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One of the reasons I wanted to visit Charleston, South Carolina was because of the city’s historical buildings and sites. Truthfully, most of Charleston has historic value. The whole downtown area and south, to the tip of the peninsula, is called the Historic District.
For an overview of fun things to do in Charleston, check out this post. While you are exploring the area, watch for these historic sites to see in Charleston as well.
A Brief History of Charleston
Founded as Charles Town in 1670, in honor of King Charles II, this colonial town welcomed its first settlers from Bermuda and Barbados. The original settlement, located on the Ashley River, lay a few miles northwest of the present day city.
A second thriving settlement, located at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers replaced the original Charles Town in 1680. By 1690, it was the fifth largest city in North America.
In the early 1700s, Charles Town became Charlestown. And in 1774, South Carolina declared its independence from Great Britain on the steps of the Exchange in Charlestown. The British attacked the settlement three times, laying siege in 1780 and forcing a surrender. They evacuated the city in 1782. The next year the city officially changed its name to Charleston.
Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, Charleston experienced growth and an economic boon, due to cotton, indigo and rice crops. These cash crops were tended to by enslaved people from Africa first, then enslaved African Americans after the importation of enslaved peoples was banned in 1808.
Civil War and Charleston
The first battle of the Civil War occurred on April 12, 1861, when Fort Sumter in the Charleston Harbor was fired upon. After a day and a half of bombardment, the fort was surrendered. The Union control of the sea allowed repeated bombardment of Charleston, causing much damage.
Sherman’s army moved through the area, causing the evacuation of Charleston in February 1865 and the burning of public buildings and cotton warehouses.
After the end of the Civil War, federal forces remained in Charleston during the Reconstruction. By the late 1870s industries renewed the city, with new jobs attracting new residents.
Charleston struggled economically for decades before tourism began to draw visitors and an influx of money in the 1920s. Today the city is considered one of the top tourist destinations in the world.
Historic Sites to See in Charleston
There are many interesting places to visit in Charleston. Walk down any street in the Historic District and there are signs and plaques detailing the historical events that took place there.
Although you can experience historical Charleston on your own, I highly recommend a historic walking tour as well. My favorite is the Two Sisters Tour. On my tour one of the sisters, Therese, shared fascinating stories about many of the sites listed below. I encourage you to experience a tour with a knowledgeable guide, to learn more about Charleston’s long history.
Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon
Located at 122 East Bay Street, this landmark was completed in 1771 and played an important role in South Carolina’s history.
During the Revolution, British forces converted the lower floor of the Exchange into a dungeon for American prisoners of war.
The Exchanged hosted South Carolina leaders as they debated and then approved the US Constitution. The building is one of four remaining structures where the founding document was originally ratified.
In 1791, city leaders entertained President George Washington on the upper floors, with dinners, dances and concerts.
There are darker deeds that happened in this building as well. Watch for more about the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon in October, in Ghost Stories from Charleston.
St. Michael’s Church
Completed in 1761, St. Michael’s Church is the oldest church in Charleston still standing. It’s located at the corner of Meeting and Broad Streets.
When he visited Charleston in 1791, George Washington attended church here, sitting in pew box number 43.
78 Church Street and Heyward – Washington House
George Washington stayed in Charleston for eight days, occupying a Georgian style double house at 87 Church Street, built in 1772. Thomas Heyward, Jr. was one of four South Carolina signers of the Declaration of Independence.
The city rented this property for President Washington’s use during his stay. It opened in 1930 as Charleston’s first historic house museum under the name Heyward – Washington House.
Just down the street, at 78 Church Street is another house associated with Washington. The President stood on the second floor balcony to deliver a speech to the citizens of Charleston.
The House that Belonged to Aaron Burr’s Daughter
Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr, married South Carolina governor Joseph Alston. They lived at the house at 94 Church Street, along with their son.
You remember Aaron Burr, vice president and the person who killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. If you are a fan of the musical Hamilton, there is a song called “Dear Theodosia” that expresses Burr’s love for his daughter.
