Charleston County, South Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

Significance of County Name

Population (2020)

1785 / 1800


King Charles II


Legislative Act Creating County

First Settled / By

County Evolution by Decade

Official County Website

1785 / 1800

1670 / Barbadians, English/Welsh

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Historical Post Offices

American Revolution

American Civil War

Significant Education Events

Alphabetical / Date Started

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Coming Later

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Airports in Charleston County

Maps of Charleston County

Books About Charleston County

Genealogy Sources

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A History of Charleston County

Old Exchange Building - As the Post Office (1815-1896)

The concept of the county as a governmental entity originated in Europe. Large areas, often containing several villages, were usually governed by a Count. When the Normans conquered England, they used county to describe the geographical areas then known as shires. Eventually, counties evolved to include law enforcement, representation in Parliament and delivery of administrative justice. It was this concept of county that made its way to the colonies and the province of Carolina.

In designing the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina in 1682, the Lords Proprietors chose to divide the province into three counties. These counties would become the most basic territorial divisions for government, land grants, and administration of justice.

The first counties in the province of Carolina emerged in 1682 as election districts. There were three: Craven County, which included land north of Seewee Creek (now Awendaw Creek); Berkeley County, which centered around Charleston, included land between Seewee Creek and the Stono River; and Colleton County, which included land from the Stono River south to the Combahee River. Later, a fourth, Carteret County (renamed in 1708 to Granville County), was laid out between the Combahee and Savannah rivers in 1684. These election districts had little to do with the operations of Carolina government except to elect representatives to the Commons House of Assembly beginning in 1692. There were no county offices, county courts, or any county officials other than Marshal. That began to change with the official division of the province into North and South Carolina in 1729.

The main functions of local governments were performed by the Commons House of Assembly, which met in Charlestown to decide matters of road construction and the provision of laws and courts. Parishes, established by the Anglican Church in 1706, served as the election districts beginning in 1721. During the same year, South Carolina was divided into 33 road districts with responsibility for the infrastructure falling on independent boards of commissioners.

The central authority for law and order, however, remained in Charlestown. While centralization of authority in Charlestown was convenient for lawmakers and judges of the lowcountry, residents of the backcountry or upcountry, suffered from lack of law and representation. In 1768, complaints from backcountry residents led the Province of South Carolina to create seven judicial districts, each with a court house. The original Act was disapproved by the British Parliament, but a second Act was finally approved in 1769. Charlestown became one of these districts. Click Here to learn more about the 1769 Charles Town District.

In 1785, the General Assembly of the new State of South Carolina divided the state into 34 counties. The existing overarching Charleston District encompassed six of these new counties - one being Charleston County. In 1791, all six counties in the Charleston District were dissolved because those in the lowcountry refused to accept another layer of govenmental bureaucracy and there were no county offices or courts established..

The lines were redrawn again in 1798 when all counties were reincorporated into districts, to take effect on January 1, 1800. On that date, the overarching Charleston District was abolished, and its lands were split into Colleton District (county) and yet another Charleston District (county) - the incarnation defined in this write-up. The latter roughly included what are today Charleston and Berkeley counties.

There was still little need for local government beyond the duties that rested with the local road commissioners and justices of the peace. By 1828, most of the operational powers were in the hands of the SC General Assembly. It remained so until the adoption of the South Carolina Constitution of 1868, the so-called Reconstruction Constitution.

This constitution established 31 counties as governmental units and included provisions for each county to elect a board of commissioners, clerk of court, coroner, probate judge and sheriff. As governmental units, the boards of commissioners were given jurisdiction over all local concerns of their respective counties.

These circumstances reversed just twenty-seven years later with adoption of the South Carolina Constitution of 1895. The new constitution made no mention of local government, although the SC General Assembly was careful to formalize the counties under its own authority. Because the legislative delegations controlled their respective county budgets, these delegations became the governing bodies of each county. And as each county's state senator had veto power over delegation decisions, the senator became the most powerful authority in each county.

The local Board of Commissioners lost even more power in 1900 when the General Assembly established the Sanitary and Drainage Commission in Charleston County. Then, in 1925, the legislature created a separate Charleston County Police Commission; and, in 1931, the Legislative Delegation assumed control of the County Board of Education. With help from a Rockefeller Foundation grant in 1926 the Charleston County Board of Health was created, but was later combined in 1936 with the City of Charleston Board of Health.

