Dorchester was founded in 1697 by Congregationalist settlers from Massachusetts. They set aside a small part of the 4,050 acres they received on the Ashley to serve as a trading village for their farming community.
Its advantageous location helped Dorchester to thrive. Roads nearby led to the capital city of Charleston and to the interior of the colony. The Ashley River provided a convenient highway for the shipment of bulky goods and produce. Sailing ships and dugout canoes tied up at wharves jutting into the river to load and unload cargoes. Deerskins traded by Indian tribes and rice and indigo grown on local plantations passed through Dorchester on their way to Charleston for eventual shipment overseas. Manufactured goods imported into South Carolina were brought to the town for sale in shops.
The merchants who sold these goods and marketed planters' crops had stores and homes in Dorchester. Some wealthy local planters also owned homes in town, as did craftsmen who served the outlying agricultural community. And black slaves, who provided the labor that ran South Carolina's economy, also lived and worked in the village.
Dorchester remained a small town through most of its hundred-year existence. In 1728 a local minister called Dorchester "the Pleasantest spot of Ground in the Settlements,"even though only six families lived in the village. A soldier passing through in 1780 described Dorchester as containing only "about forty houses and a church." Most of the area's population, free and slave, lived and worked in the countryside.
Dorchester's location made it a strategic military site. Fear of a possible French invasion prompted the construction of a powder magazine and fort in Dorchester in 1757. The invasion never came, though, and the town apparently saw little activity until the coming of the American Revolution in 1775. Then, as South Carolina and other colonies prepared to fight for independence from Great Britain, the little town was transformed into a military depot. American troops assembled in town. Public records were sent from Charleston for safekeeping in Dorchester. After Charleston fell to the British in May of 1780, Dorchester became an outpost for British and Loyalist troops. As American forces advanced on the town in December of 1781, the British finally evacuated Dorchester. The town never recovered from the war, though, and was gradually abandoned.
The reasons given by historians for Dorchester's decline are many and varied. They range from the devastation wrought by British and Loyalist soldiers to the malaria that plagued the swampy area. As Dorchester was abandoned, it was succeeded by a new town, Summerville, that developed close by on higher, better-drained land. Bricks from buildings in the older town were even removed for use in structures in the new town.
Learn more about the Adaptation of the 1742 Map which we are using to navigate around this site.