The counties’ history begins back in 1663 when England’s King Charles II granted a charter for Carolina lands to eight friends, the lord’s proprietors, who had helped restore him to the throne. They divided their lands into four “proprietary counties.” It was seven years, though, before their first settlement, Charles Town, was established on the west bank of the Ashley River and proclaimed the capital. That location proved difficult to defend from the Spanish, the French, pirates and Native Americans, and 10 years later Charles Town moved to the strategic peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers — or as locals put it, “where the Cooper and Ashley rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean.”
By 1768, South Carolina had been divided into judicial districts similar to today’s counties. In 1783, with repudiation of all things kingly after the American Revolution, “Charles Town” became “Charleston.”
Charleston County was created in 1800; Berkeley County was carved out of Charleston County in 1878 and Dorchester County in 1897, leaving Charleston County its present boundaries.
Charleston, population 134,875, is the oldest city in South Carolina and has cycled through riches and ruination in its long, eventful history. Two major wars have rolled over it, the American Revolution and the Civil War, and invading armies have occupied it. Pirates, among them Blackbeard, attacked, and so did the Spanish, the French and Native Americans. Fires have reduced whole sections of the community to smoking rubble. It is no stranger to hurricanes nor to storm surges (the county’s highest point is just 20 feet above sea level), and the biggest earthquake ever to rock the East Coast, a 7.6 on the Richter scale, knocked down 14,000 chimneys and damaged almost every building on Aug. 31, 1886. At least 60 people died.
Early on, Charleston became a trade center, thanks to its natural deep-water port. Rice, indigo, cotton, tobacco, furs, deer hides, lumber and ships’ necessities were the main exports.
The Civil War, touched off by Confederate forces firing on the federal Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, wrecked the vital port. Federal troops continued to occupy the state and made Port Royal to the south a Navy operating base and ship repair facility. In 1900, Sen. Ben Tillman, with strong support from Charlestonians, induced the Navy to move its operations from Port Royal to Charleston, and by 1902 the Charleston Navy Yard had been built. The military remains a core economic driver in Charleston.
North Charleston, population 110,861, a separate city since 1972, has long moved away from its 17th-century rice and indigo economy to take a place among South Carolina’s major industrial and retail centers. Joint Base Charleston is there, as is Charleston International Airport, which shares runways with the Air Force. In 2009, Boeing chose North Charleston for its plant to build 787 Dreamliners; North Charleston is one of the few places in the world that manufacture the wide-body aircraft.
The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge, a stunning cable-stayed eight-lane bridge spanning the Cooper River, links downtown Charleston to the suburban city of Mount Pleasant (population 86,668), first populated by English settlers in 1680 and a hotbed of secession prior to the Civil War. The Confederate submarine H.L. Hunley launched here to attack and sink the USS Housatonic, part of the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor, though the crippled Hunley also sank on her way back to shore, drowning her entire eight-man crew. After the war ended, freed slaves developed the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Scanlonville, one of the first African-American communities in the area.
The Legislature established Berkeley County in 1882 with the county seat first at Mount Pleasant and then, after 1895, at Moncks Corner, population 10,933. Moncks Corner, which began as a trading post plus a few taverns and stores, preceded the county by 147 years; French Protestant Huguenots, fleeing torture and death in France, sought refuge in South Carolina, starting in the 1680s, and many of them wound up in Moncks Corner, which took its name from landowner Thomas Monck. New tracks laid through town in 1853 by the North East Railroad brought growth and prosperity, and the depot, now the visitor and cultural center, remained the town’s social and commercial hub even after rail service ended after World War II.
Goose Creek (population 42,619), also in southern Berkeley County, was officially established in 1961, but the community is hundreds of years older than that; by the late 1600s, settlers known as the Goose Creek Men already held office in the colonial government. The joint base’s naval weapons station has facilities in Goose Creek.
Congregationalists were the first settlers in Dorchester County in 1696, naming their community after their fondly remembered former home in Massachusetts; the name was appropriated by the county on its creation in 1897.
Summerville, population 50,388, is mostly in Dorchester County with a little spillover into Berkeley and Charleston counties. It’s at a higher elevation than Charleston — 89 feet versus 20 feet — and wealthy Charleston residents used to spend summers here to escape the fevers, insects and vermin closer to the swampy coast. It began as Pineland Village in 1785, right after the Revolutionary War, and took its current name in 1847. That same year it became the first U.S. city to forbid cutting down significant trees; anyone who did face a fine of $25, a hefty amount at that time. The official town motto is “Sacra Pinus Esto,” or “The Pine is Sacred.”