Top Ten Charleston Hurricanes

A 1989 satellite view of Hurricane Hugo

A 1989 satellite view of Hurricane Hugo

It’s mid-September in the Lowcountry, and historically that means we’ve reached the peak of Hurricane Season. Over the past few centuries of recorded history, the worst of these tropical cyclones have visited the Charleston area during the second half of September and the early days of October. The weather might be turning slightly cooler here, but the Atlantic waters that fuel hurricane development are still sufficiently warm to generate storms of awesome proportions. Consider, for example, the legendary Hurricane Hugo, a Category 5 storm that sheared across Charleston County twenty-five years ago come September 21st.  Those of us who witnessed Hugo’s destruction will never forget that experience, and hope never to see such a storm again!

Hugo certainly wasn’t the first storm to cause massive damage to Charleston, however. A search through various historical documents suggests as many as twenty to thirty storms have left a significant impact on this area since the first Europeans settlers began keeping records here. So which of these was the most destructive? At the risk of sounding elusive, here’s my best answer: we simply don’t have sufficient data to compare historic storms on the modern Saffir–Simpson hurricane scale, so it’s impossible to rank the respective strengths of these storms. Contemporary reports tell us that the hurricane of 1752 was pretty awful, for example, but we lack any objective, quantifiable data to facilitate a measurable comparison with the lethal “Sea Islands” hurricane of 1893, or Hurricane Gracie in 1959.

Rather than ranking these storms by intensity, however, we can still make a poll of the worst of the worst. In other words, we can create a chronological list of the “worst” hurricanes to visit Charleston by using contemporary descriptions of the storms as a guide to their strength. For example, the Charleston newspapers of September 1800 reported the visit of a horrible storm that caused great damage, but four years later, in September 1804, the same newspapers tell us that a recent hurricane was much worse than the 1800 storm. In this manner we can whittle our list of twenty to thirty severe hurricanes down to an arbitrary number, say ten, and create a list of the “Ten Worst Hurricanes in Charleston History.” Want to know which storms made my list? Then I invite you to join me for a new program next week titled:

“Ten Worst Hurricanes in Charleston History”

Time: Wednesday September 17th 2014 at 6 p.m.

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

AND

Time: Saturday, September 20th 2014 at Noon.

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

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

 

Line Street Bicentennial

Two hundred years ago this September, the citizens of Charleston feared for the very survival of their community. Marauding British forces had just plundered and burned Washington, the nation’s capital, and had laid siege to the port of Baltimore. The Royal Navy was working its way down the eastern seaboard of the United States, and it seemed logical to conclude that the rich and strategically important port city of Charleston might be their next military target. So how did our young Federal government respond? It tersely encouraged the citizens of Charleston to make their best possible defense, and informed them not to expect assistance from the United States.

Ignoring, for the moment, the political fallout of that audacious statement, we turn our historical attention to the home front. The courageous citizens of Charleston immediately began building new defensive fortifications, but not along the city’s extensive commercial waterfront. Recalling the lessons learned during the British siege of the city in the spring of 1780, they instead commenced building a zig-zag wall and moat across the “neck” of the peninsula, cutting through a swath of land stretching approximately half a mile long, from the Cooper to the Ashley River. Thousands of citizens—black and white, slave and free, male and female—labored shoulder to shoulder for nearly six months to construct a robust barrier to defend their homes. For many years after the perilous autumn of 1814, these hastily-built fortifications were known as “The Lines” of Charleston.

The line of fortifications erected in late 1814 appear between Sheppard and Line Streets in this detail from an 1823 plat by Robert K. Payne's 1823 at the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

The line of fortifications erected in late 1814 appears between Sheppard and Line Streets in this detail from an 1823 plat by Robert K. Payne at the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

Looking back through the lens of time, it is easy for us to ignore the efforts and emotions that occupied Charleston in 1814. We know that the British did not attack Charleston during what we now call “The War of 1812,” and we know that the war was effectively over by coming of the new year in 1815. As the years passed, “The Lines” were transformed into “Line Street,” and the costly fortifications were razed and built over. Generations of Charlestonians have forgotten the dramatic origin of our humble Line Street, and many inhabitants now imagine that the street once marked the city’s northern boundary in some distant age. Not so.

