Charting the journey of South Carolina’s emergence as the emblematic heart of the Deep South.
Story by Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.
Framed by the Atlantic coastline, South Carolina’s geographical position naturally marks it as a cornerstone of the Deep South in the narrative of North American history. Yet this title is not just geographical; it’s deeply rooted in its rich and multifaceted past.
Emerging archaeological evidence, known as the Solutrean hypothesis, challenges conventional beliefs about the origins of the first North Americans. Rather than crossing an ice-land bridge from Siberia’s Altai Region, it proposes these pioneers journeyed from Europe’s Pyrenees Region. In the last glaciation periods they traversed a bridge extending from Ireland, through Iceland and Greenland, all the way to Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia. They subsequently migrated along the ice-bound coastline to reach the then-exposed lands of the Carolinian upcountry and coast — the first landmasses they encountered. The ice-free landscapes of the ancient “Deep South,” brimming with game, became their settlement areas. A modern site along the Savannah River in Allendale County bears evidence of this deep Southern presence, dating back 55,000 years ago.
Approximately 1,200 years ago Vikings forged a settlement in Newfoundland that lasted a century. The Norse Sagas narrate tales of southerly voyages, where verdant forests lined the coast and countless rivers etched the coastal plain — a description mirroring the Carolinian coastline more than any other Atlantic Seaboard location to the north. Around 200 years later Celtic explorers from Ireland and Wales may have journeyed along the Atlantic coast, potentially reaching as far south as the Savannah River and possibly the tip of Florida. These explorations would have represented the deepest south of that time.
American history scholars often study the concept of the “Frontier” — a nebulous boundary marking European expansion from the colonial settlements on the Eastern Seaboard. Initially this frontier encompassed the Appalachian Mountains and the Native American territories along the east-west river valleys leading to the Mississippi. As the westward exploration and settlement pressed on, the “Frontier” shifted and became a more fluid boundary between settled territories and Native American lands. However, for the earliest European settlers on the Eastern Seaboard, the frontier perspective was unique until the post-Revolutionary War period.
For the earliest English settlers in Carolina, their “Frontier” was a vaguely circular boundary extending about 30 miles from the coast around the burgeoning city of Charles Towne. The remaining vastness of the Carolina Province was deemed wilderness, designated as “Indian Territory” by the English governors. With English land claims in the 1600s encroaching upon Spanish territory claimed almost a century earlier and governed from St. Augustine, a mere 150 miles south, the English expansion faced stern opposition from the Spaniards. The Charles Towne colony was a target for regular Spanish attacks until the mid-1750s, as Spain claimed all lands south of the Chesapeake Bay.
From the English perspective, their well-established colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts, coupled with the Carolina province — bound by the Altamaha River to the north and Chesapeake Bay to the south — became the “Deep South.” As the English moved south from Charles Towne and secured alliances with Native American tribes, the Savannah River area — modern Beaufort County — became the Southern Frontier of the English colonies. With the founding of the Georgia Colony in 1733, this frontier moved to the Altamaha River’s northern bank. However, it wasn’t until the 1795 Treaty of Paris between the U.S. and Spain that the contentious Florida border was set, and Florida, too, became part of the “Deep South.”
The “Deep South” label took on new significance during the Civil War, as Unionists sought to categorize all slave-holding states as part of the “Deep South”— but that’s another story for another time.