Fruity Postponement

Due to a mechanical problem in our building, the Charleston County Public Library will be closed today, and so tonight’s program, “A Fruit-Filled History of Charleston” is postponed until a later date.

I’ll try to fit the fruit program into the schedule in November. In the meantime, I’m going to feast on muscadines, pineapple, and mango this evening. . . .

Stay cool, everyone!

Charleston’s Fruit-Filled Past

Here’s an historical question you can really sink your teeth into: What sorts of fruits did the denizens of early Charleston eat?

The short answer is this: As early as the 1670s, Charlestonians had access to a surprising variety of fruits, from the exotic to the mundane, and the import-export trade in fruit was once an important and colorful part of our local economy.

Over the years I’ve seen hundreds of references to various fruits in the newspapers and other documents from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Charleston, but only recently did I begin to look at the topic more seriously. Having now made a more systematic (but not exhaustive) search, I’ve compiled a list of approximately four dozen types of fruit found in the early markets of our port city.  Within that number we can make several divisions to reflect the geographical origins of these fruits, as well as the different market routes that brought them to Charleston. The indigenous population introduced early European colonists to a number of native fruits, but the majority of the fruits enjoyed in early Charleston were familiar tastes transplanted from the Old World. Perhaps the most interesting part of this story, however, is the variety of “exotic” fruits that came to our port by way of our extensive trade connections with the English, French, and Spanish territories in the West Indies.

An advertisement for John Love's

An advertisement for John Love’s “Fruit Shop” in the Charleston City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, 29 December 1791.

With these three divisions in mind, let’s make a quick list of the fruits known to have been available in Charleston between the 1670s and the 1850s:

Native Fruits:

muscadine grape (Vitis rotundifolia), pawpaw (Asimina triloba), American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana), blueberry (genus Vaccinium), serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), fig (Ficus carica), plum (Prunus angustifolia), black cherry (Prunus serotina), red mulberry (Morus rubra), blackberry (genus Rubus), Virginia strawberry (Fragaria virginiana), and cranberry (imported from New England).

Old World Fruits:

peach, nectarine, apple, pear, orange (both sweet “China” and sour “Seville”), quince, lemon, lime, citron, cantaloupe, muskmelon, watermelon, apricot, prune, currant, cherry, raspberry, pomegranate, raisins (generic dried grapes), Alpine strawberry, and perhaps medlar (a.k.a. Japanese plum, a.k.a. loquat).

West Indian Fruits:

pineapple, banana, plantain, papaya, mango, guava, alligator pears (avocado), and both cocoa (cacao) and “cocoa nut” (coconut).

These three divisions are merely an organizational convenience intended to help us understand the point of origin from which these fruit came to market in Charleston. Once the town and the colony of South Carolina became established, however, the residents began planting, trading, and consuming them without the least regard to their origins. The resulting culinary traditions, or “foodways,” that took root in the Lowcountry reflect both local preferences for certain fruits and the variable availability of fruits in our seasonal markets. By looking at the social history of certain fruits, we can also gain deeper insight into our community’s cultural heritage.

For example, the early colonists and promoters of South Carolina believed that our subtropical climate might sustain a thriving trade in oranges. Along with rice, local planters sowed thousands of orange seeds in the hopes that the colony could produce enough fruit to capture a large share of the very profitable orange trade in Europe and beyond. Early letters from Lowcountry planters writing back to England brag of a massive orange planting effort, and local newspaper advertisements from the 1730s onward frequently mention plantation tracts for sale on which are found hundreds and even thousands of fruit-bearing orange trees. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, it was painfully clear to local planters that our climate was just a bit too cool to cultivate oranges on a commercial scale. Although few remember the sanguine hopes that South Carolina would become known as an orange colony, the vestiges of this horticultural effort remain on our landscape in place names such as Orange Street, Orange Grove Road, and Orangeburg.

Consider also the social history of the plantain. Few Charleston historians have mentioned the plantain—a quintessentially Caribbean fruit—among the foodways of this community, but it was once a common taste in the Lowcountry. Numerous advertisements printed in the local newspapers from the colonial era to the Civil War attest to the regular importation of this starchy, banana-like fruit from the Bahamas, Jamaica, and even Cuba. In those island nations, we know that the plantain formed an important part of the diet of enslaved people and free people of color, and the same was probably true here in Charleston as well.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, strawberries and blackberries were grown on large farms on the suburban “neck” of the Charleston peninsula and sent to New York markets in refrigerated ships. Before and after the Civil War, most of the berry harvesting was done by black women, and this trade represented an important source of employment for them during the years of Reconstruction.

