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350 years ago, Charleston's first settlers carved a new colony in a pristine wilderness

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A house depicts the type of common lodging that could have been used to house enslaved Africans and indentured servants on the settlement at Charles Towne Landing. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories marking the 350th anniversary of the founding of Charleston this year.

Storm-weary and land-hungry, voyagers on the triple-masted Carolina stood on the ship's deck and gazed at wind-swept sand dunes, lush shoreline greenery and waters teeming with fish as they slipped into what would become Charleston Harbor in April 1670.

The 130 or so free men and women, indentured servants and enslaved people on the vessel — the only one of three ships that originally set out and initially made it to a vast area that was simply called Carolina — undoubtedly wondered about the life-altering possibilities and pitfalls that awaited them as the ship entered the harbor's mouth 350 years ago.

Those on board fortunate enough to arrive with land grants, an enticement to lure them to the wilderness that was Carolina, thought of the money-making fortunes they stood to make from the thick virgin forests and the fertile soil they hoped would provide a new lucrative cash crop.

"They saw all the wood resources they could ever want," said Norman Levine, a professor of geology and environmental studies at the College of Charleston. "Wood would become a major commodity since Europe had depleted most of its forests."

Charles Towne Landing

John Hiott, an interpretive ranger, talks about the framing for what one of the first houses at Charles Towne Landing could have looked like 350 years ago when the English settled at what was first called Albemarle Point. Another piece of land called Albemarle Point can now be found where the James Island and Fielding connectors meet in West Ashley near California Dreaming restaurant. Warren L. Wise/Staff

The free men and women on the ship were probably thinking of the up to 400 acres they were promised, an amount based on family and servants they brought with them.

Indentured servants most likely looked ahead to owning their own plots of the New World after working off the debt owed for the voyage. After two years, they received 100 acres plus another 70 if they imported a slave.

For the enslaved, there was nothing to look forward to but hard work and hope for a day when freedom would release them from bondage, a wait that would last almost another 200 years.

'Truly pristine'

As the ship drifted into the harbor and closer to the marshy river banks, the passengers and crew looked upon chattering flocks of birds, plentiful wild game such as rabbits and deer, and miles and miles of unspoiled, seemingly uninhabited land.

Structures were nowhere in sight, and natives, already encountered, were friendly.

The soon-to-disembark settlers marveled at the unpolluted waters and untouched riverbanks, studded with palmetto trees and thick vegetation — a far different world than the one they left in England where the twin calamities of the bubonic plague and Great Fire of London had ravaged England four years earlier.

Charles Towne Landing

Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in West Ashley is where the first English settlers built a new home in 1670 in what is now Charleston. File/Staff

"Compared to the land they were coming from, this was truly pristine," Levine said.

Even the barrier islands they passed were much larger than what remains today.

"We had a much more robust barrier island system then," Levine said.

The settlers sailed past a sandbar in the middle of the harbor where a now-famous fort would be built after the War of 1812 that would later ignite a bloody civil war.

Slipping farther into the harbor, those on board scanned the jagged marshy inlets that would be filled in over time to make up the finger of land now known as the Charleston peninsula.

They sailed on up to what would be named the Ashley River and chose a piece of high ground surrounded on three sides by water as the ideal place for a new home.

"This site on the Ashley River was easy for defense and provided for trade," said Patrick Cook, history and education director at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site.

There, beyond the marsh grass and thick shoreline brush, they took a few steps up the bank to discover a forest of towering trees with little understory beneath their thick canopy.

Window view at Charles Towne Landing

The view from the window of a house, constructed in 2007, looks out over the marsh at Charles Towne Landing, where the first settlers in what would become Charleston set up a home inside a fort in 1670. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The old-growth trees provided little room for sunlight to peek through, and natives often performed controlled burns, mainly to encourage new green growth where animals fed on hunting grounds.

"The English colonists referred to it as an open park-like woodlands," said John Hiatt, an interpretive park ranger at Charles Towne Landing.

A colony is born

On a 9-acre parcel, the settlers christened Albemarle Point, named for George Monck, the Duke of Albemarle and one of the eight Lords Proprietors who oversaw the region. By the fall, they changed the name to Charles Town to flatter King Charles II, who had returned to the throne through the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

The king, with little money himself, paid off many of those who eased his return to power with massive land grants. For the Lords Proprietors, they received Carolina, extending from Virginia to north Florida and all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The name Carolina is derived from the Latin "Carolus" for Charles and is named after Charles I, who in 1629 had granted a charter for Carolina that was later ruled invalid. His son, Charles II, issued a new charter in 1663 for the Lords Proprietors.


A cannon, mounted on a reconstructed palisade wall, faces the Ashley River at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in West Ashley. The first settlers in 1670 lived inside a fortress near Old Towne Creek in West Ashley. Lauren Petracca/Staff

The settlers immediately got to work with axes, hand saws and hammers to build a few structures inside a palisade. They unloaded a ship filled with nails, hoes and shovels; pots, pans and kettles; and hinges, wheelbarrows and bricks.

They stocked their new spartan homes with basic housewares, clothing, candles, needles and thread, and a flag for the new fortress.

