Franklin County was formed in December 1837 from part of neighboring Crawford County. Charleston was first settled between 1843 and 1844, incorporated in 1874, and experienced minimal growth until 1885. In that year, Franklin County, bisected by the Arkansas River, established a second judicial district to the south of the river. In 1901, Charleston was designated as a second county seat south of the river.
Franklin County was formed in December 1837 from part of neighboring Crawford County. Straddling the Arkansas River, travel in the large county was made difficult by the broad waterway. Charleston was settled between 1843 and 1844 by Charles Kellum and J.B. and R.C. Thaxton, and the settlement was named for Kellum. During the Civil War, several skirmishes occurred in Franklin County at Mulberry Springs, Ozark, Moffat's Station, and in Charleston itself. In 1863, Federal scouts burned nearly all of Charleston to the ground save for two residences. Charleston was rebuilt after the war and became an incorporated town in 1874.
Charleston became the center of the southern district, and was later established as a second county seat in 1901. Charleston's new designation as county seat coupled with the coming of the railroad in 1898 created a swell in Charleston's population to 650 people at the beginning of the twentieth century. Franklin County's wealth of mineral resources led to the establishment of several coal mines in the area in the first two decades of the twentieth century.
In 1900, the Charleston Express replaced The Vindicator as Charleston's newspaper, owned and operated by P. Carter and Bert McCausey. The offices of the newspaper remain on Main Street today. The new jobs created and wealth generated by the coal industry further swelled Charleston's population and generated a building boom along Charleston's Main Street.
Dale Bumpers, resident of Charleston and former governor of Arkansas and U.S. Senator, led an effort to restore the Franklin County Courthouse in the mid-1960s.
The Pendergrass Ford dealership opened on Charleston's Main Street around 1920 and became the primary dealer of the new automobiles in the southern half of Franklin County. The dealership later changed to a Chevrolet dealership and moved to a new location on the south side of Main Street, then became Pendergrass-Hug Chevrolet, and today Hug Chevrolet continues to operate out of the same structure.
The population in 1930 had risen to 850 and hit 1000 in 1940. Charleston is also notable as the first town in the former Confederacy to integrate its public schools in 1954.