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:

Colonial Common Encore

Last week’s program about the history of Charleston’s Colonial Common was so popular that I’ve decided to repeat this lecture at the Charleston County Public Library on Wednesday, August 19th at 6 p.m.

This is a fascinating story of a dwindling public resource that stretches over 343 years, from the laying out of this town in the summer of 1672 to the present controversy over the use of the site now occupied by the infamous Sergeant Jasper Apartments. If you’re interested in learning more about the tangled legal history of the land at the west end of Broad Street, please mark your calendars and tell your friends and neighbors.

The property in question, which once comprised approximately forty acres of marshland at the west end of Broad Street, was set aside “forever hereafter” as a public “common for Charlestown” by a 1768 act of the South Carolina General Assembly. Over the course of successive generations, however, the City Council of Charleston sold the majority of the common lands. An 1881 court ruling compelled the city to preserve the remaining acreage, and the city dutifully created Colonial Lake, the adjacent William Moultrie Playground (1931), and the nearby “Horse Lot” (Murray Park) between Chisolm Street and Ashley Avenue (1937).

In the summer of 1949, in the face of significant opposition from the community, the city sold a tract of 7.4 acres to a development firm headed by J. C. Long, who at that moment was also a member of City Council, representing Ward 12 at the northern limits of the city. Mr. Long’s development, the Sergeant Jasper Apartments, is now slated for demolition and the neighborhood is again concerned about the future development of this once-public land.


In the above map, the original boundaries of the Colonial Common (so-named by the city in July 1881) are outlined in red. The area shaded in blue represents land sold at various times in the nineteenth century to various individuals for commercial purposes (principally the milling of timber and rice). The triangular area shaded in yellow represents the 7.4 acres sold to “Sergeant Jasper Inc.” in July 1949. To the right of that property is William Moultrie Playground, which was the original object of Alderman Long’s 1949 property development scheme.

The Colonial Common: Two Important Documents

In response to a number of recent questions about Charleston’s “Colonial Common,” I’ve transcribed the two documents that define the parameters of this topic: the 1768 statute that created the public “common” space at the west end of Broad Street, and the 1881 ordinance that created a board of commissioners to protect and manage the remnants of the colonial-era common.

Click to download a PDF file: 1768 STATUTE

Click to download a PDF file: 1881 ORDINANCE

These two laws represent the foundation of any conversation about the history and use of the lands bounded by the Ashley River and Rutledge, Tradd, and Beaufain Streets. The full texts of these important documents are not easily accessible, however, so I hope my transcriptions prove helpful to the curious public.

The image below, excerpted from C. N. Drie’s 1872 “Bird’s Eye View” of Charleston, depicts the area of Charleston in question. At that time, most of the common was dominated by steam-powered sawmills that processed rafts of timber floated down the Ashley River from inland forests.


Don’t forget about this Thursday’s program:

“A Citizens’ Guide to the History of Charleston’s Colonial Common”

Thursday, June 11th 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

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

Charleston’s Shrinking “Colonial Common”

On 12 April 1768, Governor Charles Greville Montagu and the South Carolina General Assembly ratified a law directing that a large expanse of vacant marsh land at the west end of Broad Street “shall forever hereafter be reserved and kept for the use of a common for Charlestown.” Later sources describe this public common as a tract of about forty acres, bounded on the south by Tradd Street, on the north by Beaufain Street, on the east by Rutledge Avenue, and on the west by the channel of the Ashley River. Today, most of this land is actually private property, in contradiction to the intent of the 1768 law. How did large parcels of this supposedly protected public land slip into private hands? The answer to this important question is a complicated tale of battling interests, punctuated by a trail of litigation that stretches from the late colonial era to the present day.

Although the common was created by the South Carolina colonial legislature, it fell under the jurisdiction of the City Council of Charleston when the city was incorporated in 1783. The first lawsuit challenging the city’s title to the property came in 1794, when the heirs of Isaac Mazyck claimed the property under a grant made to him in 1698. After six years of legal wrangling and a jury trial, that suit was settled in the city’s favor in June 1800. In the decades that followed, the city government did very little to protect or improve the public common on the west side of the peninsula. In fact, in 1817 the city sold a large portion of the common between the west ends of Tradd and Broad Streets to private interests who eventually built a commercial rice mill (now a U.S. Coast Guard station). By the 1830s, the city had subdivided large parts of the common and leased lots to commercial interests, principally in the lumber industry. From time to time, some of these leases evolved into outright sales, and the size of the public common space continued to shrink.

In 1840 the City Council of Charleston ordered the city attorney to determine the extent of the city’s title to the waterfront land adjacent to the west end of Broad Street. Attorney George B. Eckhard reported that of the land set aside “forever” in 1768 as a public common, all that remained in city hands was the area bounded by Beaufain Street, Rutledge Avenue, Broad Street, and the Ashley River, which was commonly used as a dumping ground by the city scavengers. Into the 1850s the city continued to subdivide and lease this diminished public common, but not everyone in the community was pleased by the city’s actions. In 1853 a group of citizens filed a court action to force the city to stop dumping garbage at the common and to vacate the existing private leases on tracts at the site. That year the S.C. Court of Equity filed an injunction to prevent the dumping of garbage at the common, but stopped short of interfering with the city’s practice of leasing public lands. Shortly thereafter, John L. Strohecker, living on the north side of the common, filed suit against the city for damages to his property caused by the city’s stopping up Cumming’s Creek, which ran through the public common. That suit was abandoned when Mr. Strohecker died, but his widow pursued his claim for damages as late as 1858.

