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Charleston at 350: The Legacy of Founding Decisions
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The City of Charleston is celebrating its 350th birthday this month, as is the state of South Carolina in general. While the festivities may be subdued for the moment, the quiet passing of this anniversary presents an opportunity to contemplate the big picture of our community’s long journey from 1670 to the present. History is marketed as a commodity in Charleston today, but it’s also very relevant to our daily lives. To demonstrate this fact, consider this rather simple question: What decisions made at the founding of Charleston had the most profound and lasting effects on this community’s long history?
In the month of April 1670, a small group of English settlers established a settlement on the west bank of the Ashley River and named it Charles Town. From that moment, three hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Town served as the capital of Carolina, a vast new colony encompassing all of the land between English Virginia and Spanish Florida and stretching westward to the Pacific Ocean. The modern state of South Carolina, with its capital in Columbia, is now just a small vestige of that colonial dream, but the City of Charleston is a direct descendant of the small camp of rude huts established here in 1670. The seat of government and the town’s name moved across the Ashley river to the peninsula in 1680, but otherwise our roots have remained firmly planted in this fragrant pluff mud, in the face of hurricanes, earthquakes, and hostile invasions launched by four different nations. Charleston persevered and prospered through the generations, and for that fact, we have just cause to be proud. 
Here in mid-April of 2020, most of us are cocooned within our respective homes and watching spring blossom outside as human civilization hovers in a state of suspended animation. Were it not for the current virus calamity, however, the people of Charleston would at this moment hear a chorus of news about the 350th anniversary of the founding of Charles Town, and of the English colony of South Carolina, in April of 1670. Conversations about planning events to commemorate this anniversary began several years ago, and a number of people in this community have invested significant amounts of time, money, and energy in recent months to prepare for this day. Sadly, the necessity to safeguard public health has taken precedence here, as elsewhere in the world, and there will be no festivities this month to mark the big occasion.
Despite these distressing circumstances, I feel that it’s still important to acknowledge the passing of a significant moment in this community’s maturity. Like all anniversaries, Charleston’s 350th birthday is not just an excuse to celebrate our longevity with parades and parties. This milestone presents an opportunity to reflect on our shared past, to recall our shared journey to the present, and to consider the trajectory of our shared future. We may congratulate ourselves for persevering through three-and-a-half centuries—roughly fifteen generations—of trials and triumphs, but I believe we might also profit from reflecting on our collective shortcomings and failures, especially those that continue to influence the well-being of our community.
The record of South Carolina’s state-wide tricentennial celebrations in 1970 offers an instructive model for contemplating the present opportunity. Organized in the wake of a divisive observance of the centennial of the American Civil War, 1961–65, and following more than a decade of contentious Civil Rights activity, the tricentennial events of 1970 presented a rather innocuous and positive message derived from the traditional narrative of our state’s history. In other words, South Carolina’s 300th anniversary was in many ways a celebration of the noble achievements of wealthy Protestant men of European ancestry who triumphed over adversity to create a nearly perfect society. Charleston in earlier generations became a wealthy and beautiful city, while its citizens enjoyed a mythological freedom of conscience that ostensibly distinguished them from their less-polite neighbors. The contrasting voices and experiences of the historically-marginalized majority of the population—including indigenous peoples, people of African descent, and women in general—were largely absent. Outside of conversations within academic enclaves, South Carolina’s tricentennial did not include philosophical reflections on any aspect of the state’s past that might be construed as less than noble or triumphant.
In contrast to the spirit of the 1970 celebration, many people in the Charleston community today feel strongly that the commemoration of the city’s 350th anniversary must reflect a more honest and inclusive appraisal of our past. I share that sentiment, but as a public historian I’m also aware of the need to strike balance between providing sufficient historical detail to engage an audience’s imagination and overloading them with a stultifying barrage of facts. History lessons often stick better in our minds when the material is somehow relevant to our present lives. The challenge, therefore, is to identify and highlight meaningful connections between the past and the present. When asked to contribute something to the upcoming commemoration of Charleston’s 350th anniversary, I began to frame my response by asking myself a simple question: How is the founding of Charles Town in 1670 relevant to life in Charleston today?
The individuals who participated in the founding of South Carolina 350 years ago are long gone, as are most of their descendants. In the absence of a functioning time machine that might allow us to visit Charles Town in 1670, we can feed our imaginations by visiting Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site to experience the landscape they once inhabited and examine the physical artifacts of their now-distant presence. By studying the surviving documents that record their actions and decisions, however, we can begin to trace the chain of events that commenced in 1670 and continued to shape the growth of Charleston and South Carolina to the present day. With this fact in mind, I refined my initial question a bit, asking myself: In what sense is the founding moment of Charles Town still with us today?
