Charleston: The Palmetto City
The City of Charleston, in my humble opinion, needs an official nickname, and perhaps even an official symbol. There are a few contenders out there, ranging from cheeky epithets to marketing slogans, but I think there’s only one real option to answer both needs. Rather than inventing something new, or adopting something with a murky historical pedigree, I propose that we embrace the city’s original nickname, which endured for more than a century: “The Palmetto City.”
Some of you might remember that I’ve used the phrase “Palmetto City” in a few podcasts over the past two years, and that’s no accident. In the course of my systematic trolling through historic newspapers, I’ve found hundreds of instances in which journalists and advertisers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries referred to Charleston as “the Palmetto City.” As a nickname for our fair city, the phrase really appeals to me, and so I’ve been on a one man campaign to restore it to the local lexicon. The earliest example of this phenomenon that I’ve seen (so far) dates from 1835, but I have a hunch it was a well-established phrase by that time. From the 1830s through the 1930s, newspapers from Charleston to New York, from Knoxville to San Francisco, from New Orleans to Wisconsin, all used the phrase “Palmetto City” as a sort of horticultural synecdoche for the city of Charleston. I’m not going to bore you by reading a laundry list of such examples, but at the end of this essay I’ve included a select number taken from a century’s worth of newspapers.
As all of you probably know, this community was originally called “Charles Town” until the town was incorporated on August 13th, 1783, and officially became the city of Charleston. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past twenty years reading through historic documents and newspapers from eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Charleston, but I haven’t come across any hint of a popular nickname for the city prior to the 1830s. For that reason, I feel justified in stating that “Palmetto City” appears to have been our first or “original” nickname. A generation later, in 1857, Charleston novelist William Gilmore Simms published a travel essay in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, titled “Charleston, the Palmetto City.” In that anonymous essay, which we now know to be the work of Simms, the author takes the reader on an extensive tour of the architecture and geography of his home town in the years just before the Civil War, including physical descriptions that are enhanced by valuable illustrations of some of Charleston’s most significant buildings and locations. Throughout the essay, he uses the phrase “Palmetto City” repeatedly and poetically. Unfortunately for us, at no point does the author explain why his favorite metropolis is known as “the Palmetto City.” He didn’t have to; in 1857, the nickname was well-established and familiar. No one questioned the phrase.
As I said a moment ago, the people of Charleston and beyond used this the phrase “Palmetto City” well into the twentieth century, but that nickname had a bit of competition for a while in the second half of the nineteenth century. During that “Victorian” era, journalists, poets, and advertisers occasionally referred to Charleston as “the City by the Sea.” That anemic phrase never quite took root, however, which is just fine with me. I hope you’ll agree that “the City by the Sea” is not only generic in the extreme, but it also fails to capture anything about the history and spirit of Charleston.
Just about everyone who has visited or lived in or near the City of Charleston in the past fifty years is probably familiar with the phrase “Holy City.” Here, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll pause for a moment to bite my tongue. This is not a forum for sharp words or finger pointing. I’ll simply state that you will never hear me refer to the City of Charleston as “the Holy City.” This facetious nickname is a post-World-War II phenomenon that has become very popular in recent years. The stories you’ve probably heard about the origins of the phrase are, unfortunately, rooted in historical nonsense and misunderstandings. Furthermore, those stories tend to reinforce the callous myth of religious freedom in early Charleston. I’m not going to delve into the origins of the phrase “Holy City” because my friend, tour guide Van Sturgeon, compiled some fantastic research on that topic back in 2016, and the Post and Courier published a summary of it on their website. If you’re interested in that topic, check out Episode No. 142.
Imagine for a moment that you were a member of our City Council, or a marketing executive at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and you were listing to this sales pitch for an “official” city nickname. What information could I offer to help convince you to get behind “the Palmetto City”? Well, how about some stories about how the palmetto has been incredibly relevant to the city of Charleston since long before the city existed. Let’s consider a few facts.
The salt-tolerant cabbage palmetto (Sabal palmetto) grows along the Atlantic coastline from southern North Carolina to Cuba, and it’s the official state tree of both South Carolina and Florida. And yes, there is a city in Manatee County, Florida, named Palmetto, but that little town came into existence after the Civil War, by which time Charleston was already commonly called “the Palmetto City.” In fact, the palmetto tree has been associated with our community since prehistoric times. English explorer William Hilton, who sailed along the coast of South Carolina in 1663, encountered Native Americans living in extensive, wood-frame buildings that were “compleatly covered with Palmeta-leaves.” The indigenous tribes that once called this place home used the palmetto logs for building materials, the fronds for roofing, fibers drawn from the fronds for making twine and rope, and even ate the fleshy heart of palm as a delicacy. When English settlers finally put down roots along the Ashley River in 1670, and when French Huguenot refugees pushed into the Santee River delta in the 1680s, they all built temporary shelters made of palmetto logs and palm fronds while they cleared the land for more permanent dwellings. When African captives were brought to colonial Charleston to work on Lowcountry plantations, you can bet that their first shelters in the wilderness were simple huts covered with a thatch made of palmetto fronds. Thousands of miles from their ancestral homes, those enslaved people also used strips of palmetto fronds and bull rushes (now sweetgrass) to replicate the baskets they had once used in West Africa.
