In strolling the tidy, peaceful streets of Charleston today, it's sometimes difficult to imagine the terrors that came before: the earthquakes, the fires, the hurricanes, slavery, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, just to name a few. The city has managed to survive it all, and to rebuild stronger each time. Today Charleston is a living museum, and its battle scars teach important lessons. Perhaps that is exactly the reason so many people feel compelled to visit.

Indigenous History

For centuries the Kiawah Indians lived in and around what we know today as Charleston. They were a hunter-gatherer society and used dugout canoes as transportation on creeks, rivers and marshes, where they hunted and fished. There were other, more warlike tribes living nearby, so in 1670 when a group of colonists showed up in what is now Charleston Harbor, the Kiawah chief encouraged them to settle in the area, and the groups had friendly relations. Within 10 years, though, the numbers of the Kiawah had been dramatically reduced due to disease and warfare, and the tribe had been forced onto lands deemed less valuable by the English.

Colonial Era

When the English colonists sailed into Charleston Harbor in 1670 they set up camp at Albemarle Point. Footing the bill for the trip were eight lord proprietors to whom Charles II had granted expansive tracts of land, while dukes, earls and barons also got smaller plots. There were 160 settlers in total, and life was rough. They were in danger of being attacked by indigenous tribes from the wilderness and also by the Spanish from the north, and food wasn't easy to come by, particularly because the settlers were unfamiliar with the swampy, humid environs.

Charles Town's population steadily grew, and people figured out how to grow rice, but the colony was still a lawless kind of place at the dawn of the 18th century. In 1713 a massive hurricane blew through. Then the Yamasee War broke out soon after and nearly destroyed the colony, but an alliance with the Cherokee turned the tide. Settlers rebuilt bigger and better, using sturdier materials like bricks for their homes and a great many churches.

Piracy came into fashion, and Stede Bonnet, 'the Gentleman Pirate,' made trouble in the city for a while, until he and 29 others were caught, hung and supposedly buried somewhere near White Point Garden. More fires and hurricanes struck, and yet the colony became one of the busiest ports on the eastern seaboard, the center of a prosperous rice-growing and trading colony. With influences from the West Indies and Africa, France and other European countries, it became a cosmopolitan city, often compared to New Orleans.


The colony was prospering in the 18th century, but it was also being heavily taxed by Great Britain, and in 1773 Charles Town staged its own version of the Boston Tea Party. Home to four signers of the Declaration of Independence, the colony played a sizable role in the Revolutionary War. In 1776, the patriots' first major victory went down at Fort Moultrie, where palmetto logs held off a British invasion in the harbor. In 1780, though, the British occupied Charleston for three years, capturing thousands and imprisoning some in the Old Exchange & Provost Dungeon. A fire destroyed the waterfront and the city was looted.

With the war won, the newly renamed Charleston rebuilt itself (again) and prospered in the antebellum years, making good use of an improved cotton gin. Impressive homes went up, rich people entertained each other in lavish parlors and slave labor made it all possible.

Civil War Era

During the antebellum period, Charleston was a key port and trade center for the slave industry, and bustling slave auction houses clustered near the Cooper River. In the mid-1800s tensions escalated between the North and South over states' rights and slavery, and South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. On April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired the first shots of the Civil War on federal troops occupying Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. It was in that same harbor that the first successful submarine attack took place, when the Confederacy's Hunley sank a Union warship (the crew of the sub also died).

Starting in 1863, Union troops bombarded Charleston for 587 days, decimating the city. Hurricanes and earthquakes made things worse, and as the labor-intensive rice plantations became uneconomical without slave labor, the city's importance declined.

Charleston in the 20th Century & Beyond

In the 1900s the city of Charleston didn't have a lot of resources, which meant that development was minimal and buildings still standing were generally left alone and unrenovated. By the 1920s people were starting to recognize the value in keeping Charleston historic, so when the Joseph Manigault House was threatened with demolition, the Preservation Society was formed to save it. The city later adopted a zoning ordinance for the country's first historic district and a Board of Architectural review was created to oversee any changes in the district. Finally, in 1947, the Historic Charleston Foundation was created to purchase historic properties and resell them to preservationists.

The beauty of the city is one of the main reasons why visitors come today, and it's a place where people can learn from the past. There are still crucial lessons to learn, however, particularly involving race relations. In 2015 a white police officer shot and killed Walter Scott, an unarmed black man who was running away. A couple of months later, a mass shooting by self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylann Roof left nine dead at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The incidents reopened questions about the city's racially fraught past and its effects on the present.