Charleston History: Little-Known Facts
Charleston is one of America’s oldest cities. Which means it also has plenty of local stories, legends and history. Some things we know to be true? The 10 items on this list of little-known Charleston history facts.
Charleston History Facts
1. Charleston Became a City in 1783
Because it is a port city on the eastern seaboard of the U.S. Charleston has always been kind of a big deal.
It was originally settled in 1670 (only 50 years after Plymouth Rock).
A major battle in the Revolutionary war was fought here in 1776, the Battle of Fort Sullivan. It was the first major victory for the Americans.
After the end of the war, the city’s importance in American history increased. It was a major port in the slave triangle, and most enslaved Africans passed through Charleston before landing in other areas of the country. 80% of African Americans can trace their ancestors through Charleston.
2. Charleston Is Home to Many American Firsts
One piece of Charleston history that isn’t widely known? The Holy City lays claim to being home to many American firsts, including the first museum, public college, playhouse, and golf club.
The College of Charleston was founded in 1770, and it’s the 13th oldest school in the country. Many of the college’s founders were pivotal in the Revolutionary War and were signers of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1773, the Charleston Museum was founded; it opened to the public in 1824. Laura Bragg, the museum’s director in 1920, was the first female director of a publicly funded art museum in the country.
In 1736, America’s oldest theatre, the Dock Street Theatre, opened. You can still see productions here today.
In 1786, Harleston Green, America’s oldest golf club, was established. Today, it’s still considered the birthplace of American golf.
3. The Civil War Began in Charleston
You can’t talk about Charleston history without talking about the Civil War. The first shots of the Civil War were fired in Charleston at Fort Sumter in 1861. South Carolina was also the first state to sign the Ordinance of Secession (which was signed right here in Charleston), which was the first step to the secession of the South — and the beginnings of the Civil War.
4. The Gardenia Was Named After a Charleston Physician
The Gardenia, otherwise known as Cape Jasmine, was imported to the U.S. by Dr. Alexander Garden in 1754. The plant was originally from South Africa.
It was later “renamed” after Garden in the states, but the rest of the world still generally knows this flower as Cape Jasmine.
Garden was originally from Scotland but spent many years in Charleston after marrying a local, Martha Guerard. He spent his time studying the local flora and fauna of the area, and he even assisted Carl Linnaeus in categorizing several plant species.
One of the best times to visit Charleston is in the spring, and we recommend heading to Magnolia Plantation and Gardens to see the flowers bloom.
5. Bill Murray Is “Director of Fun” of the Charleston RiverDogs
While this isn’t necessarily a fun fact in Charleston’s history per se, we think it’s kind of awesome and will eventually go down in history.
Back in 1886, Charleston established its first baseball team (then called the Sea Gulls).
Murray is part owner of the team and is also its Director of Fun. He’s usually in town for the opening game (in addition to the mayor, who throws the first pitch).
The RiverDogs are a New York Yankees’ Class A team that plays in the South Atlantic League.
6. Charleston Was Once Part of Barbados
In 1670, the British landed in Charleston. They had initially headed here from Barbados (where they’d arrived in 1627), searching for supplies and provisions. After discovering the sugarcane growing in Charleston, they settled the area.
If you’ve ever been to Bridgetown in Barbados, you’ll probably recognize Charleston almost instantly. The two towns are almost identical in layout. Many of Charleston’s streets were named after areas of Barbados, and the architecture from the 1600s is similar to the style of buildings in Bridgetown.
Though the Holy City may not be the Caribbean, some of the best Charleston beaches aren’t far from Downtown!
7. There’s an Interesting Story Behind Charleston’s Colorful Buildings — But It’s Not What You Think
Many visitors to Charleston simply assume that the buildings on city’s most colorful street, Rainbow Row, was painted in pastel colors because of the Caribbean influence here.
While much of the city was modeled after an island town in Barbados, Rainbow Row’s buildings weren’t painted in technicolor until the 20th Century. In 1931, resident Dorothy Haskell Porcher Legge, painted her home bright pink. Other homeowners began following suit.
Another color you’ll see all over the city is Haint Blue, which is omnipresent on Charleston’s porch ceilings. Many Southerners believed that painting the porch ceiling this color would ward off evil haints or spirits.
You can find out more about Charleston’s great buildings on our Charleston’s Alleys and Hidden Passages Tour.
8. The Symbolism of the Pineapple in Charleston Dates Back to the 1600s
You’ll see this popular fruit all over the Holy City. From porches to door knockers to post toppers, the pineapple is everywhere. It’s most famously represented as a fountain in Waterfront Park.
The pineapple is a symbol of hospitality. It started back in the 1600s when captains would come home from sea. They would place pineapples on their porches to welcome in guests they hadn’t seen since they’d set sail.
If you want to get a great view of the city and its shore, we recommend taking a Charleston boat tour.
9. George Gershwin Wrote Porgy and Bess in Charleston
The famous songwriter/playwright wrote his musical “Porgy and Bess” while staying on Folly Beach.
The real Porgy and Bess that the musical was based on are buried in Charleston. You can read about the people who inspired the play in the book, The Secret Lives of Porgy and Bess,” by Kendra Hamilton.
If you want to see another city that’s famous for its music, take a Charleston day trip to Savannah.
10. Charleston Was Home to America’s First Female Serial Killer
Lavinia Fisher may or may not have been America’s first female serial killer — though many suspect she was.
While no one knows where she was born, she died in 1820 at the estimated age of 26 or 27. She was convicted of murdering men, many of whom she allegedly lured to a motel room before poisoning them.
It’s somewhat unclear as to whether Lavinia did in fact murder these men, many people believe she haunts the Old Charleston Jail House.