For protection, they armed themselves with muskets, swords, spear heads, a dozen suits of armor and other munitions.

Learning lessons from the earlier English settlement at Jamestown in Virginia, they brought items to trade with the natives, such as fishing nets, glass beads and scissors.

For food, they carried from the ship multiple bushels of peas, flour, oatmeal and salt, along with large quantities of beef, butter, cheese, oil and fish. And, of course, lots of beer and brandy made the voyage, as well.

With the settlers, too, came garden seeds to grow their own vegetables and tropical plants from Barbados in hopes of finding the perfect money-making crop to make their venture prosperous and profitable.

Stockade at Charles Towne Landing

Stocks, made of wood, were once used to punish criminals with public humiliation on the settlement at Charles Towne Landing. Lauren Petracca/Staff

Among their tubs of agricultural supplies were cotton and indigo seeds, ginger roots, sugarcane, grapevines and olive cuttings. Rice would come along a few years later and become the top farm commodity.

To grow their own crops amid the thick stands of trees, they removed a strip of bark around the trunk in a process called girdling. It stopped the flow of sap and killed the tree, allowing sunlight to filter through its lifeless branches to the newly furrowed fields below.

Coming to Carolina

Getting to Carolina took years of planning and a voyage across an ocean to an unknown coast on a largely unknown continent.

Three ships — Carolina, Albemarle and Port Royal — left England on Aug. 17, 1669. They stopped in Ireland 13 days later to see if anyone else wanted to board and set sail across the Atlantic on Sept. 17.

After six weeks of salt spray and rolling waves, the ships sailed into the harbor of Bridgetown in Barbados to take on more provisions and passengers.

On the island, the colonists spent a month studying the profitable, slave-based plantation system. Encouraged by the eight Lords Proprietors, the exploitative model formed the blueprint for the economy that Charles Town adopted and on which Carolina would be based.

But getting from Barbados to Carolina would be no easy task. It took five months, and only the Carolina would reach its destination in April 1670.

Model of ship Carolina that brought first settlers to Charles Towne Landing

A model of the Carolina, the ship that brought the first settlers into Charleston Harbor in April 1670, is on display at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in West Ashley. Warren L. Wise/Staff

While in Barbados that fall, a massive storm damaged all three ships, destroying the Albemarle. The passengers survived and boarded a replacement ship, Three Brothers. The three vessels set sail, but in late December 1669, a storm blew all three ships off course, and the Port Royal wrecked in the Bahamas. Many of its passengers perished.

Heavy storms forced the Carolina to stop at least twice, once on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean and again in Bermuda on Jan. 12, 1670.

It was in Bermuda that Sir John Yeamans, whom the Proprietors had tapped to become the first governor of Carolina, abandoned the expedition and returned to Barbados. (He later came to the colony and served as its third governor. William Sayle was the first governor.)

Early Charles Towne settlement rendering

A concave wall display at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site depicts how the first settlement in what would become Charleston looked like shortly after the first English settlers arrived at what was first called Albemarle Point near Old Towne Creek on the Ashley River. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Many of the indentured servants on the Carolina also grew weary of the tortuous voyage and wanted to turn back, but the English governor of Bermuda threatened them with additional years of service and they sailed on.

Two months later, around mid-March, the Carolina dropped anchor off the Carolina coast, near what is now Bull's Bay, but about 100 miles north of their original destination of Port Royal.

At Bull's Bay, a small group of Natives watched them arrive. They were friendly and some of the Kiawah tribe traveled with the settlers to Port Royal.

Site selection

In early April, on an invitation from a Kiawah chief, whose title was Cassique, the Carolina ventured up the coast and into what would become Charleston Harbor.

So as not to be so easily seen by enemy ships, mainly the Spanish trolling the coast, the settlers chose Albemarle Point on the Ashley River as their new home. The Kiawah had urged the English to settle there instead of farther south because it would give them military and trade advantages over their enemy, the Westo tribe to the south.

The natives had no way of knowing that eventually European diseases would annihilate many of them and a tidal wave of immigrants would eventually push them off their ancestral lands.

Within 10 years of the founding of Charles Town, tired of mosquitoes and lack of a breeze, settlers abandoned the site at Albemarle Point and moved down and across the Ashley River to the peninsula, where others had set up homes and shops and the port business began to bud.

Charles Town on the peninsula rendering

This rendering at Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site in West Ashley depicts the site of Charles Town on the what would become the Charleston peninsula. The original walled city faced the Cooper River. Settlers left the original settlement at Charles Towne Landing in West Ashley in 1680 to move to the lower peninsula, 10 years after first establishing a base what would become the Charleston area. Warren L. Wise/Staff

"The less wind you have, the more bugs you have," Levine pointed out. "Let's call it 'no see 'um and mosquito hell.' They moved forward to the peninsula in many respects because they wanted a cross breeze. It was just too oppressive in the sheltered area. It was hot, humid and buggy quite often."

Charles Town would remain the name of the city until 1783, when, after the Revolutionary War, the name became Charleston. The city would go on to become a major port of entry for enslaved Africans, spark the Civil War and later launch a historic preservation movement to transform it into the tourism destination it is today.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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