Settlement, Trade, and Conflicts in Colonial South Carolina

"Slave Traffic," painting by S. Hutchinson, 1793, courtesy of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

"Slave Traffic," painting by S. Hutchinson, 1793, courtesy of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. This painting depicts the story of Inkle and Yarico, originally published in 1711, in which an English merchant sells his former lover into slavery on the West Indian island colony of Barbados. This island was also a major trade partner of South Carolina in the early colonial period. Both the story and painting were intended to highlight the inhumanity of slavery.

When the Lords Proprietors established an English settlement on the Ashley River in 1670, they sought to develop Carolina as an extension of earlier seventeenth-century English colonization projects in North America and the Caribbean. By the early 1720s, the colony’s economy revolved around an expanding plantation system and network of inter-colonial exchange between the Caribbean, Chesapeake, and New England. In Carolina, this plantation system primarily relied on enslaved African labor to produce cash crops such as rice and indigo for export. Shortly after 1708, the colony even featured a black population majority. Settlers initially trans-shipped captive Africans from the British West Indies to Carolina, before Charles Town emerged as a major North American port for the trans-Atlantic slave trade directly from West Africa. The forced migration and labor of enslaved Africans produced tremendous wealth for elite European settlers in South Carolina, but the development of a black majority also increased the threat of slave rebellion against the colony’s white minority.

Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina, ca. 1721-1725, courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Map of the several nations of Indians to the Northwest of South Carolina, ca. 1721-1725, courtesy of the Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. The original hand painted deerskin map was presented to Francis Nicholson Esqr., Governor of South Carolina, by a Catawba chieftain. This annotated copy from the eighteen century further identifies nations of American Indians in the region.

Selection from "A compleat description of the province of Carolina in three parts," published by Edward Crisp, London, England, 1711, courtesy of Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Selection from "A compleat description of the province of Carolina in three parts," published by Edward Crisp, London, England, 1711, courtesy of Library of Congress Geography and Map Division. After years of political debate surrounding the proprietary system, King George II established South Carolina and North Carolina as separate royal colonies in 1729.

In addition to large numbers of enslaved Africans, South Carolina was one of the few British colonies in North America where an American Indian slave trade flourished. From 1680 to 1720, traders exported approximately forty thousand American Indian men, women, and children from Charles Town to the British West Indies, as well as to other colonies in British North America. Profits from this early slave trade, supplemented by the export of products like beaver pelts, deerskins, and naval stores, helped provide the economic foundation for the plantation regime that emerged in the early eighteenth century. Though some American Indian groups in the Lowcountry participated in the slave trade by exchanging captives and goods, others resisted enslavement and European encroachment into their territories. Eventually a coalition led by the Yamasee formed to combat this burgeoning slave trade, as well as other trade abuses committed by Carolina settlers. The British also blamed the volatile tensions that led to the Yamasee War on alliances between American Indians and their Spanish and French rivals. The conflict lasted roughly from 1715 to 1717, and nearly destroyed the colony.

The Yamasee War eventually ended through various tenuous peace treaties, but the white population in eighteenth century Carolina still felt vulnerable to outside attacks, as well as slave rebellions within their own settlements. As a result, they began petitioning the English crown to obtain greater security by making South Carolina a royal colony rather than a proprietary settlement. In the 1720s a revolutionary government formed to overthrow Carolina’s Lord’s Proprietors, and in 1729 the settlers achieved their goal. During that year the Carolina charter officially transferred from the proprietors to King George II, and South and North Carolina became separate royal colonies.

Detail of "View of Charles Town," painting by Tomas Leitch, ca. 1774, Charles Town, South Carolina, courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts.

Detail from "View of Charles Town," painting by Tomas Leitch, ca. 1774, Charles Town, South Carolina, courtesy of the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts. The painting depicts three black figures in the foreground. Their presence reflects the significance of enslaved Africans in colonial South Carolina. Charles Town was a major port of entry for both free and coerced settlers in British North America.

American Indian slavery began to decline in South Carolina in the aftermath of the Yamasee War, partially due to settlers’ attempts to improve relations with American Indians. Perhaps more significantly, native populations also decreased as many migrated away from the area to avoid further tensions. Instead of minimizing their dependency on slave labor, however, white South Carolina settlers increased their dedication to acquiring enslaved Africans through the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To discourage slave rebellions from the black majority population, colonial authorities simultaneously tried to attract more European immigrants through a Township Plan in the 1730s. Their goal was to generate a larger white population in the backcountry to serve as a buffer against the various external and internal threats to the colony from European rivals, American Indians, and enslaved Africans. Following this stream of new European settlers, the Italian Poyas family arrived in a South Carolina backcountry township in the 1730s, and began seeking economic opportunities.