The Colonial Period of Charleston, 1670-1776: Cultural Center

Charleston, settled in 1670, was the capital of the Carolinas and the Southernmost English settlement at the time. It grew by leaps and bounds and by the turn of the 18th century, it had become one of the largest cities in the colonies. A major port with a booming trade and agricultural economy, and an extremely pleasant climate, it’s no wonder that Charleston became such a popular place to live.

Charleston was the Colonial melting pot, a picture of the ethnic and cultural diversity we cherish in our country today. Early settlers arrived mainly from England, but immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, France, and Germany soon began to pour in, bringing with them the culture and traditions of their homeland. Charleston had a thriving trade business with Bermuda and the Caribbean, and people came to live in Charleston from these areas as well. Slaves and freed slaves made up a large block of the population and contributed their unique traditions to the melting pot. Jews from Spain and Portugal, Germany, and Central Europe soon began to arrive, giving rise to a diverse religious community.

Charleston became known as the Holy City because of this religious diversity. The skyline is dotted with church steeples belonging to congregations of various faiths and denominations. The oldest continuously active French Huguenot Church in North America is in Charleston, as well as several of the oldest Jewish congregations. African Americans, both slave and freedmen, established many churches and congregations that still operate today. Take a walk down Meeting Street in Charleston today and you will get a picture of the incredible grandeur of these buildings; their stunning architecture speaks to the rich culture Charleston supported during colonial times.

From the mid 18th century and on, Charleston’s population exploded. While many people immigrated from other countries, a great number of new residents arrived regularly from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Soon the upcountry population exceeded that of Charleston, and the cultural elite of the city viewed these newcomers as unrefined and rural.

As the city grew, the cultural and societal opportunities grew as well, especially for the cultural elite, planters, and merchants. Meanwhile, new buildings, societies, and organizations were popping up. In 1736 the first theatre building in America was built in Charleston, but was replaced during the 19th century by Planter’s Hotel. The first American museum was opened in Charleston on January 12, 1773.

Various ethnic groups also formed benevolent societies during this time. French Huguenots formed the South Carolina Society in 1737, and in 1766 the German Friendly Society was founded. In 1748, wealthy Charleston residents founded The Charleston Library Society in order to keep up with philosophical and scientific current events. The Charleston Library Society had a major hand in establishing the College of Charleston in 1770, the oldest college in South Carolina and the 13th oldest in the country.

Because of the rich ethnic and religious diversity, Charleston was a culturally active city; the Holy City was a shining example of how the ideal American settlement looked, operated, and expanded.

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