Colonial period of South Carolina

Published on September 20, 2010 by John

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By the end of the 16th century, the Spanish and French had left the area of South Carolina after several reconnaissance missions and failed colonization attempts. In 1629, Charles I, King of England, granted his attorney general a charter to everything between latitudes 36 and 31. He called this land the Province of Carlana, which would later be changed to “Carolina” for pronunciation, after the Latin form of his own name.

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In 1663, Charles II gave the land to eight nobles, the Lords Proprietors, who ruled the Province of Carolina as a proprietary colony. After the Yamasee War of 1715-1717, the Lords Proprietors came under increasing pressure and were forced to relinquish their charter to the Crown in 1719. The proprietors retained their right to the land until 1719, when the colony was officially split into the provinces of North Carolina and South Carolina, crown colonies.

In April 1670 settlers arrived at Albemarle Point, at the junction of the Ashley River and Cooper River. They founded Charles Town, named in honor of King Charles II. Throughout the Colonial Period, the Carolinas participated in many wars against the Spanish and the Native Americans, including the Yamasee and Cherokee tribes. In its first decades, the colony’s plantations were relatively small and its wealth came from Indian trade, mainly in Indian slaves and deerskins. The slave trade affected tribes throughout the Southeast, and historians estimate that Carolinians exported 24,000-51,000 Indian slaves from 1670-1717, sending them to markets ranging from Boston to the Barbados. Planters financed the purchase of African slaves by their sale of Indians.

18th century

In the 1700-1770 era the colony possessed many advantages – entrepreneurial planters and businessmen, a major harbor, cost-efficient African slave labor and an attractive physical environment, with rich soil and a long growing season, albeit with endemic malaria. It became one of the wealthiest of the British colonies. Rich colonials became avid consumers of services from outside the colony, such as mercantile services, medical education, and legal training in England. Almost everyone in 18th-century South Carolina felt the pressures, constraints, and opportunities associated with the growing importance of trade.

Yamasee war

A pan-Indian alliance rose up against the settlers in the Yamasee War (1715-1717) and nearly destroyed the colony. But the Yamasee were defeated and with exposure to European infectious diseases, the backcountry’s Yamasee population was greatly reduced.


After the Yamasee war, the planters turned exclusively to importing African slaves for labor. They used their labor to create rice and indigo plantations as commodity crops. Building dams, irrigation ditches and related infrastructure, enslaved Africans created the equivalent of huge earthworks to regulate water for the rice culture.

The Gullah people comprised a large fraction of the enslaved people who were brought to South Carolina. The distinctive Gullah/Geechee culture was a product not of isolation, but rather of interaction with American society with non-African alternatives in full view. The Gullah adapted to multiple factors in American society, while at the same time marketing or otherwise using their distinctive lifeways, products, and language to perpetuate their unique ethnic and racial identity.

Low Country

The Low Country was settled first, dominated by wealthy men who became owners of large amounts of land on which they created plantations. They first transported white indentured servants as laborers, mostly teenage youth from England who came to work off their passage in hopes of learning to farm and buying their own land. Planters also imported African laborers to the colony. In the early colonial years, social boundaries were fluid between indentured laborers and slaves, and there was considerable intermarriage. Gradually the terms of enslavement became more rigid and slavery became a racial caste. With a decrease in English settlers as the economy improved in England before the beginning of the 18th century, the planters began to rely chiefly on enslaved Africans for labor.

The market for land functioned efficiently and reflected both rapid economic development and widespread optimism regarding future economic growth. The frequency and turnover rate for land sales were tied to the general business cycle; the overall trend was upward, with almost half of the sales occurring in the decade before the American Revolution. Prices also rose over time, parallel with the rise in the price for rice. Prices dropped dramatically, however, in the years just before the war, when fears arose about future prospects outside the system of English mercantilist trade.

Back country

In contrast to the Tidewater, the back country was settled chiefly by Scots-Irish and North British migrants who had quickly moved down from Pennsylvania and Virginia. The immigrants from Ulster, the Scottish lowlands and the north of England (the border counties) comprised the largest group from the British Isles before the Revolution. They came mostly in the 18th century, later than other colonial immigrants. Such “North Britons were a large majority in much of the South Carolina upcountry.” The character of this environment was “well matched to the culture of the British borderlands.” Such immigrants settled in the backcountry throughout the South and relied on subsistence farming. They mostly did not own slaves. Given the differences in background, class, slaveholding, economics and culture, there was longstanding competition between the Low Country and Upcountry that played out in politics.


bo died planters earned wealth from two major crops: rice and indigo, both of which relied on cultivation by slave labor. Historians no longer believe that the blacks brought the art of rice cultivation from Africa. Exports of these crops led South Carolina to become one of the wealthiest colonies prior to the Revolution. Near the beginning of the 18th century, planters began rice culture along the coast, mainly in the Georgetown and Charleston areas. The rice became known as Carolina Gold, both for its color and its ability to produce great fortunes for plantation owners.


In the 1740s, Eliza Lucas Pinckney began indigo culture and processing in coastal South Carolina. Indigo was in heavy demand in Europe for making dyes for clothing. An “Indigo Bonanza” followed, with South Carolina production approaching a million pounds in the late 1750s. This growth was stimulated by a British bounty of six pence per pound. South Carolina did not have a monopoly of the British market, but the demand was strong and many planters switched to the new crop when the price of rice fell. Carolina indigo had a mediocre reputation because Carolina planters failed to achieve consistent hi quality production standards. Carolina indigo nevertheless succeeded in displacing French and Spanish indigo in the British and in some continental markets, reflecting the demand for cheap dyestuffs from manufacturers of low-cost textiles, the fastest-growing sectors of the European textile industries at the onset of industrialization.

In addition, the colonial economy depended on sales of pelts (primarily deerskins), and naval stores and timber. Coastal towns began shipbuilding to support their trade, using the prime timbers of the live oak.


South Carolina’s liberal constitution and early flourishing trade attracted Sephardic Jewish immigrants. They were most elite businessmen from London and the Barbados, where they had been involved in the rum and sugar trades. In 1800, Charleston had the largest Jewish population in the United States.

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