The City of Charleston is celebrating its 350th birthday this month, as is the state of South Carolina in general. While the festivities may be subdued for the moment, the quiet passing of this anniversary presents an opportunity to contemplate the big picture of our community’s long journey from 1670 to the present. History is marketed as a commodity in Charleston today, but it’s also very relevant to our daily lives.
In the month of April 1670, a small group of English settlers established a settlement on the west bank of the Ashley River and named it Charles Town. From that moment, three hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Town served as the capital of Carolina, a vast new colony encompassing all of the land between English Virginia and Spanish Florida and stretching westward to the Pacific Ocean. The modern state of South Carolina, with its capital in Columbia, is now just a small vestige of that colonial dream, but the City of Charleston is a direct descendant of the small camp of rude huts established here in 1670. The seat of government and the town’s name moved across the Ashley river to the peninsula in 1680, but otherwise our roots have remained firmly planted in this fragrant pluff mud, in the face of hurricanes, earthquakes, and hostile invasions launched by four different nations. Charleston persevered and prospered through the generations, and for that fact, we have just cause to be proud.
Here in mid-April of 2020, most of us are cocooned within our respective homes and watching spring blossom outside as human civilization hovers in a state of suspended animation. Were it not for the current virus calamity, however, the people of Charleston would at this moment hear a chorus of news about the 350th anniversary of the founding of Charles Town, and of the English colony of South Carolina, in April of 1670. Conversations about planning events to commemorate this anniversary began several years ago, and a number of people in this community have invested significant amounts of time, money, and energy in recent months to prepare for this day. Sadly, the necessity to safeguard public health has taken precedence here, as elsewhere in the world, and there will be no festivities this month to mark the big occasion.
Despite these distressing circumstances, I feel that it’s still important to acknowledge the passing of a significant moment in this community’s maturity. Like all anniversaries, Charleston’s 350th birthday is not just an excuse to celebrate our longevity with parades and parties. This milestone presents an opportunity to reflect on our shared past, to recall our shared journey to the present, and to consider the trajectory of our shared future. We may congratulate ourselves for persevering through three-and-a-half centuries—roughly fifteen generations—of trials and triumphs.
In contrast to the spirit of the 1970 celebration, many people in the Charleston community today feel strongly that the commemoration of the city’s 350th anniversary must reflect a more honest and inclusive appraisal of our past. I share that sentiment, but as a public historian I’m also aware of the need to strike balance between providing sufficient historical detail to engage an audience’s imagination and overloading them with a stultifying barrage of facts. History lessons often stick better in our minds when the material is somehow relevant to our present lives. The challenge, therefore, is to identify and highlight meaningful connections between the past and the present. When asked to contribute something to the upcoming commemoration of Charleston’s 350th anniversary, I began to frame my response by asking myself a simple question: How is the founding of Charles Town in 1670 relevant to life in Charleston today?
The individuals who participated in the founding of South Carolina 350 years ago are long gone, as are most of their descendants. In the absence of a functioning time machine that might allow us to visit Charles Town in 1670, we can feed our imaginations by visiting Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site to experience the landscape they once inhabited and examine the physical artifacts of their now-distant presence. By studying the surviving documents that record their actions and decisions, however, we can begin to trace the chain of events that commenced in 1670 and continued to shape the growth of Charleston and South Carolina to the present day.
Until you have the chance to visit Charles Towne Landing, we hope you enjoy this tour by Bob.
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