Editor’s Note: For more on the ethnic origins of South Carolinians, check out Southern History Series: White Settlement In Colonial South Carolina.
The following excerpt comes from Robert M. Weir’s book Colonial South Carolina: A History:
“Although the townships never attracted a flood of immigrants like that which settled the backcountry during the Revolutionary era, inducements by the legislature helped to create a considerably different and muchmore rapidly growing society beyond the older settlements. By 1760 it probably contained about 50 percent of the white population. Ten years later, the acting governor estimated that between two-thirds and three-quarters of the inhabitants lived in the backcountry. And just before the first federal census in 1790, state officials calculated that the white population of the lowcountry was 28,655; the comparable figure for the backcountry was 111,534. Thus nearly 80 percent of the whites lived outside of the lowcountry.”
This is fascinating stuff to me.
We’ve focused heavily on the South Carolina Lowcountry as being the cultural hearth of the Deep South, but only 20 percent of South Carolina’s White population was living there by 1790.
According to Robert M. Weir, fewer than 50,000 Whites in South Carolina rebelled against Great Britain, but there were nearly 3x as many Whites in South Carolina when it joined the Union in 1788. In the 1770s and 1780s, more than 90,000 Whites settled in the backcountry in order to acquire land and also to escape the warfare in the middle states.
As we shall see, the South Carolina Upcountry has a stronger claim to being the true cultural hearth of the Deep South than the Lowcountry. The planters in the Lowcountry were Englishmen and Anglicans who grew rice. They lived in a small, cohesive society that was their own little world. The Upcountry was settled by Scots-Irish Presbyterians who initially reproduced the corn-and-cattle economy of Greater Appalachia in the region, but after the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 the plantation complex swooped into the backcountry where short-staple cotton became the crop.
The Cotton Kingdom which became the backbone of the common culture of the Deep South originated in the South Carolina backcountry where there was a collision of cultures going on in the 1790s between the Scots-Irish settlers expanding out of Appalachia and the plantations of the Lowcountry. John C. Calhoun’s ethnic background is the perfect illustration of this development.
“Inland settlers also accounted for a disproportionate share of the non-English stock. An analysis of names appearing in the 1790 census, published in 1931 under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies, indicated that 15.1 percent of the total population was of Scottish ancestry; 13.8 percent was Irish (mostly from Ulster, which was heavily Scots-Irish); 5 percent was German; and 3.9 percent was French. More recently, Forrest and Ellen Shapiro McDonald have revised the figures for the Celtic proportion. If they are correct, nearly a third of the population was Scottish, almost 12 percent Irish, and nearly 9 percent was Welsh; altogether, 63.4 percent of the population was of non-English stock. Whatever figures one accepts, it is clear that South Carolina had the highest proportion of individuals of Scottish ancestry of any state except Georgia and the highest percentage of French. With the exception of a few in the backcountry around New Bordeaux, most Frenchmen lived in Charles Town and along the Santee River to the north, which was a bilingual area as late as the 1730s. In town, there was also a small community of Sephardic Jews, some Germans, and quite a few Scotsmen. Orangeburg was heavily German, and nearly 60 percent of the population in the Camden area was of Celtic ancestry. In the lowcountry, on the other hand, more than 80 percent of the whites may have been of English stock.”
Meet White South Carolina:
- 90 percent of the White population is of British ancestry
- 54 percent of the White population is Scottish, Irish and Welsh
- 37 percent of the White population is English
- 9 percent of the White population is German and French
At the outset of the United States, South Carolina was predominantly British, but not of English ancestry. Half the population though were black slaves in 1790. Racial identity had became extremely salient in South Carolina and so what happened was that under Slave Society this mix of Anglos, Scots-Irish, Germans and French Huguenots melded together and became White Protestants.
Who are the blacks?
“There are reasons to believe, however, that in this, as in so much else, South Carolina was somewhat different. In the first place, the rapid importation of slaves after about 1700 made for an unusually high proportion of Africans in the black population. By the end of the 1730s, in fact, well over half the slaves were undoubtedly African-born. Although the percentage declined somewhat thereafter, it remained relatively high – thanks largely to the importation of nearly 42,000 Africans between 1760 and 1774. Blacks from the southwestern coast of Africa, loosely called Angola, were the largest single group, perhaps partly because planters in the West Indies disliked them and suppliers consequently sent them to South Carolina.
From 1735 to 1740, 70 percent of the imports came from this area of Africa, and despite the prominence of Angolans in the most serious rebellion of the colonial period, South Carolinians continued to purchase them in large numbers. Nearly 40 percent of all imports from 1733 to the end of the slave trade in 1807 were still Angolans. During the later period, the next largest contingents were from Senegambia (19.5 percent), the Windward Coast (16.3 percent, and the Gold Coast (13.3 percent). The slave trade through each of these West African areas drew from a considerable hinterland, but the fact that the African origins of most slaves in South Carolina were not randomly distributed increased the chance of a black encountering his own countrymen. So too did the distribution of slaveholdings within the colony.”
There were about 2,000 planters in the Lowcountry who grew all the rice in South Carolina where the majority of slaves worked under the task system. In this sickly environment where malaria and yellow fever was so deadly to Whites, the planters preferred to spend their time in Charleston while letting overseers run their plantations. Quite often, the blacks in the Lowcountry just operated on their own under their drivers. They usually worked until 1 PM in the afternoon and had the rest of the day off.
While the slave population of South Carolina was drawn from all over the west coast of Africa from Senegal to Angola, 40 percent of blacks were imported from West Central Africa which is modern day Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Gabon. The Gullah who are the most famous blacks of the Georgia and South Carolina Lowcountry who have preserved so much of their African culture are thought to be mostly from West Africa although they have assimilated other blacks.