Finally, I’ll mention the pineapple, the fruit that many locals describe as Charleston’s traditional symbol of hospitality. As a skeptic, I’m always hesitant to believe such folklore without documentary proof, but in this case there is a kernel of truth behind the legend. The pineapple was unknown in the Old World until early explorers brought samples back from the Caribbean and South America. Europeans fell in love with the delicious fruit, of course, but it was nearly impossible for them to obtain “fresh” samples and the tropical plant was difficult to grow in temperate climates.  When England’s royal gardener was able to cultivate a fruit-bearing pineapple plant in that cool country, therefore, it was considered a news story worthy of royal attention. Sometime in the late 1670s—contemporary with the early years of the Carolina colony—King Charles II had his portrait painted receiving a pineapple from John Rose, his royal gardener.

“Charles II Presented with a Pineapple,” ca. 1675-80, from the Royal Collection Trust.

The message implied in this artistic presentation was heard in Charleston and throughout the English-speaking realm: the rare, delicious pineapple was a gift fit for a king. The pineapple trade flowed from the Caribbean into early Charleston, where they represented a luxurious treat for newcomers unfamiliar with the prickly fruit. In a letter to her family back home in January 1725, for example, Margaret Kennett, a young English woman tending a shop on Charleston’s East Bay Street, described the novel taste of the West-Indian pineapple as “inexpressibly fine.” What better way to welcome visitors to our port city than to offer a fruity gift once reserved for royal tastes?

If you’d like to learn more about the fruit history of Charleston, please join me for a FREE program titled:

A Fruit-Filled History of Charleston

Wednesday, August 26th at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, contact Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

Voice Your “Common” Interest

Once again the Beach Company’s development plan for the site of the Sergeant Jasper apartment building is in the news. Yesterday the Charleston Post and Courier carried Robert Behre’s latest story on this controversy, in which we learn that a circuit court judge will allow representatives from four local advocacy organizations to participate in the legal negotiations between the Beach Company and the City of Charleston concerning the future use of the site at the west end of Broad Street. This ruling means that the public—for whom this land was reserved in 1768 as a “Common” in perpetuity—will have a voice in deciding the future use of the property.

To citizens wishing to avail themselves of this opportunity, I offer the following resources to help explain the deep historical roots of this controversial topic:

First, I would direct interested readers to peruse my earlier essays on Charleston’s “Colonial Common,” which I posted here on June 3rd, June 9th, and June 15th.

Second, I invite interested parties to view a video of my “Colonial Common” program from June 11th.

Third, I invite the public to join me for an encore presentation of this lecture:

“A Brief History of Charleston’s Colonial Common”

Wednesday, August 19th 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 

Finally, I encourage everyone to contact one or all of the four organizations who have been invited to participate in the negotiations regarding the future of this historic site: The Harleston Neighborhood Association, the Charlestowne Neighborhood Association, the Preservation Society of Charleston, and the Historic Charleston Foundation.

The upcoming negotiations may represent an important turning point in the 221-year-old legal debate over the public and private interests in the land at the west end of Broad Street.

Lesser-Known Bastions of Early Charleston

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

In past programs we’ve discussed the histories of the most prominent features of Charleston’s early fortifications, such as Granville Bastion, Craven Bastion, and the Half-Moon Battery. Numerous details regarding these works can be found among the surviving records of South Carolina colonial General Assembly and other archival sources, so we know a good bit about their design, location, and demolition.

For the next program, however, I’m going to attempt to tell the story of the lesser-known bastions of the walled city; specifically, the bastions named Ashley, Carteret, and Colleton, as well as the enigmatic structure known as Blake’s Bastion or Blake’s Battery. These structures existed contemporaneously with the aforementioned bastions, during the early years of the eighteenth century, but relatively little is known about them. For a variety of reasons, these lesser bastions merited less attention from the denizens of early Charleston, and thus it’s now difficult for us to tell their stories. The following is…

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August Programs

Our adventures in Charleston history continue this August with two new programs and one encore performance.

