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Settled by the English in 1670, South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution in 1788. Its early economy was largely agricultural, benefitting from the area’s fertile soil. Plantation farmers relied on the slave trade for cheap labor to maximize profits.

By 1730, people of African descent made up two-thirds of the colony’s population. South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in 1861 and was the site of the first shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861.

South Carolina's coastline near Myrtle Beach is one of the premier resort destinations on the East Coast and has over 100 golf courses. Famous South Carolinians include musicians James Brown, Chubby Checker and Dizzy Gillespie, novelist Pat Conroy, boxer Joe Frazier, tennis champion Althea Gibson, politician Jesse Jackson and long-serving U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond.

South Carolina Native American History

The first people migrated to the area now known as South Carolina around 13,000 years ago. By the time the first British colony was established in the 17th century, more than 29 groups of Native Americans lived in the area, the largest being the Cherokee and Catawba, as well as the Chickasaw, Creek (Muskogean), Congaree, Pee Dee, Shawnee, Waccamaw, Yamasee and others.

The first Spanish settlers in modern-day Parris Island disrupted the Escamacu, who launched an attack in 1576. During the resulting Escamacu War, the Spanish recruited other tribes to enslave the Escamacu. Warfare plus the introduction of European diseases dispersed and greatly reduced the Indigenous population.

When British colonists arrived near Charleston in the second half of the 17th century, many Indigenous people died from diseases carried to the continent by Europeans. Some Indigenous people coexisted with the colonists, but other tribes pushed back against the incursion and were killed. Colonists also enslaved Indigenous people and sold them to the British in the Caribbean and other colonies. Colonists displaced much of the remaining Indigenous population for settlements and plantations. When the Spanish returned in 1687 in an attempt to reclaim the Carolinas, they displaced and killed more Indigenous people.

Native Americans continued to trade deer skins with the British, who frequently defrauded them. In 1715, the Yamasee people of South Carolina rebelled against trading injustices and the Native American slave trade. Various Indigenous tribes, including the Cherokee and the Pee Dee, banded together during the Yamasee War (1715-1717) to attack the British, forcing many colonists to flee South Carolina.

During the Revolutionary War (1775-83), the Catawba allied with the patriots and were given land grants at the war’s end. Other tribes, such as the Cherokee, sided with the British and were forced to give up most of their territory at the war’s end. A series of treaties over the following decades forced those Indigenous people who maintained land to give it up by the 19th century. By the 1830s, so few Indigenous people remained that the South Carolina government didn’t bother to join surrounding states in forcibly removing them on the Trail of Tears.

Today, the Catawba Indian Nation is the only federally-recognized tribe in South Carolina, although there are several other state-recognized entities, such as the Waccamaw and various branches of the Pee Dee.

South Carolina Exploration and Colonial History

Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón visited South Carolina in the 16th century, while French explorer Jean Ribault established and subsequently abandoned the first European settlement in Charlesfort (modern-day Parris Island) in 1562. The Spanish erected their own settlement at Parris Island in 1566 they called Santa Elena, which served as the Spanish capital of Florida for nearly two decades. In 1587, the Spanish abandoned South Carolina for St. Augustine, Florida, although they continued to explore South Carolina.

The English believed that the South Carolina territory was theirs due to the exploration of north America by John Cabot in 1497. In 1670, English colonists arrived and set up the first permanent settlement in Charleston, South Carolina. Named Carolina after King Charles I, the colony was divided into South Carolina and North Carolina in 1710.

Slavery

Enslaved Africans were first brought to South Carolina by the Spanish in the 16th century. In the 18th century, French and British settlers, especially those from the British colony of Barbados, built plantations throughout South Carolina to grow rice and indigo. By the time of the American Revolution, slave labor made South Carolina the wealthiest colony in the Americas.

