Unresolved Fury: The 1686 Spanish Raid on Edisto Island

The earliest fortification projects in urban Charleston were motivated by the fear of invasion from our Spanish neighbors to the south.  In the autumn of 1686, a small Spanish fleet sailed northward from St. Augustine, Florida, with the hopes of driving the English out of South Carolina.  Stopping first at Edisto Island, then Carolina’s southernmost settlement, the Spanish forces invaded and destroyed most of the island’s English possessions.  Were it not for the sudden arrival of a hurricane, the Spanish would have continued northward and challenged the nascent fortifications of Charleston.

Want to learn more about this fascinating story?  Please join me for a look at the motivations behind the 1686 attack and its impact on the early history of both Edisto and South Carolina in general.

  • Thursday, 12 November 2015 at 5 p.m., at Trinity Episcopal Church Hall, 1589 Highway 174, Edisto Island, SC 29438. 
  • Monday, 16 November 2015 at 6 p.m., at Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 
Edisto Island, from the

Edisto Island, from the “Crisp Map” of 1711

From Intendant to Mayor

It’s Election Day 2015, and thousands of Charlestonians have cast ballots for a new mayor of our fine city. For the past forty years, Mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. has held that office, but his long tenure is coming to an end. At this historical juncture, I thought this would be a fitting time to look back at the evolution of that office.

Many people in our community, and indeed some beyond South Carolina, attach considerable political clout to the office of Charleston’s chief executive, but that hasn’t always been the case. Over the past 232 years, our city’s executive office has evolved from a nearly powerless, part-time, unsalaried intendant, to a powerful, full-time, salaried mayor. What’s the difference between these two titles, and how did the office of Charleston’s executive evolve into a more powerful position? To answer these questions, we have to look back to the eighteenth century, during Charleston’s fledgling colonial days.

It is important to remember that for the first century of its existence, Charles Town was an unincorporated community without any sort of municipal government. In an era before running water, street paving, sanitation, and modern public health concerns, what did you need a municipal government for anyway?

Because Charles Town was the capital of South Carolina and the seat of our provincial government, however, our colonial legislature enacted a few laws for the basic administration of the town. From time to time, the legislature made provisions for such things as a town watch, defensive fortifications, public wells, and primitive sewer drains.

In June of 1722, under the stern guidance of Governor Francis Nicholson, our provincial legislature ratified an act to incorporate Charles Town as “Charles City and Port.” This law set up a “common council” to govern the city and appointed William Gibbons “mayor” of the new city.

Back in England, however, King George’s legal advisors were appalled by the hereditary nature of these city offices, and the 1722 incorporation of “Charles City and Port” was canceled by our British superiors. When news of this de-incorporation reached South Carolina in early October 1723, the name of our capital immediately reverted to the humble appellation, “Charles Town.”

A generation before the American Revolution, there was one more significant step towards the better management of urban Charles Town. In 1750, our provincial legislature ratified an act for the better regulation of Charles Town, and created a board of commissioners of streets. These street commissioners were responsible not only for clearing, filling, repairing, and draining the town’s urban thoroughfares, but they were also empowered to contract with scavengers to begin weekly curbside garbage collection. As mundane as these tasks may seem, they represent the first tentative steps toward a separate municipal government for Charleston.

The City of Charleston was finally incorporated shortly after the American Revolution. On the 13th of August 1783, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified an act to incorporate the city and create a system of municipal government composed of a city council and an intendant. The Wardens were to be elected by the citizens of their respective wards (there were thirteen wards in 1783), on the first Monday in every September. Then after the Wardens had been elected and sworn in, the citizens would return to the polls to select an intendant from among the thirteen newly elected Wardens. This second election was supposed to take place on the second Monday of every September, but in reality it usually took a few days longer to organize the election.

So this was the basic outline of Charleston’s new municipal government in 1783, but it’s important to remember that the city’s charter has been amended a number of times over the past 232 years. We’ll come back to that topic in a moment. But first, let’s address the obvious question: Why in 1783 did our civic leaders choose the title “Intendant” rather than the more common title “Mayor”?

The title “Mayor” came to England from France by way of the Norman Invasion in 1066, and by the early 12th century it was being adopted by municipalities throughout the realm. A mayor could be strong or weak, or simply a public relations figurehead, depending on the community’s political traditions.

When English settlers came to the New World to establish colonies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they frequently used the title of “Mayor” for their municipal executives. In contrast, the title “Intendant” is more commonly used by French and Spanish municipalities, both in Europe and in their former colonies the New World.

In fact, Charleston is one of a handful of communities in the United States to use the title “Intendant.” Curiously, if you look around for other examples, you’ll find early municipalities in both South Carolina and Alabama with intendants rather than mayors. Most of those communities have since adopted the more common title “Mayor” now, but the evidence suggests some sort of trend after the American Revolution.

It’s my educated guess that by adopting the title of intendant rather than mayor in 1783, the civic leaders of Charleston were expressing a desire to cast off English and British traditions. By adopting a title more often associated with municipal governments in France, our new ally during the war for independence, Charleston was attempting to forge a new tradition in civic administration.

