Prior to European settlement, the region now called South Carolina was populated by several Indian groups. Indians of Iroquoian stock, including the Cherokee, inhabited the northwestern section, while those of the Siouan stock—of whom the Catawba were the most numerous—occupied the northern and eastern regions. Indians of Muskogean stock lived in the south.
In the early 1500s, long before the English claimed the Carolinas, Spanish sea captains explored the coast. The Spaniards made an unsuccessful attempt to establish a settlement in 1526 at Winyah Bay, near the present city of Georgetown. Thirty-six years later, a group of French Huguenots under Jean Ribault landed at a site near Parris Island, but the colony failed after Ribault returned to France. The English established the first permanent settlement in 1670 under the supervision of the eight lords proprietors who had been granted "Carolana" by King Charles II. At first the colonists settled at Albemarle Point on the Ashley River: 10 years later, they moved across the river to the present site of Charleston.
Rice cultivation began in the coastal swamps, and black slaves were imported as field hands. The colony flourished, and by the mid-1700s, new areas were developing inland. Germans, Scots-Irish, and Welsh, who differed markedly from the original aristocratic settlers of the Charleston area, migrated to the southern part of the new province. Although the upcountry was developing and was taxed, it was not until 1770 that the settlers there were represented in the government. For the most part, the colonists had friendly relations with the Indians. In 1715, however, the Yamasee were incited by Spanish colonists at St. Augustine, Fla., to attack the South Carolina settlements. The settlers successfully resisted, with no help from the proprietors.
The original royal grant had made South Carolina a very large colony, but eventually the separate provinces of North Carolina and Georgia were established, two moves that destined South Carolina to be a small state. The colonists were successful in having the proprietors overthrown in 1719 and the government transferred to royal rule by 1721.
Skirmishes with the French, Spanish, Indians, and pirates, as well as a slave uprising in 1739, marked the pre-Revolutionary period. South Carolina opposed the Stamp Act of 1765 and took an active part in the American Revolution. The first British property seized by American Revolutionary forces was Ft. Charlotte in McCormick County in 1775. Among the many battles fought in South Carolina were major Patriot victories at Ft. Moultrie in Charleston (1776), Kings Mountain (1780), and Cowpens (1781), the last two among the war's most important engagements. Delegates from South Carolina, notably Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, were leaders at the federal constitutional convention of 1787. On 23 May 1788, South Carolina became the 8th state to ratify the Constitution.
Between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, two issues dominated South Carolinians' political thinking: tariffs and slavery. Senator John C. Calhoun took an active part in developing the nullification theory by which a state claimed the right to abrogate unpopular federal laws. Open conflict over tariffs during the early 1830s was narrowly averted by a compromise on the rates, but in 1860, on the issue of slavery, no compromise was possible. At the time of secession, on 20 December 1860, more than half the state's population consisted of black slaves. The first battle of the Civil War took place at Ft. Sumter in Charleston Harbor on 12 April 1861. Federal forces soon captured the Sea Islands, but Charleston withstood a long siege until February 1865. In the closing months of the war, Union troops under General William Tecumseh Sherman burned Columbia and caused widespread destruction elsewhere. South Carolina contributed about 63,000 soldiers to the Confederacy out of a white population of some 291,000. Casualties were high: nearly 14,00 men were killed in battle or died after capture.
Federal troops occupied South Carolina after the war. During Reconstruction, as white South Carolinians saw it, illiterates, carpetbaggers, and scalawags raided the treasury, plunging the state into debt. The constitution was revised in 1868 by a convention in which blacks outnumbered whites by 76 to 48; given the franchise, blacks attained the offices of lieutenant governor and US representative. In 1876, bands of white militants called Red Shirts, supporting the gubernatorial candidacy of former Confederate General Wade Hampton, rode through the countryside urging whites to vote and intimidating potential black voters. Hampton, a Democrat, won the election, but was not permitted by the Republican incumbent to take office until President Rutherford B. Hayes declared an end to Reconstruction and withdrew federal troops from the state in April 1877.