By 1708, enslaved African Americans outnumbered white settlers on the colony and remained a majority of the population until the mid-20th century. While enslaved people were originally brought from the British West Indian islands, South Carolina eventually played an important role in the slave trade: More than 40 percent of enslaved people from Africa arrived through Charleston until the international slave trade was banned in 1808. 

American Revolution and Statehood

Among the 13 original colonies to sign the Declaration of Independence, South Carolina was grounds for more battles during the Revolutionary War—over 200 in total—than any other state. One of the first battles of the war took place in 1776 at Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, resulting in British defeat. In May 1780, the patriots suffered their worst defeat of the war at Charleston, which fell to British forces. This was followed by another British victory at the Battle of Camden.

South Carolina patriots fought back, notably winning a small but important victory at the Battle of King’s Mountain in October 1780. Although the British attempted to use Charleston as their base to retake their southern colonies, they were foiled by the efforts of southern patriots, including Thomas Sumter and Francis Marion. The Battle of Cowpens in 1781 was a critical success for the patriots that weakened the British hold on the southern colonies.

At the war’s end, South Carolina became the eighth state to join the Union when it ratified the United States Constitution on May 23, 1788.

Civil War in South Carolina

On December 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. South Carolina legislators had been threatening succession since the 1820s to protect states’ rights and the practice of slavery. They lacked popular support until the 1860 election of President Abraham Lincoln, whom many southerners feared would outlaw slavery.

The Civil War began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired the first shots on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Two days later, Union forces surrendered. Few Civil War battles were fought in South Carolina until 1865, although the state supplied Confederate forces with provisions and soldiers. One-fifth of South Carolina’s white males died in battle.

Some of the war's final battles were fought in South Carolina. In 1865, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman burned plantations throughout the state on what became known as Sherman’s March to the Sea. On February 17, 1865, Sherman’s armies took Columbia, South Carolina, then burned and destroyed more than two-thirds of the city. Due to scarce funding following the war, the State House was not rebuilt until 1903. Sherman took his forces to North Carolina, where the last battles were fought before the Confederacy’s surrender on April 9, 1865.

Reconstruction

Many freed former African American slaves remained near their homelands after the Civil War, settling in South Carolina as well as Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. Even though they were often geographically isolated, they maintained their African heritage. Known as the Gullah or Geechee, they developed their own strong culture, including the only African American Creole language in the United States, which combines elements of English and over 30 African dialects. These communities still exist today in South Carolina's Lowcountry.

Until 1877, South Carolina remained under federal supervision during Reconstruction. Although the state enacted Black codes in 1865, a majority of African American delegates created a new state constitution in 1868 that guaranteed the right to vote to men of all races, and South Carolina was readmitted to the Union. As African Americans made up more than 60 percent of the voting population, they voted in a majority of African American Republicans to the legislature. These legislators passed more legislation to support the freedmen than in any other state.

Many white South Carolinians never recognized the Black-led state legislature, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) terrorized and even murdered Republican leaders. Political corruption and a high state budget weakened the economy. White Democrats slowly wrested control of the legislature until there were almost no Black officeholders in the state by the 1890s. They then began to pass laws that disenfranchised Black voters.

Jim Crow and Desegregation

WATCH: Plessy v. Ferguson

As with other southern states, the 1896 Supreme Court decision of “separate but equal” in Plessy v. Ferguson led to Jim Crow laws and segregation in South Carolina. The turn of the 20th century saw a resurgence in the KKK. From the 1910s and 1920s until the 1970s, hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled South Carolina and other southern states for large cities in the Northeast and Midwest in what became known as the Great Migration. While South Carolina once had a majority Black population, by 1970, less than one-third of the population was Black.

Despite the 1954 Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, South Carolina schools remained segregated until 1963, but integration progress was slow until the 1970s. White supremacists made various attempts to restrict Black voter rights. Civil rights movement protestors were targeted by angry and, at times, violent South Carolina whites. With the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the state began guaranteeing more equal rights for its Black citizens.