After a bit of quiet reflection on the big picture of local history, and looking for patterns in the details, I settled into the following train of thought: The founding of Charles Town, South Carolina was a relatively quiet event built on a small set of desires and decisions that, once set in motion, subsequently multiplied and shaped the lives of many generations of diverse groups of people. Like a stone dropped into calm pond, the arrival of English settlers at Albemarle Point in mid-April 1670 initiated a series of manifold actions and reactions that rippled or reverberated through the ages to the present. To understand the relevance of Charleston’s 350th anniversary in 2020, therefore, we need to reflect on our cumulative history and identify those desires and decisions made in or around 1670 that had the most significant impact on the world we inhabit today.
I haven’t produced a definitive list of such impactful founding decisions, and perhaps it’s a subjective exercise anyway. As a thought exercise for students, commuters, book clubs, and trivia fans, however, I challenge everyone to contemplate the earliest days of Charleston history and formulate your own responses to this simple question: What founding decisions had the most profound and lasting effects on the history of Charleston? To stimulate the conversation, I’ll offer five of my own conclusions (in no particular order).
The decision to settle along the marshy coastline in flood-prone areas:
The “Lowcountry” of South Carolina is a coastal plain that barely rises above sea level and is pierced by a network of meandering tidal rivers and creeks. Three and a half centuries ago, the early settlers here knew this to be a dangerous and unhealthy landscape. The swampy environment bred diseases like malaria and yellow fever that ravaged the population while seasonal floods and hurricanes regularly threatened to undermine the stability of the colony. To remedy these dangers, the Lords Proprietors back in England, who owned all of Carolina, repeatedly advised the leaders of Charles Town to search elsewhere for a better location for the seat of government.
To accommodate commercial ship traffic and improve the town’s military defenses, Charles Town did move from its original site at Albemarle Point to the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers in 1680, but here they put down permanent stakes and refused to budge. Why not move Charleston farther up the Cooper River, asked the proprietors in 1684, near the “T” in the river where the east and west branches of the Cooper meet? In the spring of 1685, the proprietors repeatedly urged the government to move Charles Town more than thirty miles inland, or at least agree to advise all newcomers to avoid settling along the watery coastline.
Similar suggestions were repeated on a number of occasions during Charleston’s first half-century. Thanks to the focus on valuable commerce flowing in and out of the port, and the decision to transform the swamps into profitable rice fields, the people of early South Carolina clung tenaciously to the coastal plain in the face of repeated adversities. Soon it became a tradition, and a point of pride to inhabit the low lands that generated wealth for a privileged few and shortened the lives of the enslaved laborers. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the abandoned rice fields of the Lowcountry became a paradise for wealthy sportsmen and a source of nostalgia for those charmed by the romance of the plantation days that were “gone with the wind.”
Considering this history, it becomes clear that the very real and reasonable concerns about flooding that occupy so much public discourse in present-day Charleston are not a new phenomenon. The flooding challenges we face as individual property owners and as a community are largely the result of stubborn decisions made in the earliest days of this colony to stick closely to the water’s edge in flood-prone areas.
The decision to disrespect the indigenous people:
The collective records of Spanish, French, and English explorers who traversed what is now South Carolina in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries contain the names of nineteen different tribes residing in the coastal plain between the Santee and Savannah Rivers: Witcheaugh, Yoya, Escamacu (St. Helena), Edisto, Touppa, Mayon, Stalame, Wimbee, Combahee, Kussah, Ashepoo, Bohicket, Stono, Kussoe, Kiawah, Etiwan, Wando, Sampa, and Sewee. The English settlers who began arriving in 1670 grouped these small scattered tribes under the collective name “Cusabo” people, but that term was apparently not used by the indigenous people themselves.
Elevating profit above other considerations, the settlers who planted Charles Town in 1670 and their successors antagonized and swept aside the indigenous people that inhabited this landscape. By the turn of the eighteenth century, the colonists had displaced all of the Cusabo people from their traditional grounds and significantly reduced their numbers by introducing foreign maladies. A generation later, none of the Lowcountry’s first people remained. In 1770, Lieutenant Governor William Bull told the British government that the disappearance of the local indigenous population “has often raised my wonder. That in this province, settled in 1670 . . . then swarming with tribes of Indians, there remains now . . . nothing of them but their names, within three hundred miles of our sea coast; no traces of their emigrating or incorporating into other nations, nor any accounting for their extinction by war or pestilence equal to the effect.”
Besides the familiar names that identify many of our creeks, rivers, islands, and neighborhoods, most residents in the Charleston area are largely ignorant of the diverse groups of indigenous people that once inhabited this land. Our collective ignorance is lamentable, but its roots lie in the callous prejudice displayed by our founding fathers. Thanks to their disregard for the lives and culture of the Carolina’s first peoples, our knowledge of their existence has been permanently abridged.