The name of Line Street is a vestige of a turbulent but forgotten chapter of Charleston’s history, and is worthy of our attention. It was here, at “the lines,” that Denmark Vesey and dozens of other hastily-tried slaves and free persons of color were executed in the summer of 1822. Three years later, the citizens of Charleston and our militia joyfully received the visiting Marquis de Lafayette “at the lines,” which were located nearly half a mile “without the city.”  It was the brickwork of “the lines” that were dismantled in the late 1820s to provide building materials for a new arsenal just north of Charleston’s Boundary Street (now Calhoun Street). Yes, that’s right—nearly a million bricks, cleaned and removed from “the lines,” were used to build the original structure for the South Carolina Military College, better known as The Citadel.

By the year 1850, when the city of Charleston annexed “the Neck” (all of the land between Calhoun and Mt. Pleasant Streets), the memory of the War of 1812 and the fears of 1814 were growing dim. Small vestiges of the defensive works appear on maps of the city published in 1852 and 1872, but nothing of them remains above ground today. Nevertheless, the fears and labors that gave birth to “The Lines” in September 1814 constitute a significant episode in our city’s long and colorful history, and I encourage all carolophiles (if I may coin a term for us Charleston-lovers) to learn more about this topic. If you’re curious (and I hope you are), then please join me next week for a program titled:

“The Bicentennial of Charleston’s

Line Street, 1814–2014″

Time: Wednesday September 10th 2014 at 6 p.m.

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

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

Charleston’s Second Gate

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

A map of Charleston's new northern wall of 1745, and the town's second gate (in yellow) at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets.

Charleston’s new northern wall of 1745 (red) and its moat (blue), and the town’s second gate (yellow) at the modern intersection of Market and King Streets.

For most of our colonial era, visitors walking or riding into urban Charleston by land had but one avenue of entry: the so-called “high road” or “broad path” that we now call King Street. Between late 1703 and the early 1730s, the entrance into town was controlled by a ravelin and gate at what is now the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets. Following the outbreak of a new war between Britain and Spain in 1739, the so-called “War of Jenkins’ Ear,” our provincial legislature commenced building new fortifications around the perimeter of Charleston.

The culmination of this defensive project was the completion ca. 1745 of a new earthen wall and moat measuring approximately 3,400 linear feet along the town’s northern boundary, with a new gate in…

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Teenage Servitude and/or Slavery in Charleston

Elizabeth King's Apprentice Indenture, 1832

Apprentice’s Indenture, Elizabeth King, 1832

It’s nearly back to school time for teens in the lowcountry, and many young folks probably wish they didn’t have to return to the classroom. Some may dream of a more exciting alternative to textbooks and homework, but, historically speaking, they should consider just how lucky they are. Until about a century ago, only a small minority of the teenage population of  Charleston ever set foot in a proper classroom. Instead, most boys and girls of about 13 or 14 years of age left their familiar home and moved in with another family to begin a long apprenticeship. Only the wealthiest boys (and rarely, wealthy girls) went on to what we now fondly call “high school.” Everyone else, including many enslaved teens and free teens “of color,” were “indentured” to a master to learn a skill or trade. A wide range of career options were open to boys, ranging from attorney to mariner to wheelwright and beyond. Girls had fewer options, however, and were usually limited to domestic pursuits such as cooking, sewing, and nursing.

The documentary history of teenage apprenticeship in early America is generally rich and robust, but not necessarily so in South Carolina. A perusal of books about the history of American childhood, or even a simple search of the Internet, will connect you with good information about apprenticeships in old New England and even Virginia, but you’ll find almost nothing about early Carolina. Rest assured that the early inhabitants of the lowcountry were every bit as familiar with the traditional European practice of sending young teens out of the house to learn a trade, but the paper trail of such practices in early South Carolina is relatively faint. As a result of this dearth of evidence, one doesn’t often hear about the widespread and pragmatic use of teenage servants and/or slaves in this area.

Recently I’ve gathered a number of examples to demonstrate the customs, concerns, and legal issues surrounding the apprentice system in early Charleston. The image seen above, for example, is taken from the Charleston Orphan House records, which are part of the Charleston Archive here at CCPL. Here young Elizabeth King is being “indentured” (denoting a transfer of legal custody) to Elizabeth Williamson for a period of five years, to learn “the trade or mystery” of being a milliner. As you can read in this 1832 document, Mrs. Williamson is undertaking a legal contract to educate, clothe, feed, and care for her teenage apprentice. In return, Miss King promises to keep her mistress’s secrets, to abstain from contracting matrimony, and to avoid ale-houses, taverns, and play-houses. Hundreds of similar examples can be found scattered among the records of early Charleston. If you’d like to learn more about this fascinating topic, join me tomorrow for a program titled:

“Teenage Servitude and Slavery: The Apprentice System in Early Charleston”

Time: Tuesday, August 12th 2014 at 6 p.m.