So what exactly did our city intendant do? The 1783 act to incorporate Charleston did not define the scope of the intendant’s powers, nor did it prescribe any specific duties. By looking back at surviving records from the first few decades after the city’s incorporation, however, it appears that the intendant functioned merely as the presiding officer at City Council meetings, acting as a sort of master of ceremonies, if you will.

The intendant collected no salary for this duty, nor was he provided with a physical office separate from the rest of his fellow council members, who also served without pay. The only phrase relative to his duties in the 1783 act of incorporation related to term limits. According to that law, “No person shall be eligible to serve as intendant for more than three years in any term of five years.”

While it carried some degree of prestige, the office of intendant was not something that men actively campaigned for. In fact, before the 1830s, the idea of campaigning for elected office was considered crass and inappropriate for a gentleman. Because these elected offices offered no salary, they were essentially open only to gentlemen with private wealth. In the mindset of these Charlestonians, the notion of being paid for such municipal service conjured up images of influence peddling and prideful vanity. No, Charleston of the late eighteenth century was not quite ready for the questionable ethics of later American politics.

As I mentioned earlier, the city’s 1783 charter has been updated many times over the years. In December of 1808, for example, the South Carolina legislature ratified an act to alter and amend the city’s charter, specifically addressing one small aspect of its electoral process.

Up to this point, the city’s intendant had been selected by the citizens from among the small pool of men elected to serve as Wardens. According to the 1808 act, however, the intendant was to be elected “from among the Corporators of the City of Charleston.” That is to say, the citizens of Charleston were to elect an intendant on the third Monday in September, regardless of whether or not that man had been elected a Warden on the first Monday of September.

Furthermore, this 1808 law prescribed an enlargement of the intendant’s powers. Specifically, it endowed him with “all of the powers . . . incident to the office of justice of the quorum.” A Justice of the Quorum was similar to the more familiar title of Justice of the Peace, a very low-level judicial appointment, but a Justice of the Quorum had the authority to preside over local tribunals composed of multiple Justices of the Peace.

Another noteworthy amendment to Charleston’s city charter came along in December of 1817. By this time the citizens were unhappy with the inconvenient tradition of choosing the city’s Wardens and its intendant at separate elections spaced two weeks apart. According to this 1817 act, however, these elections would henceforth take place on the same day. Furthermore, citizens were now empowered to select both the wardens and the intendant by “general ticket,” meaning a resident would cast votes for all the wardens composing City Council, not just the for a representative from his respective ward.

At that time, election reform was brewing in South Carolina. In 1810, the state amended its constitution to allow all free white men over the age of 21 to vote. Accordingly, the 1817 revision of Charleston’s city charter granted suffrage to all free white males. It did, however, require men to register with the city treasure at least one month prior to the election. While this small requirement may seem logical to modern voters, many would-be-voters in Charleston’s 1818 elections were quite upset about this novel requirement when they were turned away from the polls for failure to register.

Nearly forty years after the incorporation of Charleston, the relative merits of the office of city intendant came into question. In the summer of 1822, local authorities were alarmed by the discovery of a planned uprising among members of the city’s enslaved and free black populations, ostensibly led by a free carpenter named Denmark Vesey. Modern scholars are divided over the question of whether such a plot actually existed or whether the authorities exaggerated the matter in order to tighten restrictions on the black population.

Regardless of this academic controversy, the drama that unfolded in the summer of 1822 exposed a weakness in the city’s government. Because of the scale of the threat, the governor of South Carolina took control of the situation and activated the local units of the state militia to stand guard in Charleston. Meanwhile, the city’s own government—the intendant and City Council—played a very minor role in the entire affair.

In the heat of the crisis, many citizens clamored for a more active and stronger municipal government. The solution, many argued, was to attach a salary to the intendant’s office, as a means of requiring a greater degree of diligence and commitment from the city’s executive office. In response, on the 6th of August 1822, Charleston’s City Council ratified an ordinance granting an annual salary of $3,500 to the intendant.

Almost immediately, however, many citizens began clamoring for a repeal of the intendant’s salary. Some argued that the sum was far too large, while some argued that any salary attached to an elected office was the first step toward an unscrupulous, greedy, and corrupt government.

In the end, popular opinion won the day, and on the 17th of October 1822—shortly after the annual municipal elections—the city council repealed the salary ordinance of 6 August, and the office of intendant returned to its former, humble, voluntary station.

Twelve years later, in the spring of 1835, another crisis brought attention back to the matter of our city government. A major fire on the 16th of February destroyed a significant portion of the city, including the majestic colonial church of the parish of St. Philip. Once again, officials at the state level, rather than our local government, took charge of the relief efforts. Charleston’s intendant and City Council weren’t completely powerless, but they lacked the degree of commitment that citizens of the 1830s were growing to expect from their elected leaders. Consequently, many citizens began clamoring once again for a stronger municipal government that would offer more support and leadership.