In the years after the Civil War, the lumber industry on the city’s west side continued to expand and soon dominated the former public common. In 1875 a lumber dealer named Patrick Toale purchased a lease on a tract of the city’s common, and this action proved to be the final straw for a number of citizens in the neighborhood. That year a group filed a suit in the Court of Common Pleas arguing that the City of Charleston’s practice of leasing public lands was a violation of the intent of the 1768 law reserving this land as a common. The court agreed, and in 1881 ordered that the remaining lands dedicated in 1768, not already sold, “shall forever hereafter be and be held, used, and kept as and for a Common for the use of the people of Charleston.” That summer the city ratified “An Ordinance to carry into effect the decree of the Court of Common Pleas of Charleston County restoring the remaining marsh lands not already sold by the City Council to the uses declared of them by the Colonial Government under the administration of Lord Charles Greville Montagu, A.D. 1768.” In this law, the city created a board of commissioners to administer, “beautify,” and protect the “Colonial Common,” which included a body of water commonly called the Rutledge Street Pond, but which became known as Colonial Lake.

The outline of the remnants of the Colonial Common inscribed in red on a 1942 map of Charleston.

The outline of the remnants of the Colonial Common inscribed in red on a 1942 map of Charleston.

Beginning in 1881, what we now call Colonial Lake was transformed from a muddy tidal pond into a beautiful work of civic landscaping. In 1931, the city opened William Moultrie Playground, immediately west of the lake, where citizens were invited to enjoy the Colonial Common for sports and other forms of recreation. The future of the public common looked bright until the late 1940s, when a cloud of controversy descended on the neighborhood. The city was under pressure from higher authorities to cede lands for public housing, and the developer, J. C. Long, had his eyes set on the west end of the Colonial Common. In 1949, after much debate and gnashing of teeth, and contrary to the recommendations of the Commissioners of the Colonial Common, the City Council of Charleston voted to sell a lot of land on the west side of Moultrie Playground for a new high-rise building named the Sergeant Jasper Apartments. The neighborhood was up in arms over the sale, and shortly afterwards the outraged Commissioners of the Colonial Common ceased meeting.

Today, the Sergeant Jasper Apartments are vacant and slated for demolition. Once again there is a great debate taking place in our community as competing interests struggle to determine what sort of structure will replace the aging, unpopular building. From a historians point of view, this debate is simply the latest chapter in a long series of similar conversations that have percolated in our community for two and a half centuries. I don’t have a stake in the outcome of the current contest, but it is my sincere hope that the historical record of previous struggles over the use of our Colonial Common will help the parties involved gain a better understanding of the issues at hand.

With that goal in mind, I offer two invitations to the citizens of Charleston:

First, please feel free to peruse the surviving manuscript records of the Commissioners of the Colonial Common, which can be found in the Charleston Archive here at the Charleston County Public Library. Click on this link to download a PDF file containing a detailed description of the Records of the Commissioners of the Colonial Common, 1881–1952.

Second, I invite the community to learn more about this story by joining me for an upcoming program titled:

“A Citizens’ Guide to the History of Charleston’s Colonial Common”

Thursday, June 11th 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

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

The Muddy Origins of Dock Street

It’s Spoleto season in Charleston, and each day of the festival the Dock Street Theatre is crammed to the rafters with amateurs of chamber music and opera.  This “historic” venue opened in November 1937 on the site of the site of a much smaller 1736 theater that was briefly known by the same name.  Visitors will be excused for expressing some confusion when they are directed to find the Dock Street Theatre at the southwest corner of Church and Queen Streets.  The inevitable question, “What happened to Dock Street?” is routinely met with the curt answer, “the watery street was filled and renamed Queen Street a long time ago.”  The details are obscure, and you won’t find very much at all about this topic in any book about the history of Charleston.  Behind this seemingly arcane matter, however, is a much larger and much more interesting story that tells us much about the early development of our city.

A twentieth-century copy of the ca. 1672 "Grand Modell" of Charleston

A twentieth-century copy of the ca. 1672 “Grand Modell” of Charleston

Around the year 1672 a team of surveyors laid out a new town on Oyster Point, the wooded peninsula at the confluence of the Cooper and Ashley Rivers.  In a plat that became known as the “Grand Modell” of the town, they created approximately 300 half-acre lots  and a dozen unnamed streets in a grid roughly aligned along the east-west and north-south axes.  As this “New Charles Town” was settled and the trees were cleared, however, a number of small adjustments to the plan altered the intended trajectory of several streets.  Over time, the ripple effect of such adjustments resulted in a number of property disputes and general confusion.

