People & Culture

At first glance, South Carolina may appear to exhibit a distinct cultural identity, with residents strongly aligned with God, guns, America and whiskey (not necessarily in that order). The reality is far more complex, and regional differences are surprisingly stark. To this day, people with Cherokee blood continue to live and work in the Upcountry. Charleston's still home to some genteel descendants of English lords. And around the Lowcountry, Gullah culture continues to thrive.

Cherokee Bloodline

For more than 2000 years, indigenous groups resided in the hills of what is now South Carolina's Upcountry. In the 1700s the Cherokee Nation was particularly strong in present day Oconee County, and tribe members lived in established settlements, hunting and fishing and growing beans, corn and squash for sustenance.

When European settlers arrived, trading with the Cherokee was vital to economic development. A central trade route called the Cherokee Path ran from present-day Clemson to Charleston, and parts of it can still be hiked today. As the 1800s approached, though, treaties with the British and then the US continually reduced the size of the Cherokee homeland, and by 1816 it ceased to exist. Some of the Nation chose to stay anyway, adapting and intermingling (culturally, politically and romantically) with Scottish and Irish immigrants.

Today there are still 27 known village sites where the Cherokee once lived, and in 2014 the Nation got its first and only museum, the Museum of the Cherokee in South Carolina. The history of Native Americans is also on display in the Oconee Heritage Center in the same town. Among residents whose families were here more than 150 years ago, it's common knowledge that their veins run with at least a touch of Cherokee blood. And they're proud of that.

English Gentry

If you're wandering around Charleston and start to feel like you're in Europe, but also kind of like you're in the Caribbean, there are reasons for that. Many of the first Caucasian settlers on the peninsula originally hailed from England, France, Spain, Germany and Switzerland. And the British folks who arrived first came via Barbados and brought with them their cultural backgrounds and architectural proclivities.

That was in the mid-1600s, but the family names of many of those original settlers are still commonplace in Charleston today, as are the customs and values that tended to be passed down through them. Being well educated was extremely important to the city's founders, along with being polite, well traveled, musically inclined and outspoken. Today those sensibilities are still palpable in the city, and if you're lucky enough to be invited for a wine and cheese hour with a born-and-bred Charlestonian, you can expect the conversation to be erudite, spirited and political.

As you tour historic mansions like the Nathaniel Russell House and the Aiken-Rhett House, you'll notice that they are full of art and furnishings that were collected abroad. Taking the 'Grand Tour,' as a years-long trip through Europe was called in the 19th century, was an important aspect of being in a respected, aristocratic family. So while some of the more rural spots of South Carolina today might strike you as somewhat insular, Charlestonians tend to deeply value travel and exposure to other cultures.

Gullah Culture

Starting in the 16th century, African slaves were transported from the region known as the Rice Coast (Sierra Leone, Senegal, Gambia and Angola) to a landscape of remote islands that was shockingly similar – swampy coastlines and tropical vegetation, plus hot, humid summers. These new African Americans were able to retain many of their homeland traditions after the fall of slavery and well into the 20th century. The resulting culture of Gullah (also known as Geechee in Georgia) has its own language, an English-based Creole with many African words and sentence structures, and many traditions, including fantastic storytelling, art, music and crafts. The Gullah culture is celebrated annually with the energetic Gullah Festival in Beaufort.

St Helena Island, to the east of Beaufort, has the highest concentration of Gullah people in the state, and is the best place for a traveler to obtain an education on the culture (the Penn Center has a museum that's a great starting place). You'll also notice plenty of Gullah restaurants around the island, and their menus are heavy with shrimp, fish, okra, rice, tomatoes and cabbage. Basically, Gullah cuisine consists of whatever the state's early African American residents could find, catch or grow. There's also a distinctly African influence in the cooking style.

Gullah art, too, has stood the test of time. In Beaufort and St Helena there are several folk art galleries with many brightly colored paintings influenced by the vibrance of similar works in West Africa. Sweetgrass baskets are another mainstay; these charming, coiled baskets are prevalent in Africa and are most easily procured on the streets and in the markets of Charleston. For a seriously entertaining Gullah experience, try to catch a storytelling session in Beaufort with Aunt Pearlie Sue ( As is done in Africa, Gullah stories feature animals as characters, and involve changing one's voice and using animated facial expressions to tell tales of how small animals outsmart bigger ones.

