Charleston is constantly earning accolades—Southern Living magazine just named it their top city in the South to live in—and is a perennially prominent, romantic tourist destination. While the city is known for its history, that doesn’t mean its history is fully known, and Charleston has one of the most fascinating histories of any city of the South—indeed, to one extent, it is the history of the South written in miniature.
In 1670 William Sayle of Bermuda, under the auspices of the Lords Proprietors of England, brought settlers from Bermuda to South Carolina. The Lords Proprietors envisioned the soon-to-be Charleston as an entry port into the vast Province of Carolina they oversaw. They were not the very first Europeans to arrive—French Huguenots had arrived as early as 1580—but the British would be the ones to set forth on a grand scheme the development of their colonial lands and what would become for a time the nation’s premier port.
Early days for Charleston were tough, however. The dismal, swampy conditions were difficult for early settlers, and the new settlement obviously lacked the logistics infrastructure extant in Bermuda to which these pioneers were accustomed. By 1700 the fledgling city had witnessed the woes of a smallpox epidemic in 1698, an earthquake and fire shortly thereafter, and then a yellow fever outbreak which devastated the town as it was trying to rebuild after that fire. Malaria was an endemic problem also, although more for those living outside the coastal city in the even more swampy marshlands where planters aspired to develop plantation crops.
The dangers to the settlement were not limited to disease and natural disasters, either: Native Americans attacked it from land, pirates found the isolated community with its influx of lucrative supplies a strong temptation for raids, and Spain and France saw Charleston as a threat to their own colonial ambitions and operations in the Americas and attacked it from sea as well. Governor Nathaniel Johnson was, however, able to fortify the city and begin focusing on its purpose, which put military presence and security foremost.
The intrigue of Charleston’s early years can at times read like something from a boys’ adventure novel. The infamous pirate Blackbeard and his men looted the port in 1718 and even took hostages from a merchant vessel. What did the pirate captain request in exchange for letting these captives go? A medicine chest for his ship, of the kind naval vessels of the time carried, which Governor Robert Johnson eventually granted—and Blackbeard, perhaps a pirate but also a man of his word, released his hostages.
It was irritations of this nature which plagued young Charleston, but the colony was beginning to make some headway in establishing plantations, and Charleston was well-poised to be the primary import-export center for these planters. Without a well-established and well-defended port of this nature, the plantation enterprises planned for the colony would be impossible. Charleston was in essence the most crucial key to the overall success of the Province of Carolina and, later, of South Carolina specifically.
In Hubs of Empire: The Southeastern Lowcountry and British Caribbean, historian Matthew Mulcahy notes that South Carolina and Georgia—especially Charleston and Savannah, the essential early ports of these colonies—extended the reach of the Brits in their Caribbean colonies inwards into the North American mainland. The context was always one of plantations, of the ability to produce agricultural products which were not readily viable in the United Kingdom due to climate, labor, or other factors.
Charleston began with grand design but essentially fragile origins—at one point it even seemed the colonial city would simply not make it as the pestilence of disease and mischance of fire and other disasters were too great. However, by the 1750’s Charleston rivaled Philadelphia and Boston in wealth and the size and scope of its trade. It was the most crucial port for trade with the Caribbean and handled far more agricultural exportation than its northern competitors due to its proximity to plantations. Unlike these Northern cities, its population did not grow as large or quickly, in good part because much of the population that made its wheels of economy turn—both white men and slaves—lived on plantations beyond the city itself.
As planters grew wealthier, so did the merchant and professional classes of brokers, agents, lawyers, and tradesmen in Charleston itself. Whether a lady desiring cloth to make dresses (or to have them made), or a man who needed to retain a lawyer for a business deal, or the planter seeking to ship out his crops—anyone of any worth had business in downtown Charleston. Many affluent planters built second homes there—some quite elaborate—since the distance from some plantations was considerable.
In 1766 the St. Cecilia Society was formed, an exclusive club for the appreciation of music and funding of concerts. This Society went on to become one of the nation’s most elite—and most secretive—social organizations, as well as one of the oldest. While the Society made some changes over the decades—most notably the replacement of its concerts with balls instead (invitations to which became highly-coveted)—in many ways it seems to have preserved its reverence for the past. A 1964 New York Times article makes clear that little had changed since the 1930’s for the balls and, for that matter, aside from electric lights in the Society’s Hibernian Hall and its guests arriving by motorcar instead of carriage, not all that much had changed since even the 1830’s. The rules of dancing and the music played—making allowances for the foxtrot and a few other modern innovations—plus the food served at a midnight supper, all recalled the antebellum grandeur of Charleston.
Like St. Cecilia, the St. Andrew’s Society also boasted a membership of the scions of early Charleston’s founding families. But St. Andrew’s turned its attentions to helping the needy and to promoting Scottish-American culture instead of music. Both of these elite clubs not only demonstrated the immense wealth and sophistication of Charleston but set the tone for a spirit of subdued grace which continues in the city to this day.
Yes, the city has its boisterous bars and ghost tours for tourists which may exaggerate some spooky tales just a little bit, but the city still offers an atmosphere of restrained refinement and even secrecy—for years, some of the US Navy’s most essential nuclear weapons and training facilities were at the naval base here. Secrets either musical or military aside, that refinement of character and taste for the finer things carries onward today, and nowhere is it more apparent than in Charleston’s restaurant scene. The city is currently eclipsing New Orleans for the title of the South’s great foodie destination and with good reason: enterprising and innovative chefs are taking Southern cuisine and producing new directions in foodways which in many cases date back to the founding of the colonies.
What Charleston has achieved in this regard has come in several waves. First was the rise of several highly-innovative restaurants such as Slightly North of Broad, Fish, Chez Nous, and Fig. Then came the acknowledgment of simple workaday places such as Hannibal’s Kitchen and Bertha’s Restaurant purveying the native Gullah cuisine of the Low Country. And finally came the possibility for restaurants like Husk and Pawpaw which celebrate Southern traditions but with new twists and an eye on high cuisine in less than stuffy formal settings. Like other food-centric cities such as San Francisco and Paris, Charleston now both benefits and suffers from the emphasis on trends and gossip surrounding its food and restaurants over their actual offerings and daily enjoyment. But no matter, the word is out, and people flock to Charleston now for great food. And this is neither an accident nor something entirely new: the city has long been known for its graciousness.
Pawpaw is the perfect example of this approach and the ideal ambassador for Charleston’s food. Sure, there are restaurants fancier and more expensive, but if we predicate quality or even impressiveness solely on cost or how glamorous is the dining room, then we’re not selling food but basically a hotel experience. Indeed, the grand restaurant tradition of Paris stemmed from hotels and their restaurants, but in the American South we can today put a pride of place on local ingredients and the ingenuity of our chefs. Pawpaw does this by elevating Low Country standards such as the lowly hushpuppy or classic shrimp and grits to levels of meticulous craftsmanship.
New shops have opened along King and Meeting streets as well, but the real attraction to Charleston is its cohesive whole—that the city is something of a peninsular living museum, with these trendy restaurants and cool stores sitting side by side with stately homes and serene churchyards. The College of Charleston, one of the South’s great academic institutions, is seated directly north of the heart of Charleston’s historic attractions and the Medical University of South Carolina just a bit further northwest. The Citadel, renowned throughout the South and beyond, is also nearby. This collection of institutions of higher education keeps the colonial streets of old Charleston feeling young with students out walking to and from class. It would be tempting to say that the city has come quite a ways since its humble beginnings, but the earnest truth is that its origins were quite literally noble, and that Charleston is exactly where its founders presumed it would arrive all along.
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