Charleston - The "Holy City"
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south of the mid-point of
South Carolina's coastline, at the confluence of
the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the historic city of Charleston is the
oldest city in the state. Founded in 1670 and first called Charles Towne,
it was named for King Charles II. Charleston’s rich history includes
periods of great wealth and prosperity followed by generations of great
poverty; two major wars being fought within its boundaries, followed by
the occupation of invading armies; numerous skirmishes with pirates and
Indians; catastrophic fires that obliterated entire blocks of the city,
several hurricanes; and the largest earthquake ever to rock the eastern
coast of the United States. These many events of the last three centuries
have all combined to make Charleston an unrivaled tourist destination for
South Carolina, G. Cooke, 1838.
In 1663, King Charles II granted a charter for Carolina
territory to eight of his loyal friends, but it would be seven years
before the first settlement was established. Charles Town was
established as the capitol city of Carolina on the west bank of the
Ashley River. Two years later Charles Town had about 30 buildings and
200-300 settlers. In 1680, the town moved to its present location on
the main peninsula and in 1783 adopted its present name.
The settlement was often subject to attack from sea and
from land by Spain, France, and pirates, as well as resistance from
Native Americans. While the earliest settlers primarily came from
England, they were followed by other immigrants including French,
Scottish, Irish, Germans, and others. These many various ethnic groups
brought with them numerous Protestant denominations, as well as Roman
Catholicism and Judaism, which would later earn Charleston the
nickname of the “Holy City,” for its long tolerance for religions of
all types and its many historic churches.
The deerskin trade was the primary business in
Charleston during its early years as alliances with the
Creek insured a steady
supply of deer hides. Between 1699 and 1715, an average of 54,000 deer
skins were exported annually to Europe, which were used in the
production of men's fashionable and practical buckskin pantaloons, gloves, and book bindings. The deer skin market would continue to grow
through the mid 18th century.
Colonial landowners were also experimenting with
various crops including tea, silk, rice and indigo, which would become
a leading export by 1750. By this time, Charleston had become a bustling trade center and the wealthiest
and largest city south of Philadelphia.
By 1770 it was the fourth largest port in the colonies,
after only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, and boasted a
population of 11,000. As the city prospered, several cultural and
social organizations were established including the first theater in
America in 1736, numerous benevolent societies, and the Charleston
Library Society in 1748. This group would also help to establish the
College of Charleston in 1770, the oldest in the state.
began, Charleston would find itself and its port a target – twice
being attacked by the British.
On June 28, 1776 General Henry Clinton tried to seize Charleston.
On June 28, 1776 British General Henry Clinton with 2,000 men
and a naval squadron tried to seize Charleston, hoping for a
simultaneous Loyalist uprising in
South Carolina. However, their mission failed when explosives failed to penetrate Fort Moultrie's
unfinished, yet thick palmetto log walls, and no local Loyalists
attacked the town from within as the British had hoped.
However, General Clinton would return before the end of the
war in April, 1780 and attack again, this time, with far greater success.
Marching on Charleston with 14,000 soldiers, Clinton cut off the city from
relief and began the siege on April 1st.
For the next six weeks a number of skirmishes took place until
Continental Army Major General Benjamin Lincoln was forced to surrender on
May 12th. The loss of the city and its surrender of 5,000
troops to the British was the biggest loss suffered by the Continental
Army in the
The British retained control of the city until December 1782, after which,
the city officially changed its name to Charleston.
Charleston lost its status as the capitol in
1786 to Columbia, due to its central location in the state. However, the
city became even more prosperous with large plantations. In 1790,
Charleston was called home to more than 16,000 people and was the fifth
largest city in North America. In 1783, the invention of the cotton gin,
revolutionized cotton production and quickly became
South Carolina's major
export. The cotton industry, as well as the majority of the work force in
the city, relied heavily on slave labor and by 1820, when Charleston's
population had grown to 23,000 people, African-Americans were the
In 1822, a free African-American man named Denmark Vesey
planned a slave revolt
that called for free
blacks to assist hundreds of slaves to kill their owners and temporarily
seize the city of Charleston before sailing away to Haiti. However, the
plot was leaked and hundreds of blacks were arrested in the conspiracy. In
total, 67 men were convicted and 35 hanged, including Denmark Vesey.
Increased restrictions were afterwards placed on slaves and free blacks,
including a law that all black seaman be kept at the jail while they were
The first shots of the
Civil War were fired from Morris Island in
Harbor by Citadel cadets on January 9, 1861 at the
ship Star of the West, which was entering the harbor.
On December 20, 1860, following the election of Abraham
South Carolina Legislators voted to secede from the Union and
Charleston became a hotbed of skirmishes and battles during the
The first shots of the war were fired from Morris Island in Charleston's
Harbor by Citadel cadets on January 9, 1861 at the Union ship Star of
the West, which was entering the harbor.
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