On August 12th we’ll take a close look at “The Walled City’s Lesser-Known Bastions.” In the past I’ve presented lectures about the most significant features of Charleston’s early fortification walls, such as Granville Bastion, the Half-Moon Battery, and Craven Bastion, but there are a few others that remain shrouded in mystery.  Although we still have more questions than answers about them, this month we’ll focus attention on the enigmatic urban bastions called Ashley, Blake, Carteret, and Colleton, all named for members of the early Lords Proprietors of Carolina.

On August 19th I’ll repeat my recent program about an old topic that’s very relevant to a current local controversy: “A Brief History of Charleston’s Colonial Common.” The site of the unpopular Sergeant Jasper Apartment building was set aside as a public common space in 1768, but today it’s owned by a private developer that wants to expand its footprint. If you have an interest in the future of this site, or are simply fascinated by stories of overt government waste,  you won’t want to miss this program.

Finally, on August 26th I’m going out on a new limb with a program called “A Fruit-Filled History of Charleston.” The summer season in our subtropical city often inspires thoughts of desserts, syrups, and beverages flavored with all sorts of exotic fruits, but did our Charleston forebearers have access to such delicacies? To answer this question, we’ll take a look at indigenous fruits, European imports, and fruits brought to early Charleston from the Caribbean and Latin America. We won’t dwell on recipes, but rather we’ll consider the vast commercial and social networks that brought fruits to local tables. And perhaps we’ll have a few samples on hand as well . . . .

For more information about these events, take a look at our Calendar of Events and stay tuned for upcoming essays about each of these deliciously historical topics!

Bastille Day in Charleston Past

The 14th of July marks the anniversary of an important day in the history of France and the French-speaking diaspora around the world. Bastille Day, as it is commonly known, commemorates the day civilian forces stormed and occupied a notorious Parisian prison holding political dissidents. This event sparked a long series of events that evolved into a full-scale national revolution that lasted for several years and toppled the ancient monarchy.

Today a number of Francophiles in Charleston are celebrating the day with the usual routine of flying the tricolour, singing French patriotic songs, and imbibing strong beverages. Our community is populated with quite a few descendants of French nationals, and today seems a logical occasion to celebrate that heritage. Surely our Franco-American fore-bearers here in Charleston celebrated Bastille Day, one might argue, and it is proper we should continue that long tradition. History tells a different story, however, and it is worth noting that the anniversary of the French Revolution was not always regarded as a joyous occasion in this city.

When news of the storming of the Bastille and the spread of revolution arrived in Charleston in the autumn of 1789, the citizens of Charleston held high hopes for the beginning of peaceful and substantial reforms in France. The success of the American Revolution was still a recent fact, and Charlestonians stood ready to support and encourage our French comrades who helped us shed the yoke of British oppression. Pro-French sentiment spread throughout South Carolina, embraced by both the descendants of refugees who fled French religious persecution in the late 1600s and by Anglo-Americans.

In the early 1790s, the 14th of July was celebrated in Charleston with military parades, fireworks, political speeches, and much civic feasting. Bands routinely played the two tunes most associated with the revolution: “Ça ira (loosely translated as “everything’s going to be alright”) and the 1792 hit song that became the French National Anthem, “La Marseillaise.” A number of local citizens formed a Société Patriotique Française, which quickly became the organizing force behind the annual festivities. When revolutionary leaders in Paris announced the creation of the French Republic in late 1792, the Francophiles of Charleston hosted a series of winter celebrations and fêtes.

[Charleston]_City_Gazette_17_July 1793_excerpt

Bastille Day news from the [Charleston] City Gazette, 17 July 1793

Sentiments began to change in 1793, however. On the first day of February the new French Republic declared war on our principal trading partner, Britain, and Charleston’s mercantile community was forced to re-examine their allegiances. In June a simmering slave revolt in the wealthy French colony of Saint-Domingue, fueled by Revolutionary ideas, overtook the northern port of Cap Français, causing thousands of French-speaking refugees to flee to the United States. A stream of hundreds of destitute creole French men and women arrived in Charleston that summer, and the narrative of their plight further undermined the pro-French sentiment in South Carolina. In October 1793, Charlestonians read the first reports of the violent turn in the French Revolution, a long period of systematic bloodshed that became known as the Reign of Terror (September 1793 to  July 1794). Also that fall, French operatives in Charleston were secretly and illegally attempting to solicit assistance in arming privateers to capture British vessels off the coast of South Carolina.