By the end of World War II, the population was increasing and administrative responsibilities were scattered between a board of commissioners, constitutional officers, sheriffs and assorted school, health, and public service district officials. Public demands for more effective local government ballooned forcing reform with the passage of state legislation in 1948, which provided for a system of local government in South Carolina.

Voters in Charleston County decided between a plan which placed control in the hands of a seven-member county council with an appointed manager as chief executive officer or a plan which maintained legislative delegation control but centralized county administrative functions under a council of eleven members. If neither plan gained majority voter support, the system would continue unchanged.

On September 14, 1948, voters chose the first plan with the appointed manager, and, on January 4, 1949, members of Charleston County Council were sworn into office. On June 6, 1949, a manager was hired, and operations as a council-manager form of government began on July 1, 1949. Since that time, the County Council was expanded to nine members to accommodate a growing population.

Under the Home Rule Act passed by the SC General Assembly in 1975, Charleston County residents chose the council-administrator form of government through a referendum. Charleston County continues to operate under the council-administrator form.

Charleston County and the city of Charleston, its county seat, are the most historic locations in the state. English settlers arrived in the colony of Carolina in 1670 and established a town at Albemarle Point on the west bank of the Ashley River. The settlement, named Charles Town in honor of King Charles II of England, was subsequently moved a few miles away to a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Charles Town (renamed Charleston in 1783) was the political, social, and economic center of South Carolina throughout the colonial and antebellum periods, and it served as the state capital until 1790.

Charles Town District was formed in 1769, but portions were later split off to form Colleton (1800) and Berkeley (1882) counties. Present day Charleston County includes the old parishes of St. Philip's & St. Michael's, Christ Church, St. Andrew's, St. John's, Colleton, and part of St. James, Santee.

English and French Huguenot settlers and their African slaves built indigo, rice, and cotton plantations along the area's rivers and on its sea islands, while merchants of many nationalities made Charleston one of the busiest ports on the Atlantic. During the Revolutionary War the American forces defeated the attacking British fleet at Charleston in June of 1776; a palmetto log fort (later named Fort Moultrie) on Sullivans Island withstood the British cannon balls, and the palmetto tree was subsequently given a prominent place on the South Carolina flag. At another Charleston fort, Fort Sumter, federal troops were fired on by Confederate forces in April of 1861, signalling the start of the American Civil War.

Click Here to learn about the "Street Railway" that operated on Sullivan's Island from 1875 to 1924.

Charleston County has had many famous residents, including three signers of the United States Constitution: Charles Pinckney (1757-1824), Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825), and John Rutledge (1739-1800). Other residents include architect Robert Mills (1781-1855), writers DuBose Heyward (1885-1940) and Archibald Rutledge (1883-1973), slave leader Denmark Vesey (1767-1822), abolitionists Sarah Grimke (1792-1873) and Angelina Grimke (1805-1879) , scientist Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941), and civil rights leader Septima Poinsette Clark (1898-1987).

In 1785, the new state Legislature of South Carolina issued the "County Court Act" and established thirty-four "new counties" within the existing seven "overarching Districts." These "new counties" in the backcountry and upcountry did fairly well since many of the new inhabitants were from North Carolina, which had a very strong county system already in place and the new citizens of the upstate counties in South Carolina took advantage of their experience and knowledge. However, the lowcountry citizens were not used to having another "layer" of bureaucracy added to their daily burdens and they seemed to be quite comfortable with the District Court system as established in 1769 as well as the Parish system in place since 1706.

Therefore, the "new counties" in the lowcountry Districts of Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown did not take root - there are several reasons that they did not survive. The state did not take immediate steps to commence building any new county court houses or appoint local citizens to serve as justices or commissioners. And, the locals never took any initiative on their own to press for this new "county system" themselves. Therefore, all of the "new counties" that were created by the 1785 County Court Act in the lowcountry were abolished in 1791, and the "old Districts" of Beaufort, Charleston, and Georgetown continued to be the governmental seats until 1800, when, finally, the old seven "overarching Districts" were abolished in favor of "new districts" - equivalent to "counties" nowadays - which continued until the new state Constitution after the American Civil War in 1868 adopted the term "county" instead of "district."

