores, a plague among the cattle, yellow fever, and several major hurricanes. Fires continued to wreak havoc on the city in 1740, 1796, 1838, and 1861.
The early Charles Town concept was built on religious tolerance, and it was anticipated that by adopting this approach, the community would grow in size and prosperity. The second charter ensured religious liberty. The religious tolerance attracted French Huguenots, Baptists (known then as Anabaptists), Congregationalists, and Presbyterians. Early in the next century, 12 Scottish families seceded to form the Scots Kirk, which is today known as the First Scots Presbyterian Church. In 1750, a Jewish congregation was created, followed by a Lutheran Church and a Methodist assembly. In 1786, Charleston hosted the first Roman Catholic mass. Charleston earned the moniker “The Holy City” because of its religious variety.
Charleston’s Golden Age came to an end with the Revolutionary War. A British fleet of 270 cannons failed to capture Colonel William Moultrie’s palmetto fort on Sullivan’s Island in 1776. The British struck again in 1778, this time by land from Savannah. The city was not destroyed, but much of the surrounding countryside was. The British took control, and England occupied Charles Town. Charles Town had been revived as Charleston by 1783.
Plantations produced crops such as indigo (a blue dye) and rice in the late 1700s. On John’s and James Islands, long staple cotton was cultivated. Agrarian prosperity was coupled with a strong interest in cultural matters. President George Washington visited Charleston in 1791, sleeping in the Heyward Washington House on Church Street and entertaining at the Old Exchange Building.
Charleston was divided over state rights by 1860. In December of that year, the Ordinance of Secession was signed, establishing South Carolina as a separate state from the United States. Confederate troops fired the first shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, successfully pushing the federal forces out of Fort Sumter. When federal troops landed on James Island, just southeast of Charleston, in June 1862, they launched their first effort to conquer the city.
The Battle of Secessionville took place when over 6,000 Union troops attempted an assault across a peninsula guarded by 500 Confederate soldiers armed with cannons. The Federals sustained 700 casualties, while the Confederates suffered roughly 200. However, Union forces were adamant about seizing Charleston. Hundreds of Charlestonians were killed or wounded in engagements around the city and at Gettysburg during the summer of 1863. The Union shelling of Charleston was infrequent until January 1864, when 1,500 bullets were fired from Morris Island, causing numerous fires. (St. Philip’s Church was frequently attacked, and its interior was severely damaged.)
General William Sherman crossed the Savannah River in early 1865, but intended for Columbia rather than Charleston because he considered the port city had lost its power and was already “a bare desolated wreck…hardly worth the time to starve it out.”
Charlestonians were too poor after the Civil War to remodel, so the city merely adapted her old buildings. Then, in 1886, a massive earthquake shook Charleston, destroying over 2,000 buildings. Over 100 buildings were found unsafe and demolished.
This natural tragedy claimed the lives of 110 people. Within a year following the 1886 earthquake, Charlestonians were bragging: “Strangers visiting the city must look for remnants of the earthquake, which are few and far between. Charleston has risen from the ashes once more.” As a result of the earthquake, iron rods were installed within buildings and fastened to the external walls to safeguard them from future quakes. These circular and star-shaped bolts may still be seen on many residences and business structures today.
Charleston was once again a cultural hub by the early 1900s. The South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition was held in Charleston in 1901. The Charleston Renaissance emerged in the 1920s, with authors such as Josephine Pinckney, Dubose Heyward, and John Bennett expressing their love for the city. By the 1940s, preservation initiatives were well established, allowing Charleston to modify her historic structures to retain their elegance, individuality, and heritage.
Then, on the evening of September 21, 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit Charleston with winds of 135 miles per hour. A 12-to-17-foot wall of water crashed over Fort Sumter in the harbor at midnight, and the storm surge came ashore. A week after the storm, preservationists toured the city and discovered that only 25 of the city’s 3,500 historically significant structures had been badly damaged. Charleston has been restored with all of its former beauty and character after more than ten years.
Charleston is America’s most magnificently maintained architectural and historical treasure, with a long 300-year history. The history of the city reflects the spirit and tenacity of its people. It has been compared as a “living museum.” “It is hard for me to enter Charleston from any side, whether by land or sea, and not sense that here the land is precious; here is a place worth protecting,” Charleston resident Elizabeth O’Neill Verner once said.