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American History on Display in the Carolinas

It’s hard to overstate the role the Carolinas have played in America’s history.

Both North and South Carolina have a plethora of historical firsts. The first European colony, San Miguel de Gualdape, was established by Spain in 1526, and was also the site of the first slave revolt. The first English colony was established on Roanoke Island in what is now North Carolina in 1585. In 1587, the first English child born on American soil was born there. Her name was Virginia Dare. The battle at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in April 1861 marked the start of the Civil War.

The Wright Brothers achieved the first successful powered flight near Kitty Hawk in 1903, and in 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first home run in Fayetteville.

From the beaches of North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the glories of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, from the charm of Charleston to the dramatic Blue Ridge Escarpment, traveling the Carolinas is a trip worth taking. Here are a few historic sites that should be on your next itinerary.

Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park

Charleston Harbor, South Carolina

Ranger Walt Young often leads groups of middle schoolers on tours around Fort Sumter, pointing out fingerprints on bricks and having the kids put their hands in the grooves. “They’re about the same size as yours?” he asks them. “That’s because children about your age were making them.”

It’s a gentle but eye-opening way to bring home the realities of slavery, at the site where on April 12, 1861, Confederate troops fired on the fort in Charleston Harbor — the culmination of a succession crisis that began six months earlier with the election of Abraham Lincoln.

“Fort Sumter is the place the American Civil War began, and it’s a place that shaped our country’s history like few others,” said Young. “It’s the place where the first death of the Civil War happened, a place that was destroyed by the war, and a place where people who’d just been freed from slavery came to celebrate the flag.” At the celebration on April 14, 1865, Major Robert Anderson raised the stars and stripes over the ruins of Fort Sumter, four years from the day Confederate troops had made him haul down the same flag.

Tours begin with a relaxing 30-minute boat ride operated by Fort Sumter Tours. Boats can accommodate up to 385 people, and groups should make reservations in advance. Those on the first and last boat departures of the day will see the raising or lowering of the American flag, a memorable experience.

Located on Sullivan’s Island, the first iteration of Fort Moultrie was still under construction when British forces attacked it one week before the colonies declared their independence on July 4, 1776. The fort has been restored to show the major periods of its history from 1809 through 1947.

Rose Hill Plantation State Historic Site

Union, South Carolina

Rose Hill Plantation was established along the Tyger River in 1811 by Francis Fincher Gist. His illegitimate son, William Henry Gist, was a strong supporter of slavery who became governor of South Carolina in 1858 and led the charge for succession. At the beginning of the Civil War, the plantation enslaved 178 men, women and children who labored on 5,000 acres to produce corn and cotton and to care for the mansion and its elaborate gardens. Pardoned by President Andrew Johnson, Gist returned to Rose Hill and died in 1874.

The historic plantation and 44 acres were purchased by the State of South Carolina in 1960. Part of the Reconstruction Era National Historic Network, the site now interprets the experiences of formerly enslaved people who stayed on as tenant farmers after emancipation. While the grounds are open to the public, two original structures — the three-story mansion and the kitchen house — are available for tours by appointment only. The grounds contain ruins of tenant farmer houses, gardens, a nature trail down to the river, mature magnolia trees, a picnic area and two cemeteries. The meticulously restored home has period furnishings and clothing, as well as copies of the signed succession documents that sparked the Civil War.

Oconee Station State Historic Site

Walhalla, South Carolina

In 1792, Oconee Station, an Appalachian outpost 300 miles northwest of Charleston, was in the Wild West, where state militia responded to tensions between settlers and the Creek and Cherokee tribes that had called the region home for centuries. (Oconee County takes its name from the Cherokee word ‘Ae-quo-nee’ meaning ‘land beside the water.’) The militia built a blockhouse with 20-inch stone walls that became a frontier trading post when the station was decommissioned in 1799.

The stone walls of the frontier post still stand at Oconee, along with a home built by settler William Richards in 1805.

“We have a 230-year-old building that has never been moved, has never had major alterations,” said park interpreter Stefani Osborne, “and the William Richards House, which served as a private residence for 150 years.”

The landscape also tells a story, Osborne said.

“A lot of the details that are left around the property really shows how people lived here and cared about this place for more than 200 years. We have some interesting landscaping plants and some fruit trees. All of that is from the many families that came through and decided they wanted to put in a fig tree, they wanted to grow lemons. Those still paint the landscape here.”

The cove’s protected microclimate ensures that wildflowers bloom throughout the year, and a 1.5-mile nature trail connects hikers to Station Cove Falls. Group tours can be customized.

“I can spend an hour talking about the late 1800s or what folks were doing in the 1930s,” said Osborne. “So it can be incredibly personalized in a way that maybe you wouldn’t get at some of the more frequented and busy sites.”

The Biltmore

Asheville, North Carolina

No Gilded Age family was more gilded than the Vanderbilts, whose fortune was founded by steamboat operator-turned-shipping magnate Cornelius. His grandson, George, built a “summer home” in the Blue Ridge Mountains that remains the nation’s largest residence. The 175,000- square-feet French Renaissance château opened after six years of construction on Christmas Eve 1895. The grand “cottage” was opened to the public in 1930; priceless works of art were stored there for safekeeping during World War II.

The estate is glorious in any season. Especially popular with groups are specialized tours including a rooftop tour with close views of the mansion’s famed gargoyles and a “backstairs” tour that examines the lives of servants at the legendary residence.

1898 Monument and Memorial Park

Wilmington, North Carolina

The charming riverside city of Wilmington abounds in history, but perhaps none more painful than massacre in 1898. Members of the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) fought valiantly in Wilmington, a pivotal battle that helped ensure a Union victory. Many of the soldiers settled in the city, building a thriving and prosperous Black community. On November 10, 1898, white supremacists murdered many Black residents, burned Black-owned businesses and deposed the city’s multi-racial Reconstruction government — the only successful coup d’état in American history.

Cedric Harrison, whose family has been in Wilmington for generations, operates WilmingtoNColor, a shuttle tour that takes visitors on a 70-minute tour that covers more than 200 years of the city’s rich Black heritage.

“We try to connect the dots of the past with the present,” said Harrison, “with hopes of building a better future.”

Historic Bath State Historic Site

Bath, North Carolina

French Protestants from Virginia found a home on the banks of the Pamlico River in the 1690s, and in 1705, Bath became North Carolina’s first incorporated town. Three years later, Bath was home to 50 people and 12 houses, its inhabitants trading in furs and tobacco, making it the first port of entry. It was also a favored location of one Edward Teach, a pirate better known as Blackbeard. Today, Bath has about 250 residents and a beautifully preserved district that’s a must for history lovers.

Site manager Laura Rogers recommends that groups begin their visit by checking out the site’s new exhibition.

“We’ve had it open for about a year and it’s a great overview of Bath’s history, both pre-contact with Native Americans all the way through the early 20th century,” she said. “It provides an excellent base for people to learn before they explore the town. Groups can book guided tours of the historic houses, and we have a beautiful picnic area, as well.”