From the beginning of English settlement here three hundred and fifty years ago, trade was the principal concern for the men and women who hoped to carve a European-style community out of the wilderness. By establishing a port town, they would be able to export their crops for profit and import from abroad all they could not produce locally. That maritime trade involved ships and other vessels, which required port facilities, and so Charlestonians built wharves that projected out from East Bay Street into the Cooper River. Those wharves formed the staging points for all of the cargo departing from or arriving into Charleston, including everything from New England flour to West African captives. From the late 1600s to the eve of the Civil War, Charleston’s wharves were constructed of palmetto cribs; that is, large, boxy structures that were built like log cabins, assembled on land, floated into the river, and sunk into the pluff mud with ballast stones. These crib structures formed the foundations of all our wharves until the arrival of concrete and other modern materials, so one could argue that the trade of early Charleston—the commerce that built the city’s wealth and employed so many unfree laborers—was built on the humble palmetto tree.
Many people associate palmetto trees with the defense of Sullivan’s Island on the 28th of June, 1776, when a small fleet of the British Navy tried to force its way into Charleston harbor. That naval assault was repulsed by the heroic actions of the brave defenders inside an unfinished fort, built entirely of palmetto logs and sand, on the southeast part of the Sullivan’s Island. Their dramatic success inspired the formation of an organization, the Palmetto Society, which has organized a commemoration of that important battle, every year since June of 1777.
But that unfinished fort on Sullivan’s Island, named Fort Moultrie in the aftermath of the battle in 1776, was not the only place in Charleston harbor protected by a wall of palmetto logs at that time, nor was it the first place fortified in such a manner. A year earlier, in the tumultuous summer of 1775, the rebellious people of Charleston began arming themselves for war. Our last Royal Governor, Sir William Campbell, fled Charleston in mid-September and took refuge aboard a British warship in the harbor. At the same time, South Carolina forces took control of Fort Johnson, on James Island, and the community began preparations to defend itself against the inevitable clash with the British military. At that time, the east and south faces of the Charleston waterfront were already protected by a mile-long brick wall, stretching from what is now Market Street southward to White Point and then westward to Legare Street, which had been constructed in stages between 1698 and 1769 (we’ll talk more about that project in future programs). To supplement these older fortifications, Charleston’s military leaders decided to reinforce this brick wall with a supplementary outer wall built of palmetto logs and sand.
The presence of palmetto screen along the length of East Bay Street may be unfamiliar to most people today, but it’s mentioned in the surviving letters of several eye-witnesses and in government documents such as receipts for paying men to deliver rafts of palmetto logs to the city. Furthermore, if you look closely at the map of Charleston harbor published in London in 1777 by J. F. W. Des Barres, you can plainly see the massive palmetto wall wrapping the eastern face of the peninsula, from Gadsden’s Wharf on the north to White Point on the south. When the British Navy tried to force its way into the harbor in June 1776, they never made it past the unfinished fort on Sullivan’s Island, built entirely of palmetto logs and sand. In the years since that historic battle, South Carolinians have never forgotten the worthy service of the spongy palmetto trees in the defense of Sullivan’s Island, and we even put it on our state flag in 1861, but we have long forgotten the palmetto walls that once protected the Charleston peninsula during the American Revolution.
If you were to tell a tourist today that Charleston is called the “Palmetto City,” I’m sure he or she would nod and understand right away. Consider this: when one arrives at the airport and walks outside to find ground transportation, one immediately sees the palmetto trees that form a significant part of the airport’s landscape. If you visit any beach in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, you’re going to see more than a few palmetto trees. If you drive around the peninsula of Charleston, or anywhere west of the Ashley or east of the Cooper, you’re going to see thousands of palmettos. Many of these trees have been planted in recent times, of course, as the palmetto has become a very popular feature in nearly every commercial, institutional, and residential landscape in the Lowcountry. This planting trend represents the continuation of a campaign that the City of Charleston launched more than a century ago. The city’s Parks Department first began planting palmetto trees in White Point Garden, near the Battery, in 1889. When the Low Battery seawall was constructed in the early twentieth century, the city planted rows of palmettos between the lanes of traffic in the new Murray Boulevard, and made plans to continue those rows of trees towards what eventually became Lockwood Drive. In the post-war boom of the 1950s, the City of Charleston and the S.C. Department of Transportation began an earnest campaign to plant palmetto trees all around the city and along Lowcountry highways. That effort was partly about beautification and partly about branding; that is, maximizing the visibility of those swaying palm fronds that tourists from cooler, inland climes can’t seem to get enough of. How many palmetto roses, hand-crafted by the young boys and girls of downtown Charleston, have been carried home by tourists to the distant corners of the planet?
