The Charleston Tradition

From the beginning, Charleston was different. Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, chief among the Lords Proprietors, planned it that way. For his “darling,” as he called the settlement, he had philosopher John Locke prepare Fundamental Constitutions designed to avoid “a too numerous democracy.” This frontier province, the future Earl of Shaftesbury hoped, would be a bulwark of the aristocratic principle in government, a New World version of the England of gentlemen seated on their estates.

In this image was Charleston created by Lord Ashley, the brilliant, suffering genius whose life depended on a gold tube draining a cyst in his liver. Thus begun as a citadel of faith in the primacy of excellence over numbers—on a continent which was to be dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal—Charleston played a unique role in American life until Sherman’s Army of the West swept across the Carolinas in 1865.

The city ordained by Lord Ashley was unique in another respect. Alone among the old cities on the eastern seaboard, Charleston—or Charles Town as it was originally named—was a city-state, a South Atlantic Venice built on mud, cribs of palmetto logs loaded with cobblestone ballast, sawdust, and the wastes of a frontier community, diked and protected against hurricane tides with sea walls of crushed oyster shell known as tabby.

The first settlers sailed from England in August of 1669 aboard three small vessels, the Carolina, the Port Royal, and the Albemarle. The vessels, ranging from 200 to 300 tons, weighed anchor six years after Charles II had given to eight of his loyal supporters “all that territory … called Carolina scituate, lying, and being within our dominions of America, extending from the north end of the island called Lucke Island, which lieth in the Southern Virginia seas … and to the west as far as the South Seas and so southerly as far as the River Mathias which borderth upon the coast of Florida …”

The settlers—some 150 of them—reached the west bank of what is today the Ashley River, across from present-day Charleston.

At this location, Albemarle Point, the settlers lived and suffered for ten years. They might have been massacred, as other settlers were in those grim days, had it not been for one of their number, a surgeon named Henry Woodward. Five years before he had been a member of an earlier Carolina settlement at Cape Fear, and in the interim he had lived for a time among the coastal Indians to learn their language. As interpreter, go-between, and Indian agent, Woodward was an indispensable aid to the settlers of Albemarle Point and, later, of Charleston itself.

One year after Albemarle Point was settled, it was proposed that a new settlement be established across the river on the peninsula between the Kiawah and Etiwan rivers, which had been renamed Ashley and Cooper. Joseph Dalton, a member of the Grand Council, wrote Lord Ashley concerning the proposed site: “It is as it were a Key to open and shutt this settlement into safety or danger; Charles Towne [Albemarle Point] indeed can very well defend itself and thats all, but that [the proposed site] like an Iron gate shutts up all the towns that are or may be in those Rivers.”

As Dalton went on to say, the city’s approaches from the sea are unique. As one traveler was to observe in the nineteenth century, one yields readily to the illusion that the city springs directly from the bosom of the waves. The location of the city, at the meeting place of two great rivers, gave rise quite naturally to the ancient witticism that “the Ashley and Cooper Rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.”

The physical location of a city has an influence on its character. Charleston’s bold front to the sea, where the worst lashings of tide and storm are felt, may have had some part in the shaping of the city’s outlook on life. As for the “Iron gate” referred to by Councilman Dalton, the fleets of Spain, France, England, and the Union were to try to batter their way through and almost always they would fail.

But a city is more than an image in the mind of its founder and a meaningful location. It is the people who settle it, and these were a hardy lot, men of parts, rugged individualists. Some 500 English Dissenters came to the city soon after it was established on its present site. To groups of bold thinkers the religious toleration granted by the Proprietors was a spur to emigration. There were planters from the Barbados in the final year of the 1670s. (There were also Negro slaves from the West Indies, and thus one basic feature of the settlement was established early.) Charleston was an English community, but English colonial, almost West Indian in many ways. Presently others came—Scotsmen, Congregationalists from Massachusetts, Quakers, Sephardic Jews; but the most notable event was the arrival in 1680 of the ship Richmond with the first contingent of French Huguenots, men and women whose descendants were to play an important role in the city.