South Carolina - History and Heritage

Before the Europeans started arriving in the 16th century, some 30 native tribes lived on the land that now comprises South Carolina. Smallpox and other diseases carried by the Europeans decimated the native population. Some tribes were wiped out completely. Today, the Catawba, Pee Dee, Chicora, Edisto, Santee, and Chicora-Waccamaw tribes are all still present in South Carolina, as are many descendents of the Cherokee.

Spaniards explored the South Carolina coast as early as 1514, and Hernando DeSoto met the Queen of Cofitachiqui in 1540 when he crossed the central part of the state in search of gold. In 1566, the Spanish built a fort on Parris Island. A decade later, they abandoned it in favor of St. Augustine, Florida, and South Carolina was left to the native tribes until 1670 when the English established a settlement at Albemarle Point on the Ashley River.

Many of those first permanent settlers had moved to the colony from Barbados, and South Carolina grew to closely resemble the plantation economy of the West Indies, particularly in the importation and dependence on large numbers of African slaves.

By the 1750s, rice and indigo had made the planters and merchants of the South Carolina Lowcountry the wealthiest men in what would become the United States. White Protestant immigrants continued to pour in, settling in the interior and joined by German, Scots-Irish and Welsh settlers who were relocating from colonies farther north.

In the Sea Islands along the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, a unique culture, Gullah, was evolving among African slaves brought to work the rice fields and their descendants. The Sea Island slaves were the first to be emancipated following the Civil War, and the language, traditions, and customs of the Gullah culture have survived the centuries

As the tensions leading to the American Revolution rose, South Carolina was a colony divided between those seeking independence and those loyal to the Crown. In 1776, South Carolina became one of the 13 original colonies to declare independence from Britain. Ever since then, the politics of the state have been distinguished by a strong preference for independence and federalism.

In 1860, the state was the first to secede from the Union. And the first shots of the Civil War rang out over Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861. Although few of the war's major battles were fought in South Carolina, some 20 percent of the state's white males died in the conflict.

The post-war economy, based to a large extent on sharecropping, made little progress for many decades. The textile industry, which had expanded dramatically after the war, suffered a major blow when a boll weevil epidemic devastated cotton fields in the 1920s. Meanwhile, the impoverished state maintained polices of discrimination and segregation that led many African Americans to seek better lives and opportunities in the North.

Since World War II and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, South Carolina has bounced back, both politically and economically. Today, agriculture and manufacturing are vital industries, as is an economic engine that draws on the state's history, rich culture, and natural beauty—tourism.

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