At the time of European encounter, the inhabitants of the area that became Columbia were a people called the Congaree. In May 1540, a Spanish expedition led by Hernando de Soto traversed what is now Columbia while moving northward. The expedition produced the earliest written historical records of the area, which was part of the regional Cofitachequi chiefdom.
From the creation of Columbia by the South Carolina General Assembly in 1786, the site of Columbia was important to the overall development of the state. The Congarees, a frontier fort on the west bank of the Congaree River, was the head of navigation in the Santee River system. A ferry was established by the colonial government in 1754 to connect the fort with the growing settlements on the higher ground on the east bank.
Like many other significant early settlements in colonial America, Columbia is on the fall line from the Piedmont region. The fall line is the spot where a river becomes unnavigable when sailing upstream and where falling water downstream can power a mill.
State Senator John Lewis Gervais of the town of Ninety Six introduced a bill that was approved by the legislature on March 22, 1786, to create a new state capital. There was considerable argument over the name for the new city. According to published accounts, Senator Gervais said he hoped that "in this town we should find refuge under the wings of COLUMBIA", for that was the name which he wished it to be called. One legislator insisted on the name "Washington", but "Columbia" won by a vote of 11–7 in the state senate.
The site was chosen as the new state capital in 1786, due to its central location in the state. The State Legislature first met there in 1790. After remaining under the direct government of the legislature for the first two decades of its existence, Columbia was incorporated as a village in 1805 and then as a city in 1854.
Columbia received a large stimulus to development when it was connected in a direct water route to Charleston by the Santee Canal. This canal connected the Santee and Cooper rivers in a 22-mile-long (35 km) section. It was first chartered in 1786 and completed in 1800, making it one of the earliest canals in the United States. With increased railroad traffic, it ceased operation around 1850.
The commissioners designed a town of 400 blocks in a 2-mile (3 km) square along the river. The blocks were divided into lots of 0.5 acres (2,000 m2) and sold to speculators and prospective residents. Buyers had to build a house at least 30 feet (9.1 m) long and 18 feet (5.5 m) wide within three years or face an annual 5% penalty. The perimeter streets and two through streets were 150 feet (46 m) wide. The remaining squares were divided by thoroughfares 100 feet (30 m) wide. The width was determined by the belief that dangerous and pesky mosquitoes could not fly more than 60 feet (18 m) without dying of starvation along the way. Columbians still enjoy most of the magnificent network of wide streets.
The commissioners comprised the local government until 1797 when a Commission of Streets and Markets was created by the General Assembly. Three main issues occupied most of their time: public drunkenness, gambling, and poor sanitation.
As one of the first in the United States, Columbia began to grow rapidly. Its population was nearing 1,000 shortly after the start of the 19th century.
Ruins, as seen from the State House, 1865
Monument marking site of original South Carolina State House, designed and built from 1786 to 1790 by James Hoban
and burned by the Union Army
In 1801, South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) was founded in Columbia. The original building survives. The city was chosen as the site of the institution in part to unite the citizens of the Upcountry and the Lowcountry and to discourage the youth from migrating to England for their higher education. At the time, South Carolina sent more young men to England than did any other state. The leaders of South Carolina wished to monitor the progress and development of the school; for many years after the founding of the university, commencement exercises were held in December while the state legislature was in session.
Columbia received its first charter as a town in 1805. An intendant and six wardens would govern the town. John Taylor, the first elected intendant, later served in both houses of the General Assembly, both houses of Congress, and eventually as governor. By 1816, there were 250 homes in the town and a population of more than one thousand. Columbia became chartered as a city in 1854, with an elected mayor and six aldermen. Two years later, Columbia had a police force consisting of a full-time chief and nine patrolmen. The city continued to grow at a rapid pace, and throughout the 1850s and 1860s Columbia was the largest inland city in the Carolinas. Railroad transportation served as a significant cause of population expansion in Columbia during this time. Rail lines that reached the city in the 1840s primarily transported cotton bales, not passengers. Cotton was the lifeblood of the Columbia community; in 1850 virtually all of the city's commercial and economic activity was related to cotton.
"In 1830, approximately 1,500 slaves lived and worked in Columbia; this population grew to 3,300 by 1860. Some members of this large enslaved population worked in their masters' households. Masters also frequently hired out slaves to Columbia residents and institutions, including South Carolina College. Hired-out slaves sometimes returned to their owner's home daily; others boarded with their temporary masters." During this period, "legislators developed state and local statutes to restrict the movement of urban slaves in hopes of preventing rebellion. Although various decrees established curfews and prohibited slaves from meeting and from learning to read and write, such rulings were difficult to enforce." Indeed, "several prewar accounts note that many Columbia slaves were literate; some slaves even conducted classes to teach others to read and write." As well, "many slaves attended services at local Baptist, Presbyterian, and Methodist churches, yet some struggled to obtain membership in these institutions."
