City Spotlight: Columbia, SC

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
Columbia, South Carolina is located about 13 miles west of the state’s geographic center, and is the primary city in the Midlands region of the state. Since it was established in the early 1700s, Columbia has distinguished itself as a center for history and innovation. We’re taking a look back at the history of Columbia and what made this city the bustling, thriving metropolis it is today.

Building South Carolina’s Capital City

The first explorers to walk the land that would become Columbia, South Carolina was a Spanish expedition led by conquistador Hernando de Soto in May 1540. At the time, the land was home to the Congaree tribe. They controlled a large swatch of land east of the Mississippi, including much of today’s South Carolina. While De Soto’s expedition spent little time interacting with the Congaree people, they did provide some of the earliest known historical documentation on the area.

The first permanent English settlement in South Carolina was in 1670. Soon settlers were moving into the area, building farms, and planting crops. In the early 1700s, South Carolina decided to separate from North Carolina. By 1710, South Carolina had their own governor, and officially became a British colony in 1729.

In 1786, following the end of the American Revolution in 1783, state officials selected an area 13 miles west of the state’s geographic center to build their capital. Early city developers knew having easy access to a river for moving goods and people in and out of the city would be vital to building a successful community. Here they would have access to both the Congaree and Santee rivers. A fall line on the Piedmont region was also nearby. This was where the river became rough, generating enough energy downstream to power a mill.

A sketch of the original South Carolina Statehouse.That same year, State Senator John Lewis Gervais proposed a bill to grant the new state capital a name. On March 22, 1786, the governing body debated between “Washington” and “Columbia,” but eventually settled on Columbia in an 11-7 vote.

By 1797, a local government had been commissioned by the state’s General Assembly. This government upheld laws, and tried to strategize how to draw more people to the city. Knowing that most people came by boat on one of the major surrounding rivers, the city constructed the Santee Canal in the mid-1700s, connecting the Santee and Cooper rivers. The canal was highly effective, opening up an easy means of trade and travel between Columbia and the coastal city of Charleston. The canal was used frequently until 1850, when the construction of railroads made river travel nearly obsolete.
Columbia elected its first mayor in 1854. Two years later, it established a working police force. Meanwhile, railroad transportation continued to serve as a significant factor in the expansion of the city. By this time, Columbia’s population had well-exceeded 1,000 residents. Cotton was the core of the community – it became what lured most non-native South Carolinians to the big city, hoping to build a business with a steady income. Slavery contributed heavily to the growing wealth of the state. Roughly 1,500 slaves lived in or around the city in 1830. This increased to 3,300 by 1860.
South Carolina was the first state to secede from the Union before the start of the Civil War. In 1860, Columbia hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention, which positioned the city as one of the leaders in the move away from the Union. Despite this, the war proved devastating for Columbia, and in 1865, much of Columbia was looted and burnt to the ground by Union soldiers.

A drawing of the second state house in Columbia, which was burned only a day after the American flag was hoisted above its roof in 1865.When the war finally ended, Columbia began rebuilding the parts of the inner city that had been destroyed by the fire, and extended outlying railroad tracks, inviting in people from rural South Carolina. They opened the world’s first textile mill run entirely by electricity in 1892, and by 1907, Columbia had six mills of similar nature that it was operating and profiting from. By the mid-20th century, several of today’s notable downtown buildings were constructed: the Union Bank Building, the Palmetto National Bank, and two large hotels, the Jefferson and the Gresham. Shopping centers, arcades, and restaurants also emerged across the city.
Over the years, Columbia has masterfully preserved its history. The Robert Mills House was restored in 1967 and the city’s first electric mill is now the South Carolina State Museum. The museum opened in 1988, and houses impressive permanent exhibits, ranging from technology to American history. The original capitol building is located between Gervais and Main Streets, and tourists can now visit the place where most major decision-making on Columbia’s behalf took place.
Columbia’s historical evolution and preservation is something rarely seen in most U.S. cities today. After over a hundred prosperous years, Columbia was all but ruined by the Civil War. Post-war reconstruction helped shape Columbia into the city we see today: a city with countless historical sites, forts, and museums, dedicated to preserving their piece of American history.

Picturing Columbia

A true testament to Southern resilience, check out these photos and illustrations from Columbia’s long history:

The Columbia farmers’ market on Assembly Street in 1950.
This illustration, Sherman’s Entrance into Columbia, shows the arrival of Union Major General William Tecumseh Sherman in Columbia in February 1865.
This postcard shows Main Street during President William Howard Taft's visit to Columbia in 1909.
The John C. Calhoun State Office Building in Columbia.
The surrender monument, marking the spot where the city of Columbia officially surrendered during the Civil War.
This early-20th century postcard shows students strolling around USC’s campus horseshoe.