At an unknown coastal site in the region that is now the Carolinas, what may have been the first European settlement in North America was founded (1526; not permanent) by an expedition under the Spanish explorer Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón. The Frenchman Jean Ribaut established (1562) a Huguenot settlement on Parris Island in Port Royal Sound, but French colonizing ambitions were thoroughly thwarted by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. Spanish missions soon extended N from Florida almost to the site of present-day Charleston, and they remained until the arrival of the English. Under Juan Pardo, the Spanish explored (1566–68) the interior of the Carolinas and E Tennessee, establishing several short-lived forts.
Charles I asserted England's claim as early as 1629 by granting the territory from lat. 36°N to lat. 31°N (later named Carolina for Charles I) to Sir Robert Heath, but since no settlements were made Heath's charter was forfeited. In 1663, Charles II awarded the area to eight of his prominent supporters, the most active of whom was Anthony Ashley Cooper (Lord Ashley, later 1st earl of Shaftesbury).
The northern and southern sections of Carolina developed separately. The first permanent colony was established in 1670 at Albemarle Point under William Sayle. To govern it, John Locke and others wrote (at Lord Ashley's behest) the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina (1669), which granted some popular rights but also retained feudal privileges and limitations. It was never ratified. The actual government consisted of a powerful council, half of which was appointed by the proprietors in England; a governor, also appointed by the proprietors; and a relatively weak assembly, elected by all freemen. In 1680 the colony moved across the river to Oyster Point, which was better suited for defense. There the colonists established their capital, called Charles Town (later Charleston), which was to become the chief center of culture and of wealth in the South.
The 1680s saw the beginnings of prosperity. Wealthy colonists set up plantations worked by indentured servants and African and Native American slaves, while freemen (many of them former indentured servants) cultivated the 50 acres (20 hectares) of land granted them by the proprietors. On plantations and small farms alike, corn, livestock, and some cotton were raised at first, and tobacco was cultivated in plenitude. Rice, introduced c.1680, flourished in the marshy tidewater area and soon became the plantation staple. Forests yielded rich timber and naval stores. The fur trade (especially in deerskins) with the Creek and other tribes prospered. But conflict with the Spanish and French increased, and the encroachment of the two countries dramatized the proprietors' lack of concern and their inability to defend the distant colony. Popular antagonism to proprietary rule was spurred by the parceling of much of the land into a few large grants, by the quitrent system, and most importantly by the issue of religion.
Several religious groups had freely practiced their faith in the colony until the early 18th cent.; these included Anglicans, dissenters from Britain (see nonconformists), and French Huguenots. In 1704 the Anglicans, without opposition from the proprietors, managed to deprive the other groups of their religious liberty, and it was not until the English government took action (1706) that religious toleration was restored.
The colony was divided into North and South Carolina in 1712. In 1715–16 the settlers were attacked by the Yamasee, who had become resentful of exploitation by the Carolina traders. The uprising was finally quelled after much loss of life and property. These attacks further revealed the lack of protection afforded by the proprietors, and in 1719 the colonists rebelled and received royal protection. The crown sent Francis Nicholson as provincial royal governor in 1720, and South Carolina formally became a royal colony in 1729, when the proprietors finally accepted terms.
Conditions for the colonists were now in many respects improved. Pirates such as Blackbeard who had infested the coast had been hanged or dispersed. In addition the founding (1733) of Georgia to the south provided a buffer against the Spanish. Loss of territory and some of the colony's fur trade to Georgia was more than compensated for when indigo, supported by British bounty, became (1740s) the colony's second staple. To counterbalance the vast number of African slaves transported to the colony for use as plantation labor, European immigration was encouraged. Germans and Swiss, arriving in the 1730s and 40s, and Scotch-Irish and other migrants from Virginia and Pennsylvania, arriving in the 60s, settled the colony's lower middle country and uplands.
Regional antipathies were generated by economic and social differences; the small, self-sufficient farmer of the up-country, demanding courts, roads, and defense against outlaws and the Cherokee, elicited little sympathy from the powerful plantation lords of lower Carolina. In the late 1760s discontent culminated in the formation of the Regulator movement. Finally the legislature gave in to some up-country demands, including the establishment of courts in the region.
South Carolina's long friendship with the mother country was reflected in trade benefits the colony realized under the Navigation Acts and in protection provided to it by the strong British navy. However, public sentiment in the colony was transformed by the Stamp Act, the Townshend Acts, and by British political claims. South Carolinians—Christopher Gadsden, Henry Laurens, and Arthur Middleton—were leaders in the movement for independence, and in Mar., 1776, an independent government of South Carolina was set up with John Rutledge as president.
In the American Revolution the British failed to take Charleston in June, 1776 (see Fort Moultrie), but Sir Henry Clinton successfully besieged the town in 1780. In the ensuing Carolina campaign the British were ultimately forced to retreat, although they held Charleston until Dec., 1782. In 1786 the site of Columbia was chosen for the new capital; its central location mollified the up-country population. South Carolina ratified the federal Constitution in May, 1788, and replaced the royal charter with a state charter in 1790. Complete religious liberty was established and primogeniture was abolished, but property qualifications for voting and office holding was retained, ensuring planter control of the legislature.
The constitutional amendment known as the "compromise of 1808" somewhat alleviated the sectional antagonism by reapportioning representation. By this time, however, Eli Whitney's cotton gin had enabled cotton plantations to spread far into the up-country; thus the planters continued to dominate state policies. In the late 1820s cotton from the fertile western states glutted the market, and prosperity declined in South Carolina.