Finally, I’ll offer one more palmetto fact to help seal the deal in my nickname crusade. In the sophisticated visual language of Ancient Greece and Rome, which trickled down to us through many centuries of Judeo-Christian traditions, the palm frond symbolizes triumph, peace, and eternal life. Think about Palm Sunday. Think about the Seal of the State of South Carolina. Remember Psalm 92:12: “the righteous will flourish like a palm.” Based on the experience we had with the bombardment of 1776, when palmetto trunks absorbed the shock of British cannon fire, we can also think of the palmetto as a symbol of resilience. Considering all of this evidence, therefore, isn’t the palmetto a logical symbol for the City of Charleston?
Whether you live in Awendaw or Ravenel, Otranto or Sullivan’s Island, the City of Charleston represents the heart of Charleston County, the urban hub to which all other local communities are historically rooted. In 2020, the City of Charleston will mark its 350th anniversary with a variety of public events, and the planning for these activities is already underway. As a historian, I believe this anniversary provides our community with 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. If we were to consider what symbol might best represent that historical journey, I believe the ideal candidate must be indigenous, constructive, enduring, inclusive, and resilient. Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly submit for your consideration the native palmetto as a fitting symbol for Charleston, the Palmetto City.
• Charleston Courier, 10 November 1835, page 2: “A Charleston Whaling Company. . . . Those who know her well, cannot but feel their hearts thrill with joy, when they see the beaming prospects that are developing around the fair Palmetto City of the South.”
• Charleston Courier, 24 May 1844, page 2: The author of a review of visit to the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa met with the institution’s president, Rev. Basil Manly (1798–1868), formerly of Charleston. “Neither time nor elevated station have produced any material changes in his appearance or manners since his removal from the Palmetto city.”
• Charleston Courier, 26 February 1857, page 2: Story about the Ladies Mount Vernon Association raising money for the preservation of Washington’s residence. “At all events, let South Carolina and Charleston—the Palmetto State and the Palmetto City—do their part, and redeem their duty to the manse of Washington.”
• Philadelphia Inquirer, 13 May 1861, page 7: “Charleston Blockaded—It is stated that the U.S. steam frigate Niagara, which sailed from New York on the 5th inst., is destined for the blockade of the Palmetto City.”
• San Francisco Bulletin, 31 May 1861, page 1: News via New York about the war. “A gentleman who has just arrived here from the Palmetto City says everybody there is firmly impressed with the belief that Washington will be taken, or laid in ruins by the middle of June.”
• New York Herald, 14 December 1861, page 5: “Interesting from Charleston. How the citizens of that city feel in regard to the war—Incidents of the time in the ‘Palmetto City’—Suffering and privation among the inhabitants—Union element in the very heart of secession—Military movements, etc.”
• Charleston Courier, 13 February 1863, page 4: Speech of Richard Yeadon during a visit to the town of Sumter. “Let us all, from the mountains to the seaboard, unite as a band of brothers and a Macedonian phalanx, resolved to make their bodies an impregnable rampart, or their lives a willing sacrifice in defense of the Palmetto City.”
• Wisconsin Daily Patriot, 30 November 1863, page 1: “From Charleston—By way of New Orleans we have a report that Charleston was on fire and had been burning 63 hours. Two weeks later intelligence from the Palmetto City makes no mention of any such occurrence.”
• Macon Telegraph, 17 August 1866, page 3: “Rebuilding of Charleston. The friends of the Palmetto City, everywhere, will rejoice to hear that she is about to arise from her ashes.”
• Knoxville Journal, 28 August 1894, page 6: “American Cities. . . . New Haven is the Elm City. Its principal streets are beautifully shaded by old elms. / Charleston is the Palmetto City, from the prevalence of this plant in the neighborhood.”
• Kansas City Star, 17 June 1921, page 18: “Here is a list of sobriquets or by-names of cities in the United States. . . . Charleston, S.C.—The Palmetto City.”
• Charleston News and Courier, 15 May 1927, page 15: “Charleston, chief city and port of the Palmetto State, is fast becoming a Palmetto City. The Clyde Steamship Company is placing ornamental palmettos in the main lobby of its office here, carrying out the scheme of palmetto ornamentation of Charleston, as evidenced by the setting out of palm avenues on several Charleston streets and approaching highways of the city.”