By July 1794, Charleston’s observation of Bastille Day was significantly less enthusiastic. Our national, state, and city governments had adopted a policy of keeping a polite distance from the official representatives of the French Republic, and were actively discouraging the public from causing any harm or insult to our “good friends,” the British. Diplomatic relations with the French Republic further eroded in 1797, and by 1798 the United States had entered a long period of “Quasi-War” with France.  Anti-French sentiment reached its zenith in February 1799 when Charleston welcomed home Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who had ably represented the U.S. in Paris during the notorious the “XYZ Affair” of 1797–98. That winter a newly-built fort in Charleston harbor, Castle Pinckney, was officially named in his honor.

In short, the history of enthusiastic Bastille Day celebrations in Charleston encompasses a period just a few years in the first half of the 1790s. Thereafter French refugees and their supporters living in Charleston became quietly polarized into opposing factions, with once-wealthy planters wishing for a return of the monarchy and radicalized Republicans or Jacobins seeking to carry the Revolution to extremes. After the modest commemoration of 1795, our local newspapers ceased to even acknowledge the anniversary of the day for many years to come.

If you’re looking for further insight into the details of Charleston’s attitudes towards the French Revolution in the 1790s, I would heartily recommend a book by Robert J. Alderson Jr., This Bright Era of Happy Revolutions: French Consul Michel-Ange-Bernard Mangourit and International Republicanism in Charleston, 1792–1794 (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).

Cynthia Hurd first, Jasper later

The funeral for CCPL librarian Cynthia Graham Hurd has been set for the morning of Saturday, June 27th, at which time all library branches will close to allow staff to attend the services. As a consequence, my upcoming program about Sergeant William Jasper, scheduled for noon on Saturday, has been canceled.

The encore version of the William Jasper program will take place as scheduled, on Wednesday, July 8th at 6 p.m., at the library’s main branch at 68 Calhoun Street.

For more information about the services in memory of CCPL librarian Cynthia Graham Hurd, please refer to the official press release posted on the CCPL website.

Who Was Sgt. William Jasper?

The name of Sergeant William Jasper is found in every history of South Carolina written since the American Revolution, but in reality we know little about the man behind the famous name.  He is remembered as the brave soldier who stood atop the American fortifications at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on 28 June 1776, and again at the Battle of Savannah in October 1779, to rally his comrades to persevere in the face of an overwhelming British artillery barrage.  Sergeant Jasper unfortunately received a mortal wound during the action at Savannah, but the legend of his heroic deeds took root and grew over successive generations.

Detail from J. B. White's 1826 painting of the Battle of Fort Moultrie (collections of the U.S. Senate)

Sgt. Jasper appears in this detail from J. B. White’s 1826 painting of The Battle of Fort Moultrie (collections of the U.S. Senate)

In the course of time, some narratives of William Jasper’s military exploits have included questions about his origins and background.  A sampling of the published literature about the man reveals a wide variety of opinions and interpretations, some based on limited facts and some born of pure conjecture.  We find, for example, that Jasper was either born in Germany, Ireland, England, Wales, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, or Georgia.  Most historians estimate his age in 1779 at about 25 to 30 years old, but this range is apparently based solely on genealogical conjecture.  As a historian, I lament the fact that Jasper’s biography is clouded by a dearth of reliable information taken from primary sources.

While trolling through materials at the Charleston Archive at CCPL recently, I stumbled into a previously unknown chapter of the Jasper family history that sheds new light on the biographical mystery.  Among the surviving records of the Charleston Poor House (renamed the Alms House in 1856), I found numerous references to a humble, destitute widow named Elizabeth Brown.  Mrs. Brown first came to the Poor House in the summer of 1836 to apply for rations.  The affluent commissioners of the institution considered her situation and then approved her application.  She lived alone and did not become an inmate of that institution, but for the next several years she visited the Poor House on Mazyck (now Logan) Street thrice weekly to receive her city-funded rations of beef and bread.