Columbia's First Baptist Church hosted the South Carolina Secession Convention on December 17, 1860. The delegates drafted a resolution in favor of secession, 159–0. Columbia's location made it an ideal location for other conventions and meetings within the Confederacy.
On February 17, 1865, in the last months of the Civil War, much of Columbia was destroyed by fire while being occupied by Union troops under the command of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Jeff Goodwyn, mayor of Columbia, sent William B. Stanley and Thomas W. Radcliffe to surrender the city to Sherman's troops. According to legend, Columbia's First Baptist Church barely missed being torched by Sherman's troops. The soldiers marched up to the church and asked the sexton if he could direct them to the First Baptist Church. The sexton directed the men to the nearby Washington Street Methodist Church; thus, the historic landmark was saved from destruction by Union soldiers, and the sexton preserved his employment at the cost of another.
Controversy surrounding the burning of the city started soon after the war ended. General Sherman blamed the high winds and retreating Confederate soldiers for firing bales of cotton, which had been stacked in the streets. General Sherman denied ordering the burning, though he did order militarily significant structures, such as the Confederate Printing Plant, destroyed. Firsthand accounts by local residents, Union soldiers, and a newspaper reporter offer a tale of revenge by Union troops for Columbia's and South Carolina's pivotal role in leading Southern states to secede from the Union. Today, tourists can follow the path General Sherman's army took to enter the city and see structures or remnants of structures that survived the fire.
During Reconstruction, Columbia became the focus of considerable attention. Reporters, journalists, travelers, and tourists flocked to South Carolina's capital city to witness a Southern state legislature whose members included former slaves. The city also made somewhat of a rebound following the devastating fire of 1865; a mild construction boom took place within the first few years of Reconstruction, and repair of railroad tracks in outlying areas created jobs for area citizens.
Following Reconstruction, the Columbia Music Festival Association (CMFA) was established in 1897, by Mayor William McB. Sloan and the aldermen of the city of Columbia. It was headquartered in the Opera House on Main Street, which was also City Hall. Its role was to book and manage concerts and events in the opera house for the city.
Troops returning from WW I march through Columbia, April 1919
The first few years of the 20th century saw Columbia emerge as a regional textile manufacturing center. In 1907, Columbia had six mills in operation: Richland, Granby, Olympia, Capital City, Columbia, and Palmetto. Combined, they employed over 3,400 workers with an annual payroll of $819,000, giving the Midlands an economic boost of over $4.8 million. Columbia had no paved streets until 1908, when 17 blocks of Main Street were surfaced. There were, however, 115 publicly maintained street crossings at intersections to keep pedestrians from having to wade through a sea of mud between wooden sidewalks. As an experiment, Washington Street was once paved with wooden blocks. This proved to be the source of much local amusement when they buckled and floated away during heavy rains. The blocks were replaced with asphalt paving in 1925.
The years 1911 and 1912 were something of a construction boom for Columbia, with $2.5 million worth of construction occurring in the city. These projects included the Union Bank Building at Main and Gervais, the Palmetto National Bank, a shopping arcade, and large hotels at Main and Laurel (the Jefferson) and at Main and Wheat (the Gresham). In 1917, the city was selected as the site of Camp Jackson, a U.S. military installation which was officially classified as a "Field Artillery Replacement Depot". The first recruits arrived at the camp on September 1, 1917.
In 1930, Columbia was the hub of a trading area with approximately 500,000 potential customers. It had 803 retail establishments, 280 of them being food stores. There were also 58 clothing and apparel outlets, 57 restaurants and lunch rooms, 55 filling stations, 38 pharmacies, 20 furniture stores, 19 auto dealers, 11 shoe stores, nine cigar stands, five department stores and one book store. Wholesale distributors located within the city numbered 119, with one-third of them dealing in food.
In 1934, the federal courthouse at the corner of Main and Laurel streets was purchased by the city for use as City Hall. Built of granite from nearby Winnsboro, Columbia City Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Designed by Alfred Built Millet, President Ulysses S. Grant's federal architect, the building was completed in 1876. Millet, best known for his design of the Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., had originally designed the building with a clock tower. Large cost overruns probably caused it to be left out. Copies of Mullet's original drawings can be seen on the walls of City Hall alongside historic photos of Columbia's beginnings. Federal offices were moved to the J. Bratton Davis United States Bankruptcy Courthouse.