• Charleston News and Courier, 31 January 1949, page 4: “The Boston Globe gravely informs its readers that ‘Charleston is sometimes called the Palmetto City,’ which is news to everybody in Charleston, at any rate. Our city has many distinctive attractions, but a wealth of palmettos, or of any other kind of trees, is not one of them.”
 See [William Gilmore Simms], “Charleston: The Palmetto City,” in Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 15, No. 85 (June 1857), 1–22. A 1976 reprint of the full text of Simms’s essay is available on the website of The Simms Initiatives at the University of South Carolina. For Simms’s authorship of the 1857 article about the “Palmetto City” in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, see Robert Stockton, “Simms Insight Relevant Today,” Charleston News and Courier, 5 April 1976, page 13.
 For uses of the phrase “city by the sea,” see, for example, “Letter from Richmond” in Charleston Mercury, 18 July 1863; “Hampton’s Day” in Charleston News and Courier, 28 October 1876; “The Battery,” in Charleston World, 16 June 1889; and the pamphlet Charleston, S.C.: Its Advantages, Its Conditions, Its Prospects, A Brief History of the “City by the Sea” (s.l.: s.n.], ca. 1898).
 Langdon Cheves, ed., The Shaftesbury Papers (Charleston, S.C.: South Carolina Historical Society, 1897; reprint, Charleston, S.C.: Tempus Publishing, 2000), 20. For more information about native uses of the tree, see Barbara Oehlbeck, The Sabal Palm: A Native Monarch (Naples, Fla.: Offshore Press, 1997).
 Susan Bates and Harriott Cheves Leland, French Santee: A Huguenot Settlement in Colonial South Carolina (Baltimore: Otter Bay Books, 2015), 7; Dale Rosengarten, “By the Rivers of Babylon: The Lowcountry Basket in Slavery and Freedom,” in Robert Voeks and John Rashford, eds., African Ethnobotany in the Americas (New York: Springer, 2013), 123–52.
 For a detailed investigation into palmetto crib wharfing, see J. W. Joseph, The Vendue/Prioleau Project: An Archaeological Study of the Early Charleston Waterfront (Stone Mountain, Ga.: New South Associates, 2000), 4, 24, 32–33, 36–37, 40.
 For the beginning of the Palmetto Society’s tradition of annual commemorations, see Gazette of the State of South Carolina, 19 May 1777.
 For palmetto wall construction references, see A. S. Salley Jr., ed., “Papers of the Second Council of Safety of the Revolutionary Party in South Carolina, November 1775–March 1776,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 4 (January 1903): 3–25; See “Journal of the Second Council of Safety, Appointed by the Provisional Congress, November 1775,” in Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, volume 3 (Charleston: South Carolina Historical Society, 1859), 35–271. A palmetto sheathing was also erected around the walls of Fort Johnson on James Island in the second half of 1776; see William Edwin Hemphill, Wylma Anne Wates, and R. Nicholas Olsberg, eds. Journals of the General Assembly and House of Representatives 1776-1780 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1970), 127.
 For eye-witness accounts of these palmetto works, see Paul G. Sifton, ed., “La Caroline Méridionale: Some French Sources of South Carolina Revolutionary History, with Two Unpublished Letters of Baron de Kalb,” South Carolina Historical Magazine 66 (1965): 108; Banastre Tarleton, A History of the campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America (London: T. Cadell, 1787; Reprint, Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1967), 13; Bernhard A. Uhlendorf, ed. and trans., The Siege of Charleston. With an Account of the Province of South Carolina: Diaries and Letters of Hessian Officers from the von Jungkenn Papers in the William L. Clements Library (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1938), 95. The full title of the 1777 map is The Harbour of Charles Town in South Carolina from the Surveys of Sr. Jas. Wallace Captn. in his Majesty’s Navy & others with a view of the Town from the South Shore of the Ashley River (London: J. F. W. Des Barres, 1777). Note that the illustration of the fortified town in the inset of Des Barres’s map appears to omit the wharves on the east side of East Bay Street. An undated, ca. 1779 map of Charleston’s fortifications, found among the papers of Sir Henry Clinton at the Clements Library at the University of Michigan (Small Clinton Map No. 314), shows the line of “a breastwork of palmettos” on the east side of East Bay Street, but to the west of the wharves.
 Charleston World, 20 June 1889. The planting of palmettos in Murray Boulevard was planned as early as 1916, but the actual planting did not begin until March 1927. See Charleston News and Courier, 15 March 1927, page 5.
 David C. R. Heisser, The State Seal of South Carolina: A Short History (Columbia: S.C. Department of Archives and History, 1992).