Theodosia’s story ends mysteriously. She and her ten year old son both contracted malaria. The boy died and Theodosia grieved deeply for him. She set sail on a ship in early 1813, bound for New York to visit her father. The ship sank. Theodosia’s body did not wash ashore. She was never found, fueling all kinds of speculations about what happened to her.
Gullah is a word used to describe the language and culture of those in this area who descended from West Africans. The Gullah culture is deeply intertwined with Charleston, from Lowcountry foods to the crafting of sweetgrass baskets.
You can watch the creation of these beautiful baskets at the Historic Charleston City Market. Or find Gullah women crafting baskets on Meeting Street. They continue a West African tradition handed down to them through generations.
The baskets originally processed rice, a common crop in both West Africa and South Carolina. They are made by bundling dried sweetgrass and coiling it into unique circular designs.
As you wander the streets of Charleston, you might notice metal plates in a variety of shapes on houses and buildings. These are earthquake bolts.
These iron reinforcement rods were inserted through the walls of buildings and secured at the outside ends with large washers and nuts after the great Charleston earthquake of 1886.
Scientists estimate a magnitude of 6.9 – 7.3. It caused 60 deaths and did $5 to $6 million in damages. That cost today equals $158 million.
Owners who didn’t like seeing the unadorned ends on their house exteriors covered them with cast iron decorations in the shapes of stars, crosses, circles, lion heads, butterflies, diamonds and letters of the alphabet. These reinforcement rods protect against hurricane gales as well.
At 89 – 91 Church Street stretches a three story building with a swinging sign attached. The sign reads “Catfish Row”.
A hundred years ago, this building housed former slaves who made a living selling cabbages and other vegetables from the windows. Back then that narrow lane through the archway bore the name Cabbage Row, as a nod to the produce sold there.
Author Edwin DuBose Heyward lived down the street. Cabbage Row inspired his novel Porgy. The main character, Porgy, was based on the real life Sammy Smalls, known in Charleston for his tangles with the law and for riding through town in a goat drawn cart. In his book, Heyward changed the name of Cabbage Row to Catfish Row. His book led to a play and later an opera called Porgy and Bess.
Dock Street Theatre
The original Dock Street Theatre, located at 135 Church Street, opened in 1736 with a performance of The Recruiting Officer. It was the first building in the 13 colonies designed for use as a theatre. The first opera performed in American, Flora, took place at this theatre.
Unfortunately, the original theatre burned in the Great Fire of 1740. In 1809 the current building went up, as the Planter’s Hotel. That building fell into disrepair after the Civil War. The City of Charleston acquired the building in 1935 and constructed the current theatre within the shell of the hotel. The grand reopening of the Dock Street Theatre took place in 1937.
Renovations from 2007 to 2010 brought the building into modern times with updated heating and air conditioning, state of the art lighting and sound systems and new restrooms. The theatre typically offers more than 120 performances a year.
Circular Congregation Church
There’s a reason for Charleston’s nickname…the Holy City. It offers diversity in spiritual practices with many different kinds of churches. The tall steeples from those churches are visible across the city.
The Circular Congregational Church is one of the oldest continuously worshipping congregations in the South. Charles Town’s original settlers founded this church about 1681. The surrounding graveyard contains about 500 graves with monuments dating back to 1695.
The first Meeting House on this site gave Meeting Street its name. This third church structure occupies the same spot as the previous two. Bricks from the second circular church, which burned in 1861, formed this current sanctuary, completed in 1892.
So Much History to Offer
Charleston offers so many old stories. It’s impossible to walk very far without encountering a historic marker.
The city has endured wars, economic ups and downs, malaria outbreaks, fires and earthquakes. Those calamities along with strong ties to the trade of enslaved peoples brought painful times of reconstruction and growth, on many levels. Charleston does not gloss over its history or ignore it or glorify it either. Rather, the people here seek to learn from their past and tell their stories accurately and in depth.
I have more stories to tell from Charleston too.
Have you visited this city? What historic places did you see?
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