In the course of her visits to Poor House, Mrs. Brown probably chatted with the staff and mentioned her famous father.  Word of Sgt. Jasper’s impoverished daughter spread around town, and in the summer of 1837 an anonymous correspondent interviewed the aged widow.  In a report published in the Southern Patriot, “Ramsay” described Elizabeth Brown as “a resident and a native of Charleston” whose family had not “ever received a cent of aid, from the State or Federal Government.”  According to the correspondent’s conversation with Mrs. Brown, her father, William Jasper, was “a native of Ireland” who was “about 45 years of age” at the time of his death in 1779, and who had “married a lady in the interior of this State.”  Reflecting back on the impoverished condition of the Jasper family, “Ramsay” posed the question, “would it not be well to pay a just debt due to Jasper, by applying to Congress to make the last days of his now aged daughter comfortable, by giving her the benefits provided by the pension law, for persons of her description?”

The community concurred with this suggestion, and on 5 March 1838 Hugh Swinton Legare of South Carolina presented a resolution on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to consider granting a petition to Mrs. Elizabeth Brown, daughter of Sergeant William Jasper, “who gallantly fell at the battle of Savannah, after rendering the most important service to his country.”  The matter was referred to the House Committee on Revolutionary Claims, which simply refused to consider the case.  Mr. Legare attempted to bring the matter before the full House of Representatives again in late May 1838, but did not succeed.

Elizabeth Brown’s situation thus remained unchanged for the next several years.  At the end of 1844 she was still receiving a regular diet of simple rations from the Charleston Poor House, but her fortune was about to change.  In late November 1844, Henry Laurens Pinckney of Charleston presented a petition from Elizabeth Brown to the South Carolina House of Representatives.  After due consideration by the legislature, Mrs. Brown’s petition was approved, and on 18 December 1844 the state government ratified “An Act to Grant a Pension to Elizabeth Brown.”  According to that law, Mrs. Brown, “the daughter of Sergeant Jasper,” was to receive $100 per annum in quarterly payments “for and during the period of her natural life,” retroactive to the first day of March 1844.

Beginning in December 1844, Elizabeth Brown received quarterly payments of $25 until the last week of November 1845, when she died of “anasarca” (extreme generalized edema caused by liver and/or kidney failure) and was buried at Charleston’s Bethel Burying Ground.  Among the surviving death records held at the Charleston Archive, she was approximately 70 years old, though she was probably a bit older than that.  The state pension may have improved Mrs. Brown’s quality of life, but it certainly didn’t make her rich.  Until her final days in late 1845 she continued to receive her regular thrice-weekly rations from the Charleston Poor House.

This brief narrative of the life of Elizabeth Brown does not firmly settle the debate over her father’s origins, but it presents some credible information that might help us eliminate the red herrings from our search for facts.  I’m on the hunt for more “new” information about the family of William Jasper, and I’ll be presenting my findings in an upcoming program titled:

“William Jasper: An Enigmatic Hero”

Saturday, June 27th at 12 noon 

Edgar Allan Poe Library, 1921 I’On Avenue, Sullivan’s Island, 29482.


Wednesday, July 8th at 6 p.m.

2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, contact Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

Remembering Cynthia Graham Hurd

CynthiaHurdCloseUpThe Charleston Time Machine and the Charleston County Public Library mourn the tragic loss of Cynthia Graham Hurd, one of the best and brightest stars in our community.  Cynthia and I worked on several programs together when she was manager of the historic John L. Dart Library branch, and she continued to preside at meetings of that library’s history committee after she moved on to manage the larger regional branch that will now be named in her memory.

Cynthia had an extraordinary talent for making people feel welcome, but at the same time she wasn’t shy about speaking her mind in a frank but respectful manner.  I never heard her raise her smooth, mezzo-soprano voice, nor do I remember ever seeing that winning smile disappear from her face.  Although we were not close, I had—and will forever have–immense respect for Cynthia.  I was once a stranger to her, but she quickly drew me into her world and treated me like a brother.

Cynthia used her communication skills to great advantage in her life-long promotion of literacy and education.  Her spirited legacy will long endure in our community, and will no doubt help to inspire and empower future generations of Charlestonians who will, like her, strive to make the world a better place.

On Friday the Charleston County Public Library released the following press release, which includes more biographical information about Cynthia and the crafting of her legacy: