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The History Lover’s Guide to Charleston

By Stratton Lawrence

Dec 4, 2020

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The newly renovated Charleston Visitor Center resides in the historic Deans Warehouse in downtown Charleston.

Courtesy of Charleston Visitor Bureau

The newly renovated Charleston Visitor Center resides in the historic Deans Warehouse in downtown Charleston.

Even on a short weekend getaway, you can’t escape the complex stories that define this Southern city.

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The year 2020 marked the 350th anniversary of the original English settlement at Charles Towne. Few cities can rival Charleston’s place in U.S. history; the city’s past is a complex character in the story of the American South: rich with politesse and traditions; an antebellum heritage and a cosmopolitan present; and woven through it all, a legacy of slavery and uprisings, heroes and villains. 

From the early 1700s until the Civil War, the ruling class of the Lowcountry region were among the richest people in the world, thanks to empires of cotton and rice built on the labor of enslaved Africans. Protecting that wealth played heavily into the city’s battles and sieges during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars.

It’s one thing to explore the city’s deep history in a book—it’s another to walk in the footsteps of its ancestors. To discover the real Charleston, South Carolina, start with an overview at the new Charleston Area Visitor Reception and Transportation Center (VRTC), which reopened in October 2020 in the historic Deans Warehouse downtown, itself a site worth visiting on your history tour.

Built from 1840 to 1856, the old Deans Warehouse—one of five former railroad buildings that are now a National Historic Landmark District—reopened as a visitor center May 1991. In its latest refresh, the very much modernized interior includes a virtual reality exhibit about the city, a test kitchen for cooking demonstrations, a stage for local performers, and a new gift shop and coffee bar featuring one-off local souvenirs. Plot your route with some help from the Charleston experts, and consult our list below to fill in the gaps.

The shade cast by Charleston’s iconic Angel Oak spans 17,000 square feet.

Charleston’s earliest inhabitants

The Cusabo people lived in the Lowcountry before the arrival of Europeans, and their presence can be found in surprising ways. Massive rings of oyster shells like the 4,000-year-old Sewee Shell Ring in Charleston County’s Awendaw suggest that oysters were a key part of their diet and that the tribe often gathered in a communal setting.

To get an even closer look at the watery landscape the Cusabo inhabited, escape the city via a kayak tour with Coastal Expeditions, whose naturalist guides can point out edible plants and explain the indigenous flora and fauna. Visiting Bulls Island can take you even further back in time—exploring this undeveloped island makes it easy to imagine people subsisting on its bounty.

If you prefer dry land or if time is limited, you can still see something older than European settlement by driving out to the Angel Oak on Johns Island, a massive live oak tree that is thought to be the country’s oldest living organism east of the Rockies.

Explore the original colony

West Ashley’s Charles Towne Landing—the site of the first Charleston colony—could be the city’s most underrated attraction (and a bargain at $12). Visitors can explore the deck and cabins of a replica 17th-century ship, a re-creation of the one settlers first arrived on in 1670. The historic park also has replica structures from the original village, as well as an impressive and modern museum. Perhaps best of all (especially for families), the Animal Forest is home to native animals, including a puma, otters, elk, and bison.

Relive the Golden Age of Piracy

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Name any famous pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy (1650–1730), and chances are they swaggered the streets of Charleston. Notorious and fascinating characters from Edward “Blackbeard” Teach to Anne Bonny to Stede Bonnet all spent time here. Locals Eric and Sabrina Lavender lead daily pirate tours—in full costume and accompanied by a live parrot—that recount the stories of these rogues and privateers, placing them in context at surviving landmarks, including the 1713 Powder Magazine, the last remaining structure of the original walled city.

Built as the Planter’s Hotel in 1809, the Dock Street Theatre is now home to the Charleston Stage Company.

Say “bonjour” to the French Quarter

The word “refugee” originated in France, as a description of the Protestant Huguenots who fled the oppressive French Catholic regime of the 1680s. Some 400,000 of the refugees sailed to Charleston, where their names and families—Ravenel, Prioleau, Huger, Gaillard—are still among the most visible and prominent in the city today. The French Huguenot Church in the French Quarteris the last active church dedicated to Huguenots in the country. (Services are held each Sunday at 10:30 a.m., with tours of the church available immediately afterward.)

The Quarter is an excellent place to walk and on its streets, you’ll find St. Philip’s (Anglican) Church, the Dock Street Theatre, and most of the city’s high-end art galleries.

Magnolia Plantation & Gardens offers tours of not just the Revolution-era main house, but also the slave cabins on the grounds.

See the legacy of wealth . . .

The word “plantation” has been dropped from the fanciful names of Charleston’s residential subdivisions in recent years for good reason. The historic plantations—massive white-owned farms worked by enslaved Africans—are hardly something to celebrate, and tours of Charleston’s historic antebellum houses make sure that the plantation system is not romanticized.