The decision to regard their Spanish neighbors as enemies:
In the summer of 1670, just a few months after the founding of Charles Town, English diplomats signed a peace treaty with Spain to end a long-standing dispute about the ownership of various lands in the New World. In the so-called Treaty of Madrid, England acknowledged Spain’s existing claim to the territory called Florida, up to and including north latitude 32° 30’, while Spain recognized England’s right to claim those lands in Carolina which colonists had already occupied. That is to say, the border between English Carolina and Spanish Florida lay somewhere around the waters of St. Helena Sound, just south of Edisto Island.
Despite their acknowledgment of this legally-binding treaty, the colonists who settled South Carolina in 1670 immediately pursued an enduring policy of trespassing on their neighbor’s property. Spanish officials in St. Augustine immediately and repeatedly protested such incursions, of course, and strong rhetoric occasionally exploded into violent clashes. In the first century of Charleston’s existence, the provincial government spent the equivalent of billions of dollars to construct defensive fortifications in and around the capital town. Much of the colony’s energy and resources were consumed by this antagonistic disdain for Carolina’s Spanish neighbors.
When Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain in 1763, the people of Charleston finally relaxed into a more peaceful frame of mind. Spain regained Florida at the end of the American Revolution in 1783, however, and old tensions soon resurfaced. Even after the United States government purchased Florida in 1819, anti-Spanish sentiment continued to flourish in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. In subsequent generations, many people in the Charleston area inherited a prejudice against our Spanish-speaking neighbors. The marginalization of Hispanic people is a complex and widespread issue in twenty-first-century America, of course, but its roots in Charleston are tied to the founding of this community.
The decision to grant large tracts of lands to preferred individuals:
The original Lords Proprietors of the Carolina colony envisioned themselves as the rulers of a quasi-feudal society modeled on English traditions. Below themselves, the proprietors created the pseudo-aristocratic titles of landgrave and cassique, and handed out these titles to their friends and allies. Here, as in England and in the English conquest of Ireland, the first choice of land went to the friends of those in power. Each of the original eight proprietors of Carolina (and their heirs and successors) received 96,000 acres, called a “seigniory.” Each of the Landgraves received 48,000 acres, while each of the cassiques received 12,000 acres. In this distribution of free land during the early decades of the colony, more than 1.3 million acres (that’s more than 2,000 square miles) of the choicest land in coastal South Carolina was reserved for approximately thirty individuals. Most of those aristocrats never set foot on these shores, and those that did eventually claimed but a fraction of their reserved lands.
For most of the colonial period of South Carolina, white settlers received fifty acres of free land per head in their respective families. Because enslaved servants counted as dependents, wealthy slave owners acquired more free land in proportion to their investment in slave labor. This practice created an incentive to invest in slavery, and facilitated the creation of large plantations containing thousands of acres worked by scores of enslaved people. Even without the titles of landgrave and cassique, the wealthy planters of the South Carolina Lowcountry created a landscape of independent fiefdoms that, in many respects, resembled the lordly manors of feudal England. As in the mother country, the accumulation of property begot power, and the plantation economy created an oligarchy of planters who remained tied to the coastal plain and remained committed to agriculture and slavery.
The persistence of the plantation mindset through the first three centuries of South Carolina retarded the diversification of our economy and the diversity of our civic landscape. Instead of creating a network of independent villages, boroughs, and towns spread across the Lowcountry, the early planters created a landscape of independent labor camps based on a stubborn commitment to large-scale, exploitative agriculture. The relatively recent advent of manufacturing businesses in South Carolina is a reflection of this state’s long and tenacious adherence to an agricultural economy that was planted here by English settlers who valued land as the ultimate symbol of socio-political status.
The decision to rely heavily on the labor of enslaved people:
The planters and merchants of early Charles Town followed the example of their neighbors in Barbados, then the most profitable colony in Anglo-America, by seeking to cultivate a plantation economy based on the exploitation of enslaved laborers (see Episode No. 42 for more information about that topic). Based on the economic success of this practice in the Caribbean, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina assured potential settlers, in the Fundamental Constitutions of 1669, that “every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves.” From its inception, therefore, the social, economic, and legal fabric of the community founded at Charles Town in 1670 was based on a tradition of exploitation and disparity drawn along racial lines.
Enslaved people of African descent formed a majority of South Carolina’s population by the year 1708, and the enslaved population continued to grow faster than the free population for several more generations. The deep commitment to the politics of exploitation transformed the port of Charleston into the principal port of entry for African captives brought to North America. The economies of rice, indigo, and cotton that defined the character of South Carolina’s early culture and politics were predicated on the availability of cheap forced labor. Slavery was the engine of commerce that generated great wealth and power for a small fraction of the local population. Born into a society addicted to the comforts derived from the practice of race-based exploitation, South Carolinians like John C. Calhoun defended slavery as “a positive good.”