The 1785 County Court Act created six "subordinate" counties within the "overarching" Charleston District - Bartholomew County (totally new), Berkeley County (a new incarnation with new boundaries), Colleton County (a new incarnation with new boundaries), Charleston County (totally new, with much smaller boundaries than today), Marion County (totally new - and not to be confused with the later county along the Pee Dee River that was created n 1798), and Washington County (totally new). All six of these "new counties" did not take root with the local citizenship, who were apparently quite comfortable doing their governmental business in Charleston, and these six "new counties" were abolished in 1791. Some were again resurrected by the Legislature in 1800, but with totally new boundaries and descriptions just nine years later.

The Charleston County of 1785 was very small in size and essentially encompassed all of the city of Charleston and just the immediately surrounding areas. This "new county" was abolished in 1791, only to be resurrected in 1800 as the "new and improved" Charleston District (county) that included all of what is present-day Berkeley County, most of present-day Charleston County, and a very small fraction of Orangeburg County. This "version" of Charleston County remained until 1882, when the present incarnation of Berkeley County was established and carved out of Charleston County at that point in time. Dorchester County was carved out of Charleston County in 1897, leaving the current boundaries that continue to this day for Charleston County.

Charleston County stretches from the mouth of the south Santee River to the mouth of the south Edisto River, 91 miles of coast on the Atlantic Ocean, and has a total area of 888 square miles. The coastline is made up of a chain of islands, forming a natural barrier to the mainland, into which reach fingers of the sea, forming numerous small inlets and including, almost in the geographical center of the county, the beautiful bay of Charleston, into which the Ashley and the Cooper, two large tidal rivers, empty.

The seacoast is fringed with palmetto trees, backed by forests of pine, oak, and cypress, and the land is rich with loam and produces a variety of food and money crops. The barrier islands have long stretches of fine sandy beaches, are readily accessible and make ideal seashore resorts, while they have from earliest times been the resort of sportsmen. Colonies of sea birds make their homes among these islands and the region is especially interesting to naturalists.

The farmlands of Charleston County have been brought to a high degree of fertility by careful and scientific agriculture and they have produced abundantly of the staple crops of the South: rice, cotton, and garden truck. The famous Sea Island cotton, with its silky staple, is indigenous to this particular region, where it was developed to its perfection through a long period of cultivation years. Truck farming is practiced on both an intensive and an extensive scale and the vegetable produce of the county holds a special place in the market. The peculiar quality of the soil, with its high iodine content, and the mellow atmosphere of the coast region give a special value to the truck grown here.

Rich deposits of phosphate rock, on land and in river beds, supplied the base for commercial fertilizer in large quantities and the manufacture of such material has been for many years a major industry of the county. The wooded lands have fine pine timber and varieties of hardwood. The city of Charleston, the largest city in the two Carolinas, is situated on the bay of Charleston. Its natural location on the best harbor on the South Atlantic coast and the energies of its people in developing its resources have made it a notable port of commerce for two and a half centuries. It is one of the most historic cities in the United States and preserves the flavor of its early establishment.

Writing of Charleston in 1773, Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts said that "in grandeur, splendor of buildings, decorations, equipages, numbers of commerce, shipping, and indeed in almost everything" it far surpassed all he had ever seen or ever expected to see in America, and, in 1926, William Allen White of Kansas declared, in a public speech, that Charleston was "the most civilized town in America." It does a large import and export business, manufactures fertilizer, is a depot for large quantities of oil, the site of a great refinery, and contains many small industries. It is beautifully situated, is notable for its architecture, is equipped with modern hotels, approached by splendid roads and is fully paved. Its climate is balmy in winter and tempered in summer with sea breezes.

The county has many fine old colonial estates still intact, its forests abound in game and its waters with fish, while its landscape is a delight to the artist.

The county was organized in 1785 but its lines have been altered several times since. It was named for King Charles II of England. Its population, by the census of 1920 was 108,450 and was estimated by the census bureau in 1925 to be 116,048.

Besides Charleston there are three other incorporated towns in the county, Mount Pleasant, McClellanville, and Maryville.

Immediately above, published in "South Carolina: A Handbook," prepared by The Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industries and Clemson College, Columbia, South Carolina, 1927. In the Public Domain. [with minor edits] 


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