Such was the case with the northernmost east-west street in the Grand Modell, described in early records simply as “the north street.”  The street was largely unpopulated for the first three decades of the town’s life, until 1706 when house carpenter Edward Loughton (d. 1707) petitioned the legislature for permission to construct a “dock” or “wharf” out of the “marsh or swamp” that stood where Queen Street is now.  The legislature approved Loughton’s plan, but the precise location of his “dock” is not known.  In subsequent years, houses grew up along the margins of “the dock street,” and Loughton’s property passed into other hands.  Following the lines of the water course rather than the intended lines of the “north street,” however, many of the inhabitants of the neighborhood found themselves arguing over property boundaries.  As the town’s population expanded, in fact, a chorus of complaints arose from property owners frustrated over wandering street lines.

In 1721 the South Carolina legislature deemed it necessary to commission a re-survey of the town, and over the subsequent twenty-five years a significant number of urban property lines were re-drawn in the attempt to rectify the bounds of several streets.  The most dramatic chapter in this process was the arbitration over the proper course of “the dock street.”  By custom of use, the muddy eastern end of the Dock Street was found to have moved more than 100 feet north of the intended location of the North Street.  In 1733 a new team of surveyors and joint legislative committee examined the situation and filed an extensive report.  After the facts had been ascertained and digested, the legislature reached a compromise solution to relocate the path of the street with as little disruption to the neighborhood has possible.  To ensure the binding legality of these adjustments, the South Carolina General Assembly formally renamed the street and on 9 April 1734 ratified “An Act for the better and more certain regulating and adjusting the metes and boundaries of Queen-street, formerly called Dock-street, in Charles Town.”

The earliest illustration of the revised trajectory of Queen Street appears in the 1739 “Ichnography of Charles-Town,” published in London by Bishop Roberts and W. H. Toms.  In the illustration below, I’ve placed a slice of the ca. 1672 Grand Model and a slice of the 1739 “Ichnography” side-by-side and highlighted the North Street, alias Dock Street, alias Queen Street.

The "north street" ca. 1672 (left) and Queen Street, 1739 (right)

The “north street” ca. 1672 (left) and Queen Street, 1739 (right)

As you can see, the compromise involved making some sacrifices at the east end of the street, next to the Cooper River, while maintaining the “true” course of street at its western end.  Also in the image above, the “new” theater, opened in January 1736, is labeled “L” on the left side of the street.

If you look very closely at the 1739 image, you can also see the remnants of the watery swamp at the east end of Queen Street, and even the narrow bridge the government built in East Bay Street over the muddy remains of the ancient dock:

Watery remnants of "Dock Street" in 1739

Watery remnants of “Dock Street” in 1739

If you’d like to hear more details about this topic, please join me for a lecture titled:

“The Muddy Origins of Charleston’s Dock Street”

Tuesday, June 2nd 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401

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

June Programs


Click the image to open a PDF

I’m excited about unveiling some “new” information about familiar historical Charleston topics in June, ranging from seventeenth-century surveying mistakes to Revolutionary biographies to nineteenth-and twentieth-century legal disputes that are very au courant.

On June 2nd we’ll roll up our sleeves and dig into “The Muddy Origins of Charleston’s Dock Street.” During Spoleto season here, you’ll hear the phrase “Dock Street Theatre” ad nauseam,  but that street name disappeared nearly three centuries ago. Why? Here’s a brief preview: The watery street was in the “wrong” place, and the “amended” dry version was named Queen Street.

On June 11th I’ll present a lecture titled “A Citizens’ Guide to the History of Charleston’s Colonial Common,” which is intended to help our community understand the contentious history of the land on which the Sergeant Jasper Apartment building sits. The current controversial plans for re-developing that site are unwittingly stirring up legal conundrums that date back to the spring of 1768.

On June 27th, in honor of “Carolina Day,” we’ll take a hard look at the sparse biographical evidence of “William Jasper: An Enigmatic Hero.” Because the celebrated sergeant came to fame in 1776 and died three years later in 1779, there is a great paucity of information about his background. Some say he was Scots-Irish, or Welsh, or English, or even German. Here’s the new twist: his daughter said he was “a native of the Emerald Isle.”

Stay tuned for upcoming essays on these topics. In the meantime, you can always find brief descriptions and details of upcoming events on our Calendar page.

Johnson’s Ravelin: Charleston’s First Town Gate

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

Johnson’s Ravelin, also known as Johnson’s Cover’d Half Moon, was a man-made triangular island (of sorts) that guarded the only land entrance into Charleston for approximately thirty years.  Designed in December 1703 and dismantled in the early 1730s, this important defensive work was once a major landmark of our city’s built environment.  Today, however, it’s completely unfamiliar to most of the residents and tourists who pass over its remnants at the modern intersection of Broad and Meeting Streets.

The history of Johnson’s Ravelin begins in December 1703, when Governor Nathaniel Johnson called an emergency session of the South Carolina General Assembly in Charleston.  Credible intelligence had just been received, the governor informed the legislators, that Spanish forces were massing at Havana and St. Augustine for an invasion of South Carolina, and immediate action was required to prepare an adequate defense of the colony.  After discussions and debates, the legislature voted to fund a new system of…

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