For the next 100 years, South Carolina suffered through political turmoil, crop failures, and recessions. A major political change came in the 1880s with a large population increase upcountry and the migration of poor whites to cities. These trends gave farmers and industrial workers a majority of votes, and they found their leader in Benjamin Ryan "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, a populist who stirred up class and racial hatreds by attacking the "Charleston ring." Tillman was influential in wresting control of the state Democratic Party from the coastal aristocrats; he served as governor from 1890 to 1894 and then as US senator until his death in 1918. However, his success inaugurated a period of political and racial demagoguery that saw the gradual (though not total) disfranchisement of black voters.
The main economic transformation after 1890 was the replacement of rice and cotton growing by tobacco and soybean cultivation and truck farming, along with the movement of tenant farmers, or sharecroppers, from the land to the cities. There they found jobs in textile mills, and textiles became the state's leading industry after 1900. With the devastation of the cotton crop by the boll weevil in the 1920s, farmers were compelled to diversify their crops, and some turned to raising cattle. Labor shortages in the North during and after World War II drew many thousands of African Americans from South Carolina to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New York, and other cities.
In the postwar period, industry took over the dominant role formerly held by agriculture in South Carolina's economy, and the focus of textile production shifted from cotton to synthetic fabrics. In the 1990s the major industries were textiles and chemicals, and foreign investment played a major role in the state's economy. BMW, the German automobile company, established their North American plant in Greenville. Tourism also played a role, with the coastal areas drawing visitors from around the nation. In the early 2000s, South Carolina, along with other tobacco-producing states, was in the midst of a transition away from tobacco production.
Public school desegregation after the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling of 1954 proceeded peaceably, but very slowly, and blacks were gradually accepted alongside whites in the textile mills and other industries. In 1983, for the first time in 95 years, a black state senator was elected; the following year, four blacks were elected to the reapportioned senate. Despite these changes, most white South Carolinians remained staunchly conservative in political and social matters, as witnessed by the 1999–2000 firestorm over the display of the Confederate flag on the dome of the State House. The controversy prompted the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to call for a tourism boycott of the state. A January 2000 protest drew nearly 50,000 demonstrators, black and white, against the flag. Legislators brokered a compromise that moved the flag, viewed as a symbol of oppression by African Americans, to a spot in front of the capitol, where it flies from a 30-ft pole. The "solution," though favored by most South Carolinians who were polled, did not satisfy most of the black community. Tourism officials called for the NAACP to lift its boycott, but the organization refused to do so, maintaining the flag's only place is in a museum of history.
In the postwar period, the Democrats' traditional control of the state weakened, and, beginning with Barry Goldwater, Republican presidential candidates have carried the state in every election except that of 1976, in which Southerner Jimmy Carter prevailed. Well-known conservative Republican Strom Thurmond represented South Carolina in the US Senate from 1954 to 2003, when he died at age 100. But his Democratic counterpart, Ernest Hollings (also a former governor) has been in the Senate since 1966.
In 1989, Hurricane Hugo, the 10th-strongest hurricane to hit the United States coast in the 20th century, struck South Carolina, packing 135-mph (217-kph) winds. Ripping roofs off buildings and sweeping boats onto city streets, the storm killed 37 people and produced over $700 million worth of property damage. Seven South Carolina counties were declared disaster areas. In 1993, flooding, followed by a record-breaking drought, caused an estimated $226 million in crop damage.
In response to a Supreme Court ruling, The Citadel (in Charleston), one of only two state-supported military schools in the country, admitted its first female cadet, Shannon Faulkner, in 1995. Faulkner left the institution after only six days. In 1997 two of four women attending the institution quit, alleging hazing and sexual harassment by their male peers. In May 1999 the institution graduated its first female cadet. By the following August, there were 75 female cadets enrolled at the Citadel—the first in its 156-year history, as the school fought a sexual harassment lawsuit of a former cadet.
In 1999 a settlement was reached in the worst oil spill in the state's history. A record $7-million fine was to be paid by a national pipeline company that admitted its negligence caused nearly one million gallons of diesel fuel to pollute the Upstate River.
South Carolina finished fiscal year 2003 with a $68.8 million budget deficit, down from the $248.8 million deficit at the end of fiscal year 2002. In 2003, Republican Governor Mark Sanford, elected in 2002, urged state legislators to reform the way the government conducts its business, from allowing state officials to hire and fire employees more easily, to funding schools with block grants rather than line items.