Immigration

Various groups have immigrated to South Carolina throughout its history. In the 1700s, most immigrants were French, German, Swiss and Scots-Irish, including religious and political refugees. In the 1840s and 1850s, South Carolinians protested when a wave of poor Germans and Irish arrived in the state, but their place in society was cemented thanks to their participation in the Civil War. Immigration stalled until the 1970s when a new wave of people arrived from Germany, followed by Central and South America.

Tourism Industry

After struggling to recover during Reconstruction, South Carolina’s economy grew stronger in the early 20th century thanks to the textile and manufacturing industries. Tourism has become a major industry in the 21st century as visitors explore South Carolina's beaches, mountains and historical centers in Charleston, Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head Island.

South Carolina is also known for its golf courses. Charleston welcomed a shipment of golf balls and clubs from Scotland as early as 1743. On September 29, 1786, the South Carolina Golf Club formed, and, within the same year, America’s first golf course was established on Harleston Green. As of 2022, there were more than 350 golf courses within the state.

Date of Statehood: May 23, 1788

Capital: Columbia

Population: 4,625,364 (2010)

Size: 32,021 square miles

Nickname(s): Palmetto State

Motto: Dum Spiro Spero (While I Breathe, I Hope)

Tree: Palmetto

Flower: Yellow Jessamine

Bird: Carolina Wren

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Interesting Facts

  • On November 2, 1954, former Governor Strom Thurmond became the first person to be elected to the U.S. Senate as a write-in candidate, winning 63 percent of the vote. Thurmond served the state of South Carolina as senator for 47 years, five months and eight days.
  • In 2000, the Confederate flag was removed from the dome on top of the State House and placed on the grounds near the Confederate Soldier Monument in response to an NAACP boycott of the state and protests over its legacy. More than 10 years later, the flag’s location continues to be the subject of ongoing controversy.
  • The only commercial tea plantation in the contiguous 48 states is on Wadmalaw Island, near Charleston, South Carolina.
  • The palmetto tree has been an important icon of South Carolina since the American Revolutionary War. When the British attacked a fort on Sullivan’s Island near Charleston, the cannonballs bounced off the spongy palmetto logs used to build the exterior wall.

Sources

National Park Service, South Carolina Succession.

South Carolina State Library, South Carolina History: History and Culture.

South Carolina State Parks, Civil War History.

United States Senate, Civil War Begins.

University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, The Last Days of the Confederacy: Sherman in the Carolinas.

University of South Carolina, Reconstruction.

University of Richmond, Many Southern States readmitted to the Union.

National Park Service, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida: Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

University of South Carolina, Great Migration.

University of South Carolina, Segregation.

University of South Carolina, African Americans.

University of South Carolina, Civil Rights Movement.

University of South Carolina, Reconstruction.

Bill of Rights Institute, Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

University of South Carolina, Immigration.

South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, South Carolina Tourism Reports Record Year.

South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, South Carolina Golf.

University of South Carolina, South Carolina tourism is growing. Here’s why.

American Battlefield Trust, Fort Sumter.

American Battlefield Trust, Cowpens.

American Battlefield Trust, Kings Mountain.

American Battlefield Trust, Siege of Charleston.

University of South Carolina Libraries, American Revolution in South Carolina.

National Park Service, South Carolina Succession.

National Park Service, Battle of Sullivan’s Island.

South Carolina State Parks, Revolutionary War History.

Charleston County Public Library, The First People of the South Carolina Lowcountry.

South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs, South Carolina's Recognized Native American Indian Entities.

University of South Carolina, Cherokees.

Catawba Nation, We Are Proud of Our Past.

Lowcountry Digital Library at the College of Charleston, Settlement, Trade, and Conflicts in Colonial South Carolina.

University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Indigenous Tribes of Colonial Charleston.

Eastern Cherokee, Southern Iroquois and Unite Tribes of South Carolina, Other Tribes of South Carolina—Current and Historic.

South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Native American Heritage.

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