Discovering Your South Carolina Roots

The Ashley River Story


The Ashley River

Compared to other river the Ashley River is comparatively small but is unparalleled in the Southeast, if not the nation, for its history, its diversity of environments, and its location in a major city. Emerging from the Wassamassaw and Cypress Swamps in Berkeley and Dorchester Counties, it only flows around sixty miles before joining the Cooper River in Charleston harbor.  

Even though the river is short in length, the river moves through three separate types of riverine ecosystems: a blackwater stream, a freshwater tidal river, and a saltwater tidal river, each creating extensive and different types of wetlands. These assorted ecosystems and their transitional zones generate an abundant of different plants representing the natural history of the lower coastal plain of the state. Since the Native Americans first settled in the area, this diverse river region has provided people with plush and accessible resources.

The Ashley River played a significant role in the history of South Carolina. The colony’s first English settlement was established along its banks at Albemarle Point in 1670. Originally named the Kiawah River after the region’s Native Americans, the river was renamed in honor of Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the original Lords Proprietors. Ten years later the settlement relocated to the peninsula downstream, where the Ashley joins the Cooper River to form a harbor into the Atlantic Ocean. This connection enabled Charleston to become a major colonial seaport, even though it did not connect the seaport with an interior navigable waterway. This situation helped isolated the lowcountry from the upstate of South Carolina and pushed settlements into the upstate by immigrants from North Carolina and Virginia rather than from Charleston.

The Ashley River may have had limitations, but the Ashley did provide as an important route of for transportation and commerce in the area. It served the area of Dorchester which had a major trading post that was settled in 1697 about twenty miles upstream from Charleston. Along the river’s span were well-known plantations, such as Middleton Place, Magnolia, and Drayton Hall. Vessels ranging from canoes to rice barges and schooners linked these places and were operated by Europeans and African Americans, both enslaved and free.

During the postbellum era, phosphate was mined extensively from lands on both sides of the Ashley River, and docks for barges lined the river. Because of the Ashley River’s historical significance and natural beauty, the Ashley was named a National Historic District in 1994 and a State Scenic River in 1999.

The Ashley River has continued to be an essential resource for Charleston, its wealth of historic sites and scenic beauty combine to make the Ashley River a substantially sought-after place to live. It also brings an unparalleled resource for tourism and outdoor recreation all along the Ashley River.  

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