The Carolina colony, later divided, was the gift of Charles II (r. 1660–85) to eight loyal courtiers who had followed him into exile during the English Civil War. Led by Sir John Colleton, on March 24, 1663, the “true and absolute Lords Proprietors of Carolina” were granted proprietary control of all lands between the Virginia colony
and Florida. There, they developed a plantation society, heavily dependent on slavery, producing wood, naval stores, hides, rice, and tobacco for the international market. By the mid-18th century, slaves made up the majority of South Carolina’s population. A policy of religious toleration led to a diverse European population throughout the Carolinas, including large numbers of Scots (15 percent of the European population), Irish and Scots Irish (11 percent), Germans (5 percent), and French Huguenots (3 percent).
The earliest attempt to settle in the Carolinas was the ill-fated Roanoke colony
venture of 1584–90. Taking up land bestowed by Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh
carefully planned the first English colony in territory claimed by Spain but far north of any area of actual settlement. Located inside the Outer Banks, Roanoke was difficult to reach, requiring navigation of treacherous Cape Hatteras. Relations with the native peoples were bad from the beginning. When Sir Francis Drake visited the colony in 1586, the remaining settlers determined to return to England with him. A second attempt by Raleigh in 1587 fared worse. Diplomatic tensions and war with Spain kept any English ships from visiting Roanoke until 1590. By then, the colony had been deserted, and the settlers either killed or absorbed into the local population.
Hoping to grow rich through land sales and rents, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina subdivided their grant into the Albemarle region, bordering Virginia; the Cape Fear region, along the central coast; and Port Royal, in present-day South Carolina. With personal investment by Carolina proprietors and the vigorous leadership of Anthony Ashley Cooper (later the earl of Shaftesbury), they instituted the Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina, which provided for a local aristocracy. Those purchasing large tracts of land received a title and the right to a seat on the Council of Nobles. Smaller landowners sat in an assembly with the right to accept or reject council bills. Unsuited to the wilds of a new territory where small farmers were needed to work the land, the system attracted few settlers. As a result, the early economy of the colony was based on logging and a vigorous trade with local tribes, especially in deerskins. Europeans introduced firearms into an already volatile system of tribal conflict and encouraged the capture of Native Americans who were then taken into slavery. By 1708, there were 1,400 Indian slaves, and 2,900 African slaves in the Carolinas.
Overpopulation in the British sugar island of Barbados eventually led to the creation of a successful plantation economy along Carolina’s southern coast, most notably growing indigo and rice for the cash market. Almost half the white inhabitants of the Port Royal region had emigrated from Barbados, many of them wealthy younger sons who brought experience and slaves, as well as a political independence that separated them from the early proprietors. As a result, although the economy flourished, the government was in disarray. By 1719, an increasingly representative form of local government had asserted itself, and the last proprietary governor was overthrown. Ten years later, King George I (r. 1714–27) established the royal colonies of North Carolina and South Carolina.
The revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, which had granted a degree of religious tolerance to French Protestants (Huguenots), led to the settlement of about 500 Huguenots in the Carolina colonies. After attempts to raise silkworms and grapes failed, many settled in and around Charleston, becoming merchants and businessmen. Most did well economically and by 1750 were indistinguishable, except for surnames, from their English counterparts. The Scots-Irish often came as indentured servants (see indentured servitude
) and tended to settle in the backcountry when their service was completed. The War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14) and the severe winter of 1708–09 drove thousands of Germans to migrate, first to England as refugees, then to the British colonies, including about 600 to the backcountry of the Carolinas. On the frontier, the clannish Scots-Irish and Germans were joined from the 1740s by others who migrated from northern colonies down the Great Philadelphia Road (also known as the Great Wagon Road), which ran from Philadelphia to Camden, South Carolina. It is estimated that by the time of the American Revolution (1775–83), the Scots-Irish may have comprised a majority of the 140,000 inhabitants of the Carolina backcountry. The religious toleration of the Carolinas also attracted a variety of migrant groups seeking religious freedom as well as land, including Baptists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Moravians, and members of the Reformed Church.