Sidebar: Gullah Gullah Island

Gullah Gullah Island, a children's television series that aired on Nickelodeon in the 1990s, was filmed on South Carolina's St Helena Island and was inspired by the Gullah people.

Music & Dance

South Carolinians can definitely carry a tune, and tap their toes while they're at it. The state is home to the Charleston step, invented by African Americans on the coast in the early 1900s, as well as beach music, a spin-off of 1950s R&B that goes hand in hand with 'the shag.' The Upcountry has a long-standing love affair with bluegrass and the piedmont blues, and jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie and funk legend James Brown were both born in the state.

Charleston Step

At the dawn of the 20th century, African Americans living in the Lowcountry started swaying their arms and shuffling their feet in a manner that dance history experts believe has roots in West and Central Africa. The dance was set to ragtime jazz music with syncopated beats, and it could be done alone, with a partner or in groups.

The dramatic dance appeared in a Black Vaudeville act by the Whitman Sisters in 1911, and was seen on the stages of Harlem from 1913. It wasn't until 1922 that the dance gained real traction, though, when it was introduced to the mainstream via an all-black stage play called Liza and the influential all-black 1923 musical Runnin' Wild.

The dance involves big arm movements with a simultaneous foot step that goes like this: left foot steps forward, right foot kicks forward, right foot steps back, left foot steps back. There should be a bit of a hop in between the steps, and advanced add-ons can include shifting of the torso, free kicks in any direction, shaking hands or anything else the dancer feels is appropriate, as long as the rhythm is maintained. When the dance blew up during the Roaring 1920s, it became a go-to for flappers and other young adults rebelling against their parents' buttoned-up attitudes.

The Charleston step was the basis for modern swing dancing, and it still pops up in various forms throughout the US.

Beach Music & the Carolina Shag

Around 1946 in North Myrtle Beach, vacationing college students (particularly frat boys and sorority girls) started getting wild on the dance floor, doing what would come to be known as 'the shag,' which was set to an evolving style of music that we now call beach music. It was edgy at the time because the South was still segregated, and the music was produced mainly by black artists, with stark similarities to what was then called 'race music' (later dubbed 'R&B'). The music is fast, with a 'blue shuffle' 4/4 rhythmic structure and a moderate or fast tempo.

Popular groups included the Tams, the Drifters, the Catalinas, the Platters and the Embers, and in the 1950s their hits were getting serious jukebox time up and down the Carolina coast and beyond. By the '60s and '70s, cover bands across America were passing on Top 40 contemporary hits and instead playing 'oldies' like 'My Girl,' 'Untie Me,' 'Sixty Minute Man' and 'Thank You, John,' all of which had seemingly come from, well, the beach. And only then did the music acquire its present-day moniker.

The shag was of course inextricably linked with the music, and it followed a 'one-and-two, three-and-four, five-six' pattern. There was a lot of stepping around, back and forth, shifting of weight side to side and staying in step with a partner. The shag is often referred to as 'the swing dance of the South' and to this day it's still seen at some Southern weddings and Greek formals, and on a nightly basis at Fat Harold's Beach Club in North Myrtle Beach. Jimmy Buffett cites it as a major influence, and Carolina beach music was part of the soundtrack for the 1989 film Shag, which was filmed in part at the Myrtle Beach Pavilion. In Pat Controy's novel Beach Music, a father introduces his daughter to beach music and the shag to get her more in touch with her Southern roots.

Bluegrass & the Piedmont Blues

Before the Carolinas were separated, people from Ireland, Scotland and England showed up with a music form that strongly resembled today's bluegrass. The music was folksy, and usually about day-to-day life in a new land or working on the farm. It was then called 'mountain music' or 'country music' and it became the sound of the Appalachians, which in the 1900s was blasted out via radio to homes around the US.

A couple of brothers from Kentucky liked the sound of it and started playing guitar and mandolin while singing in harmony, then one brother started his own band called 'Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys,' and they made music with the mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass. In the mid-1940s, a banjo player named Earl Scruggs from North Carolina joined the band and introduced the three-finger picking style that classic bluegrass is famous for today. And although none of that happened in South Carolina, the people of the Upcountry, who were ancestors of those who brought 'mountain music' over, certainly took to it.

Folks in the Appalachians are great appreciators of the piedmont blues, a blues style defined by its distinctive guitar fingerpicking and gospel, country and ragtime influences, with roots throughout the South. Guitar virtuoso Reverend Gary Davis grew up in South Carolina and learned the piedmont blues from a blind guitarist here, and then taught the style to Blind Boy Fuller, who is thought of as the most influential piedmont blues musician of all time.

