Charleston, S.C., is a city that is as much steeped in history as humidity. That the Civil War began here is a venerable fact of the American saga, but it may come as a surprise to learn that some of the richest fossil deposits in the country are located near Charleston, and that a 7.6-magnitude earthquake occurred here, far from any tectonic boundary.
There along the palmetto-lined streets of pastel and whitewashed houses, in the relentless humidity of the South Carolina low country, the essence of Charleston is palpable. First settled by Europeans in the late 17th century, Charleston was by 1742 the fourth largest city in the Colonies, in league with New York, Philadelphia and Boston. It was wealthy too, thriving on sea trade and agriculture.
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 capital of the Carolina colony, Charles Town was the center for further expansion and the southernmost point of English settlement during the late 1600s.
While the earliest settlers primarily came from England, colonial Charles Town was also home to a mixture of ethnic and religious groups. French, Scottish, Irish and Germans migrated to the developing seacoast town. 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. Free African-Americans and Slaves also comprised a major portion of the population, and were active in the city's religious community.
In 1730, the method of tidal flooding is developed, and the production of rice in the Low country rises. The slave trade begins in earnest to clear the swamps and prepare the tidal rice fields.
In 1780 Charleston came under British control for two and a half years. In December 1782, after a two & 1/2 year occupation by the British, the city's name was officially changed to Charleston. Then in 1790, the capital is moved from Charleston to Columbia to ease the struggle between the aristocratic Low country and the poorer, industrial Up country.
As Charleston grew, so did the community's cultural and social opportunities, especially for the elite merchants and planters. Charleston became more prosperous in the plantation dominated economy of the post-Revolutionary years with the help of slaves. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 revolutionized this crop's production, and it quickly became South Carolina's major export. In the year of 1801 Charleston was known as "The Antebellum City" because of the rapid expansion of rice and cotton growing along with the fabulous prices that these Commodities brought to the planter. By 1820 Charleston's population had grown to 23,000, with a black majority. Many black Charlestonians spoke Gullah, a dialect based on African American structures which combined African, Portuguese, and English words.
In 1860, the South Carolina legislature was the first state to vote for secession from the Union. 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. 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. After the eventual and destructive defeat of the Confederacy, Federal forces remained in Charleston during the city's reconstruction.
Into the 20th Century
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.
The Civil War and Reconstruction seriously affected rice culture. No longer able to compel work in the harsh environment of the rice fields, planters faced chronic labor shortages. Finally, a series of devastating hurricanes in the 1890s ruined the rice fields and put an end to commercial rice growing in the Southeast.
In 1925, a new dance craze begins in Charleston's pubs and dancehalls and spreads across the nation. It would soon be named "the Charleston." In 1934, composer George Gershwin arrived in Charleston to research and write Porgy and Bess, the first American opera, including its famous song "Summertime."
Charleston is also very pleasant to explore by walking, and one of the best places is along East Battery, which has been a popular promenade since the early 1800s. The grand houses that line this avenue by the water are mostly antebellum, about a century behind neighboring Rainbow Ro. Until 1720, this land sat just outside the protective walls that surrounded the young city, and it wasn't until decades after that fortification came down that a substantial sea barrier was developed. Today, you can stroll along the broad wall, called the High Battery, and take in both the remarkable architecture and views of Charleston Harbor.
Horse-drawn carriages are a regular sight in Charleston, and a great way to get an overview of the city. There are several companies that offer tours, usually about an hour long. Whether navigating cobblestone alleys or a rich schedule of entertainment, you can always find something more in Charleston. But the city is small enough to make a perfect weekend trip.
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