The stubborn refusal to acknowledge the inhumanity of slavery led directly to the American Civil War. The refusal to dismantle traditions of white supremacy in the late nineteenth century gave rise to the “Jim Crow” politics of segregation and inequality. Charleston finally began to desegregate its public institutions in the 1960s, but the vestiges of deep-rooted prejudice continue to play a role in our society. Looking back over the past three-and-a-half centuries, we can see that the social disparities present our community—especially those relating to education, income, health, and incarceration—are still largely defined along racial lines that were prescribed by the earliest settlers who came here in 1670.
Charleston is, in many ways, a wonderful place to live and work. Like most communities, however, some of our citizens face challenges and frustrations that produce tension and occasional discord. Not all of these tensions have deep roots unique to this place, but I would humbly suggest that the most enduring and divisive issues facing the people of Charleston represent the bitter fruit of seeds sown in the earliest days of the Carolina colony.
In twenty-first century Charleston, history is a valuable commodity—a fabric of stories, images, and concepts that are monetized, advertised, and delivered to millions of visitors and newcomers each year. In this sense, history forms a significant part of the local economy, but it is not a commodity owned and controlled exclusively by the wealthy or those with the deepest roots. It is a shared resource, a trove of wealth in which we are all stakeholders. While some may view the negative aspects of Charleston’s past as a sort of burden or obstacle that impedes our progress, I prefer to think that history endures in our daily lives as a powerful tool. Knowledge of our history can empower us to see the vestiges of past mistakes in our community, and to use that knowledge to dismantle barriers and diffuse tensions that frustrate our collective progress. By embracing a more inclusive and honest narrative of our shared past, we can build solidarity and prosperity.
The purpose of today’s rather philosophical discussion is to remind myself and my neighbors about the value of history. In our words and actions, each of us carries the legacies of our past into the future. As we commemorate the 350th anniversary of Charleston, let us be ever mindful of the weight and wonder of our shared past.
 The documentary record of the founding of South Carolina is fragmentary and incomplete. If you’re interested reading about the experiences of the early settlers who came here in the 1670s, you can read transcriptions of the earliest surviving records that were originally published by Langdon Cheves, ed., “The Shaftesbury Papers and Other Records Relating to Carolina and the First Settlement on the Ashley River Prior to the Year 1676,” in Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, volume 5 (Richmond, Va.: William Ellis Jones, 1897), 1–476; This material was recently reprinted as [Langdon Cheves, ed.], The Shaftesbury Papers (Charleston, S.C.: Tempus Publishing, 2000). Copies of both of these books can be found in CCPL’s South Carolina History Room.
 The state-appointed South Carolina Tricentennial Commission published its own Report of the South Carolina Tricentennial Commission in 1971 (a copy of which can be found in CCPL’s South Carolina History Room). In addition, various newspapers across the state provided copious coverage of the events of 1970. At present, however, I am not aware of any effort to construct an objective analysis of the state’s tricentennial efforts. My brief summary of the spirt of those events is based solely on my own reading of the 1971 report and contemporary newspaper coverage of various tricentennial events.
 A. S. Salley Jr., indexer, Records in the British Public Record Office Relating to South Carolina 1663–1684 (Atlanta: Foote and Davies for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1928), 293–94; A. S. Salley Jr., indexer, Records in the British Public Record Office Relating to South Carolina 1685–1690 (Atlanta: Foote and Davies for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1929), 4–5, 35–36.
 See, for example, Daniel Vivian, A New Plantation World: Sporting Estates in the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1900–1940 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Stephanie E. Yuhl, A Golden Haze of Memory: The Making of Historic Charleston (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
 Gene Waddell, Indians of the South Carolina Lowcountry, 1562–1751 (Spartanburg, S.C: Reprint Company, 1980), 8–9, estimates their total population at less than 2,000 people when the English settlers arrived.
 Waddell, Indians of the South Carolina Lowcountry, 4–6 (overview), 114, and subsequent detailed notes under the name of each tribe; Roy H. Merrens, ed., The Colonial South Carolina Scene (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977), 261–62.
 For more information about the competing Spanish and English claims to parts of South Carolina, see Herbert E. Bolton, ed., Arredondo’s Historical Proof of Spain’s Title to Georgia. A Contribution to the History of One of the Spanish Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1925), and Herbert Eugene Bolton and Mary Ross, The Debatable Land: A Sketch of the Anglo-Spanish Contest for the Georgia Country (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1925), both of which are available online through the website of the Hathi Trust.