Today, bluegrass and piedmont blues concerts and festivals are held regularly throughout the state. Hagood Mill Historic Site & Folklore Center has live bluegrass performances on the third Saturday of every month.

Sidebar: Dizzy Gillespie

Trumpet virtuoso John Birks Gillespie, aka Dizzy, was born in 1917 in Cheraw, SC. There's a park in the town dedicated to him, and a jazz festival is held in his honor every October.

Sidebar: James Brown

The 'Godfather of Soul' was born in Barnwell, South Carolina, in 1933, and had been living in an estate on Beech Island (also in SC) when he died in 2006.

Sidebar: Hootie & the Blowfish

The famous American rock band Hootie & the Blowfish formed in Columbia, SC, in 1986.

Landscape & the Environment

With 2876 miles of coastline, 29,898 miles of rivers, 24 (artificial) lakes, a sizable patch of the Appalachian Mountains, and untold acres of forestland, swampland and piedmont, salt marsh and underwater environs, South Carolina is considered by many to be paradisiacal. Environmental advocates are determined to protect the state's natural beauty, but with the looming effects of climate change and habitat destruction, their work is cut out for them.

Natural Resources

There's a population boom going on in South Carolina, with more people moving here than to all but a handful of other US states. The population of the state recently surpassed five million, and in response, land has quickly been surveyed, cleared and developed to accommodate newcomers near the most in-demand places: Columbia, Greenville, Hilton Head, Charleston, Myrtle Beach and other coastal areas. As human territory grows, though, wildlife is being displaced, and habitats are becoming increasingly fragmented.

For those in the Department of Natural Resources, who are tasked in part with managing the state's conservation efforts, this has posed a challenge. A top priority of the DNS is to maintain the integrity of the state's wildlife corridors and green spaces, ensuring that habitats are managed to maximize air and water quality. On the bright side, a local 'greenbelt program' has managed to spend much of its $223-million budget on purchasing and preserving undeveloped land around Charleston County. Previously, 160,000 acres in the area were protected. The 'greenbelt program' added 21,000 to that, and conservation coalitions were able to tack on another 17,000. Nearly 5000 of those acres are inside parks.

A newer threat to coastal areas is the potential for offshore drilling. In early 2018 President Trump proposed expanding offshore drilling up and down the Atlantic coast and all the way to the Arctic Ocean, leasing those areas out for oil and gas exploration. Critics say it's an inane plan, particularly for South Carolina, considering that current estimates suggest the state would only have enough oil and gas to power the US for about six days anyway. Also, a spill or other disturbance of the coastal habitats could threaten the state's $20-billion-a-year tourism industry.

Climate Change

It's no secret that Charleston has a flooding problem, and in recent years, two major hurricanes have done considerable damage to the city and surrounding islands. Over on Folly Beach, the force of Hurricane Matthew's and then Irma's winds eroded the beach beyond recognition, and countless homes have been wrecked due to tidal flooding. Scientists are predicting that by 2100 the sea level could rise by three to six feet, while at the same time storms will be strengthening. If you're thinking this could be a very big problem for the Lowcountry: gold star.

Scientists can't say for sure whether climate change would make Charleston wetter or drier, but temperatures are expected to rise. If the predictions prove accurate, by 2070 there will be an additional 30 days a year during which temperatures climb higher than 95°F (35°C). The city area has many residents that are skeptical of climate change, but the city isn't dragging its feet. It has adopted a sea level rise strategy for its different types of shoreline, assuming a 2.5ft rise in the next 50 years. Storm water drainage tunnels are one aspect of the plan, a new seawall protecting downtown is another. Perhaps most importantly, the plan dictates that evolving projections should be closely followed, and that the strategies be altered as necessary.

The non-coastal regions of the state aren't out of harms way, either. Statewide, the agricultural, forestry and fishing industries are highly susceptible to changes in weather patterns. A warming climate could cause a litany of problems including drought, reductions in wetlands fish and shellfish, the proliferation of invasive species and forest diebacks. All of this could in turn threaten productivity, and it certainly wouldn't be good for wildlife species.

Sidebar: Monkey Business

In 1979 a few hundred herpes-infected rhesus monkeys were shipped from Puerto Rico to Morgan Island in South Carolina's Lowcountry, where they've been kept for research purposes ever since. There are now more than 4000 monkeys inhabiting the island, and it is off-limits to human visitors.