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

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

First look at rare 1789 Charleston publication

Title page of 1789 book

CLICK THE IMAGE TO ACCESS THE BOOK

A very rare book has returned (albeit digitally) to Charleston after an absence of more than a century. The Library of Congress has recently digitized (at my request) an extremely rare book published in here in the autumn of 1789 under the auspices of our City Council. How rare is it? According my research, the copy held at the LoC is a unicum—that is, it is the only known copy in the world. The book in question is titled Ordinances of the City of Charleston, in the State of South Carolina. . . . To which are Prefixed the Act of the General Assembly for Incorporating the City, and the Subsequent Acts to Explain and Amend the Same. The text was compiled and edited by Timothy Ford, a native of New Jersey who had recently moved to Charleston to practice law. The book was published in September or October of 1789 by Mrs. Ann Timothy, who was also the proprietor of  The State Gazette of South-Carolina, at the corner of Broad and King Streets.

Why is this book important? Because the City of Charleston does not have a complete collection of its own laws. Since its incorporation on 13 August 1783, the City Council of Charleston has ratified a few thousand ordinances, but the texts of some of the earliest ones are missing.  Before the advent of typewriters and computers, the city’s Clerk of Council wrote each ordinance by hand, and he was also responsible for filing, compiling, and indexing the ordinances. In the spring of 1865, a large percentage of the city’s municipal records—documents created by city officials and institutions since the 1783 incorporation of the city—fell victim to looting and destruction at the hands of U.S. troops and visiting civilian souvenir hunters. From 1865 onward, the City of Charleston has a complete record of all the ordinances ratified by City Council, but only a patchwork remains of the nearly one thousand laws passed by the city between 1783 and 1864. No manuscript copies of antebellum ordinances are known to exist, and thus we have to rely on other sources to flesh out Charleston’s legal record.

From its earliest days (and well into the twentieth century), the city routinely published each new ordinance in one or more of the local newspapers. Some of those newspapers are now either missing or quite rare, though digital access to historic newspapers is rapidly improving. More importantly, however, the City of Charleston also periodically published official collections or digests of its many ordinances. I’ve identified about two dozen such publications, spanning from 1784 to 1985. Sixteen such compiled editions were published before the Civil War, and most local copies of those books were destroyed or went missing during the Union occupation of the city in the spring of 1865. A few rare copies of these early compilations still exist in Charleston, but readers have to turn to libraries outside South Carolina to access the rarest volumes.

In Timothy Ford’s 1789 edition of Charleston’s first seventy-five ordinances, now available online, we have the full text of several laws that were not included in later editions, and we also have the earliest known publication of the “Regulations established by the City Council for the good government of the Poor House of Charleston, and the persons residing therein.” The recent digitization of this volume is a boon for historians, and I encourage everyone to take a look at it. Thanks, Library of Congress!

A New Look at Broughton’s Battery

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

A 1780 illustration of Broughton's Battery at the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula

A 1780 illustration of Broughton’s Battery at the southernmost tip of the Charleston peninsula

Nearly a year an a half ago, in April 2013, I presented a lecture on Broughton’s Battery, a formidable brick fortification that stood at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers from 1736 to 1784. At that time I proposed that this little-known work, which was designed by Swiss engineer Gabriel Bernard, was one of the largest and most significant fortifications constructed in colonial Charleston. It was designed to mount up to forty cannon, although South Carolina’s artillery-starved colonial militia could scarcely afford to mount more than 25 or 30 guns at the site. Unfortunately for us, there is scant extant information about the battery’s design and precise location. Since April 2013, however, I’ve gathered a lot more information about the history of the real estate immediately surrounding the battery, which will help us determine its location more exactly. I’ve…

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Charleston’s First Moat

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

Detail from John Muller's 1757 fortification treatise, The Attac and Defense of Fortified Places

Detail from a profile of an earthen entrenchment and ditch, from John Muller’s 1757 fortification treatise, The Attac and Defense of Fortified Places

Earthen walls and moats (or ditches) go hand-in-hand in the history of military architecture, and the same was true in colonial Charleston. At this month’s Walled City lecture, I’ll discuss the evidence—both documentary and physical—of the first system of earthen walls and the associated moat that protected the north, west, and south sides of Charleston from late 1703 to ca. 1734. Very little information about these walls survives, but we can attempt to fill in the blanks in our knowledge by taking lessons from the fortification textbooks of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Such textbooks, including those published by John Muller in the 1740s and 1750s, provide instructions for laying out all sorts of fortifications, and provide very useful formulas and tables for calculating the height, breadth, and slope of walls…

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Windmills in McClellanville!