Middleton Place balances its impeccably maintained gardens, inn, and riverfront property with frank exhibits that portray slave life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Next door, Magnolia Plantation and Gardens’s trails and tours by tram and boat display the natural splendor of the Lowcountry, and special daily tours focus on the slave cabins that remain on the grounds. Still farther down the Ashley River, the immaculately preserved Drayton Hall, a 1738 mansion, puts the grandeur of a plantation owner’s life in perspective by also emphasizing the life of the estate’s other residents. Across town, Mount Pleasant’s Boone Hall echoes Middleton’s approach, balancing its glorious avenue of oaks and romantic grounds with a Gullah Theater and African American reenactors who give an honest take on the plantation’s slave-driven past.

. . . and its brutal cost

Many visitors to Charleston mistakenly assume that the steep steps at the City Market’s Meeting Street entrance were where the city’s infamous slave auctions were held. That’s not the case—the Old Slave Mart on Chalmers Street, a grisly vestige of the city’s once-booming slave trade, is the remaining auction site of the dozens that once operated here. It solemnly reminds visitors that 35 to 40 percent of the Africans brought to North America as slaves were processed through Charleston.

The vast number of slaves serving a smaller white population resulted in deep paranoia among the landowners and fear of rebellion. One of the most notable attempts of uprising ended in tragedy in Charleston before it even began. In Hampton Park, visitors can see a statue of freed slave Denmark Vesey that memorializes his alleged leadership role in an 1822 plan to kill the slaveholders and sail with the liberated slaves to Haiti. When news of the plot was leaked, Vesey was quickly tried and publicly hanged, along with 34 others.

The racial history of the city is still unsettled. Even today, Charleston’s public schools remain largely segregated. But there are occasional bright spots in the long history of bitter discord: Despite the racist hatred behind the 2015 shooting of nine parishioners at the city’s Mother Emmanuel AME Church, the reaction of the congregation—one of immediate forgiveness—surprised the world by its grace. Visitors are welcome to attend the church’s 9:30 a.m. Sunday services.

And when the International African American Museum (IAAM) debuts in Charleston in 2022, the long-awaited institution will be elevated by pillars as a sign of respect for the site on which it stands: the former Gadsden’s Wharf, where almost half of the imprisoned Africans who were brought to North America on slave ships disembarked in the United States, reports AFAR’s Sarah Buder.

The first shots of the Civil War were fired on the federal troops at Fort Sumter by cadets of the Citadel.

Witness the revolution and the siege

Charlestonians like to joke that the Ashley and Cooper Rivers merge in Charleston Harbor to form the Atlantic Ocean. While it may not be the Atlantic’s source, the waterway does play a huge role in U.S. history, thanks to the narrow harbor mouth and the iconic island bastion, Fort Sumter, that protects it.

Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island, however, predates Fort Sumter. Its palmetto log walls withstood a barrage of cannonballs during a June 28, 1776, battle, allowing the 400 patriots inside to fight off the invading British ships. That “Carolina Day” victory inspired the palmetto tree’s place of honor on the South Carolina state flag.

Just across the mouth of the harbor from Fort Moultrie, Fort Sumter was built beginning in 1829. On January 9, 1861, a federal ship was attempting to resupply the troops occupying the fort when cadets from the Citadel military college fired upon it, in what became the first shots of the Civil War. Control of Fort Sumter became a pivotal concern as the war developed until Union troops abandoned it in April 1861. They were unable to recapture it during the following four years.

From 1842 to 1922, the Citadel was located at present-day Marion Square. That building, now an Embassy Suites Hotel, features some of the college’s original archways and hardwood floors and contains a small exhibit of items collected from the cadets who lived and studied there.

Take a tour from Folly Beach–based Flipper Finders for a different perspective on the region’s military history. Its boat will drop you—and your rental bicycles—on uninhabited Morris Island for the day. From the harborside of Morris Island, Fort Sumter looks as though it’s within swimming distance. Ride your bike along the beach to see the island’s famous lighthouse, and then head to the narrow stretch of sand where the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African American regiment to fight in the Civil War (made famous by the movie Glory), stormed and overtook the Confederate-held beachhead, Battery Wagner.

How many cities have a haunted jail that once housed pirates, serial killers, and Civil War prisoners?

Take a walking tour

Charleston’s carriage tours and ghost tours are popular, but more focused, topic-specific tours tend to have smaller groups, which allow history lovers to ask detailed questions. The city’s many qualified guides love it when visitors want to go deeper on a specific topic. Among the recommended guides: Broad Street Biz offers an eye-opening tour on the massive earthquake that shook the city on August 31, 1886, and Bulldog Tours gives access to the Old City Jail, an eerie 215-year-old building tucked into the Harleston Village neighborhood. 

You can try to avoid it, but Charleston’s history is on display everywhere—the candy-hued houses on Rainbow Row, the cannons at the Battery, the church graveyards, the moss-covered walls of the College of Charleston. Even visitors who arrive for a few days of fun can’t help but be drawn in by the stories that shaped this remarkable and historic city.

This article was originally published in November 2019. It was updated December 2020 with new information; additional reporting by Laura Dannen Redman and Sarah Buder.

>>Next: The AFAR Guide to Charleston

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