When you think of Charleston history, what comes to mind? For many, it’s the Holy City. It’s easy to understand why. Historic churches and colorful Antebellum homes fill every travel brochure and magazine. While these places are incredibly unique, hundreds of the region’s most culturally significant sites are nowhere inside these general guides. Our sleepy farming towns were home to extravagant plantations with rice paddies and cotton as far as the eye could see. 18th-century chapel ruins were the grounds of the first missionaries who sailed into the Lowcountry. And, our Charleston history guide is your key to finding it all.
To share these beautiful places with you, we reached out to historic preservation advocate and photographer, Brandon Coffey. His captivating photos are just a glimpse into the stories and mysteries that await you. To further elevate your history-inspired vacation, open your free guides to Kiawah Island and Seabrook Island. Inside, you’ll find expert recommendations for exploring the sea islands. Experiencing the best of the Lowcountry couldn’t be easier.
A Charleston History Guide for the Adventurous at Heart
1. Botany Bay | Edisto Island
There is no place in the world like Botany Bay Plantation. This stunning wildlife preserve is only one hour from Kiawah and Seabrook, and the drive is stunning. The preserve encompasses over 3,300 acres of ancient, towering trees, untouched scenery, and history.
The preserve was once home to two plantations in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Seacloud Plantation was the most prominent. During the 1850s, more cotton came from Seacloud than any other plantation in South Carolina. Seacloud’s ruins can be found today at Boneyard Beach, an area of the preserve.
Did You Know? The namesake of Edisto Island comes from the area’s first people, the Edisto Indians. Near the Edisto River, you’ll also find one of its tributary rivers, Four Holes Swamp. Here, many Native American tribes made their homes with other freed people of color. If you’d like to learn more about the island’s history, visit The Edisto Island Museum.
2. Rockville Church | Wadmalaw Island
Since you’re vacationing on the sea islands, it only makes sense to show you a few nearby places on Wadmalaw Island. One of Coffey’s favorite places is Rockville Church. In the early 1800s, “Rockville” was an up-and-coming summer resort. The Rockville Church was built shortly after the resort’s establishment in 1850. It’s a beautiful example of Charleston architecture made to last through thick and thin: humidity, salty air, summer heat, and all. The church remains active today.
After your visit to the church, cool down with a visit to Charleston Tea Plantation, the only tea plantation in the United States! After all, what’s a Lowcountry vacation without some sweet tea?
3. Charleston Tea Plantation | Wadmalaw Island
Charleston Tea Plantation is only four minutes away from the Rockville Church. You may have heard of Summerville, South Carolina, as the birthplace of sweet tea, and we’re here to explain why! During the late 19th century, Dr. Charles Shepard founded the Pinehurst Tea Plantation of Summerville, where he created sweet tea. It was love at first sip. To this day, it’s the beverage that the South can’t do without!
According to Charleston Tea Plantation, in 1963, a 127-acre Wadmalaw potato farm purchased Shepard's tea plants and transplanted them from Pinehurst to the farm.
4. Magnolia Plantation & Gardens
A trip to Magnolia Plantation & Gardens has the power to enhance every aspect of your Charleston experience. For that reason, we recommend visiting before your journey downtown. The Drayton Family purchased the plantation land in 1676, making it the oldest public garden in America. It’s incredible that the home, gardens, and stunning scenery are still with us more than 300 years later, but the historians and tour guides are what make Magnolia Plantation stand out from the rest.
On The Slavery to Freedom Tour, you will find five historic slave dwellings that date back to 1850. The physical and emotional aspects of slavery are tragic, and while many tour guides avoid broaching the subject, Magnolia Plantation & Gardens respectfully affords credit where it is due. The legacies of the Gullah people are everywhere in downtown Charleston. Soul food, sweetgrass baskets, and vibrant folktales are only a handful of examples. If you'd like to learn more about the Gullah Geechee culture and heritage, visit the National Heritage Area on Johns Island.
5. Strawberry Chapel of Ease
If you are taking I-26 East to Charleston and have some extra time before checking in, we recommend continuing on the I-26 highway to Exit 199-B for Monk’s Corner (vs. taking the I-95 exit for Savannah/Florence). About 45 minutes from the Monk’s Corner exit, you’ll find Strawberry Chapel outside Francis Marion National Forest. It is the only remaining structure left from the Childsbury Settlement, one of the first English settlements in South Carolina. The history here is incredibly rich, dating to the early 1700s.
The surrounding land quickly became home to countless plantation owners looking to enjoy the land’s natural bounty. The conditions were perfect for growing rice. Coffey reveals:
Due to the rapid prosperity of other Lowcountry plantations, farmers from Childsbury had a hard time competing, and the town did not last. Eventually, the settlement’s buildings were absorbed into nearby Strawberry Plantation (from whence the chapel gets its unusual name).
Keep in mind the chapel is private and only open to the public four times a year during four annual services. Tours take place every year during October, November, March, and April. While you’re in this area, we also recommend making a trip to the nearby Cypress Gardens.
6. Cypress Gardens
Cypress Gardens is the only garden of its kind in the South Carolina Lowcountry. Once you step foot on property, towering trees, flourishing fauna, and breathtaking wildlife welcome you. If you are feeling adventurous, take a boat tour through the swamp! As you investigate the marshy land, keep in mind that these gardens were once home to Dean Hall Rice Plantation. The swampy layout of the land was perfect for growing this Lowcountry staple. Truly, Charleston as we know it wouldn't be here without rice.
Did You Know? On the smelly side, if you encounter a distinct fragrance during your swamp tour, pluff mud is the likely source! However, once you've been around the Lowcountry a few times, you'll come to know it as the (beautiful) smell of Charleston.
Have you noticed that many of the Lowcountry’s most prominent dishes are made from rice? Charleston red rice and hoppin’ John are just two legendary Gullah dishes that the Lowcountry enjoys today. You must try at least one rice dish during your visit to Charleston. It’s part of the experience!
7. Pon Pon Chapel of Ease
If you are taking Savannah Highway I-95 N to Kiawah and Seabrook, there’s a lesser-known historic landmark along the way. You can take a slight detour on your way to the sea islands! Pon Pon Chapel of Ease was built shortly after the Yamasee War in 1715. The ruins were once a parish church where worship services were conducted, and births, deaths, and marriages were recorded in accordance with the Church of England.
You’ll find the chapel ruins on Parkers Ferry Road in Colleton County. With the quiet roads and peaceful country that the area offers today, it’s hard to believe that it was once home to more activity than any other place in the United States. The 1860 census for Colleton County documented 32,307 slaves. In addition, its location near the free-flowing blackwater of the Edisto River made the land an oasis for fishing, farming, and hunting. Artifacts and documentation shows that the Native people of the Lowcountry thrived here for many years.
The Journey of a Lifetime Begins on Charleston’s Sea Islands
If our Charleston history guide has you longing for your next history-inspired getaway, there isn’t a better place to stay than Kiawah and Seabrook. After all, the true experience is all about lazy, sun-soaked days on the water, sitting beneath the shaded oaks, and enjoying soulful culinary dishes that have been passed down for generations. With beauty like that, why spend your time cramming into a small, generic hotel room? Join us on the sea islands to experience all the comforts of Lowcountry living! Our private oceanfront villas and beach homes have something for everyone.