Reactivated Camp Jackson became Fort Jackson in 1940, giving the military installation the permanence desired by city leaders at the time. The fort was annexed into the city in the fall of 1968, with approval from the Pentagon. In the early 1940s, shortly after the attacks on Pearl Harbor which began America's involvement in World War II, Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle and his group of now-famous pilots began training for the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo at what is now Columbia Metropolitan Airport. They trained in B-25 Mitchell bombers, the same model as the plane that now rests at Columbia's Owens Field in the Curtiss-Wright hangar.
 The area's population continued to grow during the 1950s, having experienced a 40 percent increase from 186,844 to 260,828, with 97,433 people residing within the city limits of Columbia.
The 1940s saw the beginning of efforts to reverse Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination in Columbia. In 1945, a federal judge ruled that the city's black teachers were entitled to equal pay to that of their white counterparts. However, in years following, the state attempted to strip many blacks of their teaching credentials. Other issues in which the blacks of the city sought equality concerned voting rights and segregation (particularly regarding public schools). On August 21, 1962, eight downtown chain stores served blacks at their lunch counters for the first time. The University of South Carolina admitted its first black students in 1963; around the same time, many vestiges of segregation began to disappear from the city, blacks attained membership on various municipal boards and commissions, and a non-discriminatory hiring policy was adopted by the city. These and other such signs of racial progress helped earn the city the 1964 All-America City Award for the second time (the first being in 1951), and a 1965 article in Newsweek magazine lauded Columbia as a city that had "liberated itself from the plague of doctrinal apartheid."
Historic preservation has played a significant part in shaping Columbia into the city that it is today. The historic Robert Mills House was restored in 1967, which inspired the renovation and restoration of other historic structures such as the Hampton-Preston House and homes associated with President Woodrow Wilson, Maxcy Gregg, Mary Boykin Chesnut, and noted free black Celia Mann. In the early 1970s, the University of South Carolina initiated the refurbishment of its "Horseshoe". Several area museums also benefited from the increased historical interest of that time, among them the Fort Jackson Museum, the McKissick Museum on the campus of the University of South Carolina, and most notably the South Carolina State Museum, which opened in 1988.
Mayor Kirkman Finlay, Jr., was the driving force behind the refurbishment of Seaboard Park, now known as Finlay Park, in the historic Congaree Vista district, as well as the compilation of the $60 million Palmetto Center package, which gave Columbia an office tower, parking garage, and the Columbia Marriott, which opened in 1983. The year 1980 saw the Columbia metropolitan population reach 410,088, and in 1990 this figure had hit approximately 470,000. The 1970s and 1980s saw a rise in skyscrapers throughout Columbia. In 1973, The Tower at 1301 Gervais was constructed. In 1983, Hub at Columbia was constructed. In 1989, Bank of America Plaza was constructed. In 1987, Capitol Center (BB&T Building) was constructed, becoming the tallest building in South Carolina.
View from Statehouse showing Main Street and Confederate statue
The 1990s and early 2000s saw revitalization in the downtown area. The Congaree Vista district along Gervais Street, once known as a warehouse district, became a thriving district of art galleries, shops, and restaurants. The Colonial Life Arena (formerly known as the Colonial Center) opened in 2002, and brought several big-named concerts and shows to Columbia. EdVenture, the largest children's museum in the Southeast, opened in 2003. The Village at Sandhill shopping center opened in 2004 in Northeast Richland County. The Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center opened in 2004, and a new convention center hotel opened in September 2007. A public-private City Center Partnership has been formed to implement the downtown revitalization and boost downtown growth. In 2009, Columbia's most recent skyscraper, The Tower at Main and Gervais, was completed. Mayor Stephen K. Benjamin started his first term in July 2010, and is the first black mayor in the city's history. Founders Park, home of USC baseball, opened in 2009. The South Carolina Gamecocks baseball team won two National Championships in 2010 and in 2011. The , under coach Steve Spurrier, earned their first appearance in the SEC Championship. A Mast General Store was opened in 2011. The Music Farm opened a location in Columbia on Senate Street in 2014. In 2000, the Confederate battle flag was moved from the South Carolina State House to the Confederate monument. On July 10, 2015, the flag was removed from the monument. The fallout from the historic flooding in October 2015 forced the South Carolina Gamecocks football team to move their October 10 home game. Spirit Communications Park, home of the Columbia Fireflies, opened in April 2016. In 2017, the Gamecocks women's basketball team (under coach Dawn Staley) won their first NCAA championship, and the men's basketball team went to the Final Four for the first time.