South Carolina is one fiery state, as its contentious and bloody history rarely fails to demonstrate. Over the last 350 years, its settlers have squared off against natural disasters, Native American residents, the British, and – when the state became the first to secede from the Union in 1860 – countrymen to the north. Race relations may have improved since the days of slavery, but poverty, inequality and discrimination have proven difficult to eradicate. Occasionally these issues still flare up, with devastating consequences.
At least 29 tribes of Native Americans have lived in what is now South Carolina, and for centuries they hunted and gathered, fished, used tools, planted crops and traded with each other. When the British first showed up relations were friendly, but by 1715 they had deteriorated and the Yamasee War broke out. Hundreds of settlers were killed, but the British prevailed largely because the Cherokee Indians became their allies against other tribes. By the mid-1700s most of the smaller Native American tribes in South Carolina had disappeared, losing their land or perishing from disease brought by colonists. In the 1800s most of the Cherokee were forcibly removed during the Trail of Tears era.
The English founded their first Carolina colony in 1670, with settlers (and their slaves) pouring in from the royal outpost of Barbados. The new port city was named Charles Town after Charles II, and it had a distinctly Caribbean flavor. Because the colony was controlled by faraway leaders and interests, it remained locally lawless for several decades, attracting pirates, drifters and religious refugees. Fires, earthquakes and hurricanes often imperiled the settlement, but colonists rebuilt time and again, and many got rich off rice, cotton and indigo plantations (and off the backs of slaves). When Britain attempted to collect some of these spoils via taxation, the 13 colonies declared and eventually won their independence, which Great Britain formally recognized in 1783.
Civil War Era
West African slaves were brought over to turn the thick coastal swamps into rice paddies, and by 1860 more than half of the state's residents were slaves. When Abraham Lincoln was elected president without any support from pro-slavery states, and the nation's moral compass began to move toward abolition, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. The first shots of the Civil War were fired by the Confederates on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, and after four years of battle much of the state was left in ruins. The culture and language of South Carolina's West African slaves has been well-preserved by their Gullah descendants.
Through the 1900s, South Carolina had remained a relatively poor agricultural state, trading in cotton and textiles, though its coastal tourism and shipping businesses thrived. In more recent years the Palmetto State has garnered headlines because of its politicians, from Nikki Haley, the state's first female and first Indian American governor, to Congressman Joe Wilson, who yelled 'You lie!' during a speech by President Obama to Congress. In 2015, following the shooting of nine members of a historically black church for what appeared to be racially motivated reasons, the state legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the grounds of the state capitol, where it had flown since 1962.