Discontent was aggravated by national tariff policies that were unfavorable to South Carolina's agrarian economy. In 1832 the state passed its nullification act, declaring the tariff laws null and void and not binding upon South Carolina citizens. President Andrew Jackson acted firmly for the Union in this crisis, and in 1833 South Carolina repealed its act. Tariff reform that same year brought relief, but the possibility of secession had been broached and was subsequently renewed in reaction to abolitionist attacks and further economic grievances. John C. Calhoun became the acknowledged leader of the whole South with his defense of the states' rights doctrine; his political philosophy was later to form the intellectual basis for the Confederacy. Some of the state's apologists for slavery, notably Robert B. Rhett, equaled the most radical abolitionists in their zeal.
After Lincoln's election South Carolina was the first state to secede (Dec. 20, 1860) from the Union. Gov. Francis W. Pickens immediately demanded all federal property within the state, including Fort Sumter, which was held by Union men under Major Robert Anderson. The firing on Sumter by Confederate batteries on Apr. 12, 1861, precipitated the Civil War.
In Nov., 1861, a Union naval force under Samuel F. Du Pont took the forts of Port Royal Sound, but Charleston's forts withstood severe bombardments in 1863, and the state was saved from heavy military action until early in 1865. Then Gen. William T. Sherman, commanding the army that had marched through Georgia, crossed the Savannah River and advanced north through the state. Because South Carolina was viewed as the birthplace of secession, it was difficult to restrain many of the Union soldiers, and the deliberate devastation, culminating in the burning of Columbia, was appalling.
The Reconstruction period that followed the war was no less disastrous. South Carolina was selected for President Andrew Johnson's moderate program, but the program had only a brief trial before the radical Republicans took over. For a decade the state was ruled by carpetbaggers and scalawags, with the support of African-American votes. The constitution of 1868, which established universal male suffrage and ended property qualifications for office holding, gained the state readmittance (June, 1868) to the Union.
During the period from 1868 to 1874 accomplishments such as the building of schools and railroads were offset by waste and corruption in the state government and by high taxation. Many of these abuses were corrected by the honest administration of Gov. Daniel H. Chamberlain (1874–76), the state's last Republican governor until the late 20th cent. The Democratic party regained vitality in the late 1870s and South Carolina's politics were strongly Democratic after this period; not until the late 1960s did Republicans regain strength in both state and national elections.
South Carolina's war hero, Wade Hampton, was selected as the Democratic party's candidate for governor in 1876. The election was marked by irregular practices on both sides, and, although Hampton gained a majority, Chamberlain refused to accept defeat. Thus there existed two state governments until 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes removed all federal troops from the South, and Chamberlain, bereft of the support that had made Republican rule possible, withdrew. Hampton attempted moderation on race issues, but, despite his efforts, by 1882 the vast majority of blacks had lost the vote and white political supremacy was assured.
The wartime destruction and the abolition of slavery had nearly ruined the state's basic agricultural economy. Although some vigorous planters and merchants managed to recoup their fortunes, farm tenancy (replacing the old plantation system) held most of the state's farmers in economic bondage. The Panic of 1873 was followed by two decades of agrarian hard times. The rice plantations, which had already begun to decline, were hardest hit.
Popular discontent was not ameliorated until the election (1890) of Benjamin Tillman, leader of the up-country farmers, as governor. Tillmanites wrested control of the Democratic party from the conservative element (the tidewater "Bourbon aristocracy"), reapportioned taxes and representation, expanded public education, and passed rudimentary labor reform laws. Reflecting another aspect of Tillman's policies, the constitution of 1895 initiated "Jim Crow laws" and adopted voting qualifications that excluded virtually all blacks from the crucial Democratic primaries. Renewed agrarian prosperity after 1900 was accompanied by political stagnation that lasted until the governorship (1914–18) of Richard I. Manning; progressive trends already evident in other parts of the country were now belatedly manifested in South Carolina in the passage of education and labor laws.
Agriculture again suffered a setback in the 1920s. Contributing factors were the destruction of the Sea Islands cotton crop by the boll weevil and the erosion of the land as a result of long adherence to the one-crop system. Industry, especially the textile industry (which had been increasing in importance since the Civil War), also suffered in the Great Depression of the 1930s. New Deal legislation and the state road-building program provided South Carolina with some relief. During World War I the position of African Americans had been improved through war work and service in the armed forces; however, in the 1920s the renewed power of the Ku Klux Klan had again brought oppression, and black migration began on a scale sufficient to bring the whites into the majority in the state by 1930.
World War II and the postwar period brought great changes. A state court decision in 1947 opened the Democratic primaries to African-American voters. Under the governorship (1951–55) of the nationally prominent James F. Byrnes, the poll tax was abolished as a voting requirement, steps were taken to curb Ku Klux Klan activities, and the educational system was greatly expanded. Integration of the schools after the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision met considerable opposition, but in 1963 South Carolinians accepted token integration of Clemson College without incident, and desegregation began in the Charleston schools. By 1970 all of the state's public school districts were technically in compliance with federal desegregation requirements. That year four African Americans were elected to the previously all-white state legislature.
In the 1970s and 80s, South Carolina experienced economic growth similar to other Sun Belt states. Low tax rates and a large nonunion workforce have attracted many firms from other states as well as foreign countries. In the 1990s job losses from the closing of naval facilities at North Charleston were largely offset by private undertakings, and the Greenville-Spartanburg area in the northwest was rapidly becoming home to new industries.