History of Columbia, South Carolina

Early History

The area that is now Columbia, South Carolina has evidence of human habitation going back thousands of years. Native American tribes such as the Congaree lived in the region before European settlement.

In the 1670s, English settlers from coastal Carolina traveled upriver and established farms and frontier settlements in the area. One of the first settlements was known as Saxe-Gotha, located on the Congaree River.

Colonial Era Settlement

Throughout the early 18th century, the colonial assembly in Charleston tried several times to establish an inland colonial township in the center of the state to provide a capital for the colony. Previous attempts to establish such townships, including places like Saxe-Gotha, had failed.

Finally, in 1786 the assembly succeeded in establishing a new town on the banks of the Congaree River. They named it Columbia, a poetic name for the United States derived from the female figure Columbia. The town was established in the geographic center of the state, at the confluence of the Broad and Saluda Rivers (which form the Congaree).

Early Government and Growth

When Columbia was established in 1786, South Carolina’s government was centered on the coast in Charleston. Columbia was envisioned as a planned town that could house the state government away from the ocean and pirates. Streets were laid out in a grid pattern around the river. The town was incorporated in 1805.

As the young United States developed in the early 19th century, Columbia grew as well. It was chosen as South Carolina’s state capital in 1786. As government offices and functions moved inland, Columbia developed as a center of politics and trade. The University of South Carolina was founded in Columbia in 1801.

Antebellum Era Prominence

Columbia grew rapidly in size and prominence during the 1830s, 40s, and 50s. By this time, Columbia was firmly established as the political, educational, trade, and transportation center of South Carolina. The population boomed.

Major landmarks, such as the South Carolina State House and Lunatic Asylum (now the Bull Street neighborhood), were constructed during the antebellum period. Rail lines connected Columbia to other major cities. By 1860, Columbia’s population was more than 8,000 people.

Civil War Destruction

As the sectional crisis between the north and south heated up, Columbia remained devoted to the southern cause. When South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union in December 1860, celebration erupted in Columbia. The city welcomed the formation of the new Confederate States of America.

Burning by Union Forces

In 1865 during the waning months of the war, as General William T. Sherman marched his Union forces through the South, Columbia surrendered without resistance. However, fires erupted throughout the city, destroying much of central Columbia. There is controversy about whether retreating Confederate forces or invading Union soldiers set the destructive fires.

Regardless, the fires had a devastating effect on Columbia. Roughly one-third of the city was destroyed by flames, including many government and commercial buildings and homes. The burning of Columbia remains one of the most destructive acts of the Civil War.

Reconstruction Era Recovery

Like most southern cities, Columbia struggled immensely during Reconstruction. Infrastructure and the economy were devastated by the war’s destruction. Businesses could not operate. Unemployment was widespread, with formerly enslaved people especially vulnerable. Racial violence flared during this period as whites sought to reestablish control.

Columbia’s economy saw slow but steady improvement during Reconstruction. The city’s central location enabled trade and commerce to resume. Service-related companies, small factories, and supply outlets eventually reopened.

The controversial gangster-turned-politician Francis Lewis Cardozo was one of the era’s most famous black leaders in the city. Still, Columbia remained economically depressed well into the 1870s.

Early 20th Century Emergence

Columbia began to truly recover at the dawn of the 20th century. It became a center of industry, commerce, and transportation, enabling substantial growth. Wealthy elites dominated politics and business. Segregation was firmly in place, with blacks restricted in rights. Still, the seeds for civil rights reform were also planted during this period.

Economic Growth and Infrastructure

Several major infrastructure projects catalyzed Columbia’s growth in the early 20th century. The establishment of major rail centers with lines radiating to all corners of the state boosted commerce. This enabled Columbia to benefit from trade and manufacturing growth.

Major government buildings like the Supreme Court chambers and modern Governor’s Mansion were constructed downtown during this period. Utilities infrastructure like electrical systems, water lines, and public transit expanded throughout the city. Population boomed to over 37,000 by 1920 as people moved to the capital for economic opportunities.