Model of the windmill Jonathan Lucas built at Cape Romain ca. 1790

Model of the windmill Jonathan Lucas built at Cape Romain ca. 1790. Thanks to the Village Museum, McClellanville.

There’s only one place in South Carolina you can see (and touch) remnants of an eighteenth-century windmill: the Village Museum in picturesque McClellanville. There you’ll find several impressively large iron fixtures on display that once formed part of the complex machinery of a wind-powered saw mill constructed ca. 1790. To help visitors understand how these iron parts operated in their original context, the museum also has an amazing working model of the windmill that once stood on nearby Mill Island in Cape Romain. The model, as seen in my photo to the right, is an excellent tool for explaining the value of wind-powered machinery in early South Carolina, and it’s a must-see item for every Lowcountry molinophile.

I’m taking my illustrated windmill lecture on the road this week, so if you’re in the McClellanville area please join me Friday evening for:

“Windmills in Early South Carolina”

Time: Friday, June 20th 2014 at 7 p.m.

Place: Town Hall, 405 Pinckney Street, McClellanville, SC, 29458.

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

Last Voyage of the Steamer Planter

An 1867 advertisement for the Planter's weekly route between Charleston and Georgetown, S.C.

An 1867 advertisement for the Planter’s regular weekly route.

Last month representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced they believe they have located the remnants of the Civil-War-era steamship Planter near Cape Romain, South Carolina. Inspired by the story of Robert Smalls’ daring escape from slavery in Charleston by stealing the Planter in May 1862, NOAA researchers spent six years investigating the history of the steamer and its final voyage. In the spring of 1876 the vessel was wrecked, stripped, and abandoned in the shallow waters of Cape Romain, but more than a century of shifting sandbars have obscured the precise location of the wreck. Using an arsenal of high-tech, electronic equipment, the NOAA team trolled the area and now believe they have located the magnetic signature of the lost vessel.

This conclusion, however, is based largely on the erroneous assumption that the steamer’s boilers sank with the wooden hull. The boilers, and the rest of the vessel’s metal fittings, were in fact salvaged in the spring of 1876 and sold at auction in Charleston on 18 July of that year. So has NOAA really found the remnants of Planter? I’m a bit skeptical, and we may never know for sure because there are currently no plans for further investigation or excavation of the target. NOAA has published their report in PDF form, and I encourage all to read for themselves: The Search for Planter: The Ship that Escaped Charleston and Carried Robert Smalls to Destiny. Besides a handful of South Carolina geographical errors, it’s a very thorough and informative summary of both the career of Planter and the recent search for its final resting place.

The career of Robert Smalls, from enslaved maritime professional to U.S. Congressman, is familiar to many here  the Lowcountry, but the career of Planter, from its launch in 1860 to its destruction in 1876, is far less familiar. That’s a shame, in my opinion, because understanding the background of this famed vessel, as well as its post-war travails, helps to place Smalls’ career in a broader context and provides illuminating details about civilian maritime trade in the South Carolina lowcountry. In that spirit, I hope you’ll join me for an illustrated review of the rise and fall of this celebrated steamship, in a program titled:

“A Brief History of the

Steamer Planter, 1860–1876″

Time: Wednesday, June 18th 2014 at 6 p.m.

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Where is Craven’s Bastion?

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

Determining the location and the scope of the remnants of Craven’s Bastion is not as easy as studying those of Granville’s Bastion. Significant portions of the latter bastion remain standing under the Missroon Building at 40 East Bay Street, while the foundations of the former are obscured by large-scale nineteenth century construction. In short, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the precise location of Craven’s Bastion, and, without engaging in some very destructive excavation, it may be impossible to determine if any of its brick foundations remain below the modern street scape. Nevertheless, the historical record provides some valuable clues that offer hope for determining the approximate location of this once-formidable fortification.

Craven’s Bastion was conceived in late 1703, but its construction dragged on for several years because of the general demand for bricks for the various fortification projects then underway in Charleston. It formed the northeast corner of the “walled…

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