Segregation and Civil Rights Roots

Like most southern cities, Columbia was segregated by law and custom. Black and white residents lived, worked, went to school and used public facilities separately. Striking inequalities existed in economic opportunities, pay rates, access to services, and basic infrastructure quality between the races.

During this era, influential black leaders laid important groundwork that eventually contributed to the civil rights movement. Black colleges and newspapers cultivated education and political engagement in the black community. Lawyers from Benedict College’s Harold Washington College challenged segregation laws in court. However, Columbia remained unjust and deeply divided.

Modernization and Civil Rights Movement

Starting in the mid-20th century, Columbia underwent a sustained period of economic diversification, population growth and urbanization. As in many cities, these trends challenged the established system of racial segregation – with explosive consequences. Divisions erupted over racial equality, culminating with the civil rights movement.

Mid-century Growth Spurt

Fueled by in-migration and the post-WWII economic boom, Columbia expanded rapidly starting in the 1940s. Suburbs began encroaching into surrounding countryside. Industry diversified from textiles into rubber, metals, machinery production and other sectors, providing ample jobs.

State and local government expanded in the new South Carolina State House complex downtown. Fort Jackson grew into a major center of military activity.

Racial disparities persisted with whites dominating power and wealth. But as blacks also made economic and educational gains, pressure mounted for social reforms. Calls accelerated to dismantle segregation and improve civic equality.

Uprisings and Activism in the 1960s

As protests swept the nation in the civil rights movement, major demonstrations against racism emerged in Columbia. However, prominent civil rights leaders in the city – like Rev. I. DeQuincy Newman – faced bombings and intimidation for speaking out. State leaders continued resisting integration and voting reforms into the 1960s.

Frustrations boiled over when over 2,000 black protesters marched on the State House in May 1963 demanding equal rights, in one of the era’s landmark protests. After arrests and turmoil, rioting erupted leaving two dead and parts of downtown damaged. While unrest faded, calls for racial justice continued mounting in religious congregations and city streets alike as change swept the nation.

Recent Developments

In recent decades, Columbia has made substantial progress resolving past racial divisions, while continuing to grow as South Carolina’s economic epicenter. Not without difficulties, the city continues working to further expand diversity in economic and civic opportunities.

Building the New Columbia

After the turmoil of the civil rights era, community leaders made progress mending racial barriers. Black leaders were elected mayor starting in the 1970s, advancing greater representation. Public schools, facilities and accommodations integrated over time.

Business opportunities gradually diversified across racial lines. Recent influxes of Latino and Asian immigrants brought further multicultural growth in faith, food, art and other areas.

As the seat of state government and home to major universities, Columbia emerged as a regional center of banking, medicine, media, technology and service industries in the late 20th century. Suburban sprawl expanded dramatically with population exceeding 130,000.

Public and private partners invested billions in downtown revitalization focused on the Vista arts and culture district. Recent projects include EdVenture Children’s Museum and the towering Capitol Center development anchoring Main Street. Though challenges with inequality, housing and education persist, Columbia continues working toward inclusive prosperity.

This detailed history touches on key developments in Columbia from its earliest beginnings through to the present. With an initial planned settlement on the Congaree River in the 1700s through destructive fires during the Civil War era and racial tensions during the 1960s civil rights movement.

Columbia has seen both struggle and renewal during its remarkable journey. Today South Carolina’s capital continues working to build unity and economic growth for all residents. The city survived a turbulent past and looks ahead to a promising future.

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  • Start out on Creek View Drive heading south. Drive for 0.9 miles and turn right onto Oak Avenue. Take Oak Avenue across the bridge over the creek and continue west for 1.7 miles. Turn left onto Highway 77 South and stay on it for approximately 7 miles. Take exit 42 for Slash Pine Road. At the stop sign, turn left onto Slash Pine Road heading west. After 2.8 miles, make a right onto Slash Pine Lane. 1012 Slash Pine Ln will be a gray house on your right side.