In response to these appeals, the city added a referendum to the usual municipal elections of early September 1835. The ballot simply stated that the referendum was “on the question of having a Salary attached to the office of Intendant.” Despite ardent appeals for a more powerful and more accountable executive, the 1835 referendum question was rejected by a large majority.

But all was not lost. Public discussion of a salaried intendant resurfaced in the spring of 1836, and on the 7th of June citizens gathered for a large public forum on the matter. Their stated goal was to transform the role of the passive intendant into a more active and accountable office—a chief executive of the city corporation, with an appropriate salary.

The pro-salary movement gathered steam through the summer of 1836, and City Council scheduled another referendum on the topic for August 8th. Less than a year after the defeat of the same proposal, the 1836 referendum won by a large majority, and on the 24th of August, the city ratified an ordinance granting a salary of $4,000 to the intendant.

At the usual annual election on 5 September 1836, Robert Young Hayne was elected Charleston’s first salaried intendant. Three months later, the state legislature ratified an act to rename the officers of Charleston’s city government. The old titles of “Intendant” and “Warden” were formally changed to that of Mayor and Aldermen. Significantly, this law also abolished the limit on the number of terms the mayor could serve. The stage was set for 40-year-tenure of Mayor Riley.

The change from intendant to Mayor was not simply a matter of nomenclature. It was also a reflection of the growing expectations of the American public. Citizens were beginning to require more accountability, transparency, and vision from their elected representatives.

Charleston’s 1836 transformation from weak intendant to strong mayor set in motion the prototype for our city’s modern mayors. The salary attached to the new office also came with a new duty that today we take for granted. It required the city’s executive to make an annual report to the citizens explaining what the city government had accomplished in the past year and how tax monies were spent. Furthermore, in this annual “state of the city” address, as many now call it, mayors were expected to articulate their visions for the future of the city, and to lay out the steps necessary to accomplish large civic projects.

Mayor Robert Young Hayne outlined the first such “city improvement” project in 1837, announcing his vision for a beautiful public park at the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula. That park, which Mayor Hayne christened White Point Garden, endures today as a monument to the foresight of our city government. Subsequent mayors went on to be elected on grand promises of civic improvement, and such platforms have become the norm for our electoral process.

But in 1836, Charleston was still a pretty small city. Most of the local population lived south of Boundary Street at that time, but the population of the Neck, the unincorporated land north of Boundary Street, was growing rapidly. In the late 1840s, Mayor Thomas L. Hutchinson opened a discussion of annexing the Neck, and legislative approval of this process came in December of 1849. At the beginning of 1850, the city annexed the vast territory north of Boundary Street, which was renamed Calhoun Street later that year.

In late 1852 the state legislature again altered the charter of the City of Charleston. Since the mayor’s duties were now more important, it seemed logical to extend his term from one year to two. At the same time, Charleston’s municipal elections were moved from September to early November, closer to the time frame of our modern election day. Thus in November 1853, Thomas Hutchinson was elected the first mayor of Charleston to serve a two-year term.

Two decades later, the city and our state legislature revisited the same topic, arguing that a strong mayor could be more effective if he could secure a longer tenure in office. Accordingly, in December 1878 the legislature ratified an act to extend the mayor’s term to four years, and in November 1879, William Ashmead Courtenay was elected our first mayor to serve a four-year term.

Mayor Courtenay was really the first of what we might consider our “modern” mayors of Charleston. He was a powerful politician, with strong convictions and visions for future the city. During his eight years in office, Mayor Courtenay was able to focus on municipal improvement and growth, with a minimum of time wasted on campaigning and politicking.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, the city of Charleston has grown in many different ways. While a lot of this growth can be attributed to private investment and both state and federal projects, we should not discount the degree of influence attributed to the city’s executive office. As ambassadors for the city, the various mayors of Charleston have succeeded in bringing to the city new investment, new jobs, and lots and lots of tourists.

And now, as Charlestonians go to the polls to elect a new mayor, tonight’s victor will take charge of a much larger city than Intendant Richard Hutson could have dreamt of in 1783. The recent Google map seen below illustrates the city’s present corporate boundaries. Since 1960, the city council of Charleston has annexed a significant amount of territory beyond the peninsula. Everything on this map bounded by red lines—including a huge swath of land west of the Ashley, most of James Island, Morris Island, parts of Johns Island, and all of Daniel Island—now falls under the jurisdiction of the Mayor and City Council of Charleston.


Now it’s time for some useless Mayoral trivia:

It’s been 232 years since the incorporation of the city of Charleston.

In that time we’ve had 60 different city executives, from Richard Hutson to Joseph P. Riley Jr.

We saw 70 years of one-year executive terms, including 53 years of part-time unsalaried Intendants.

We had 26 years of two-year terms, and 136 years of four-year terms.

That’s a total of 179 years of full-time, salaried mayors since 1836.

What was the shortest tenure of a Charleston Mayor? That would be Brevet Brigadier-General W. W. Burns, who served a total of 16 days as a Federally appointed mayor during the era of Reconstruction in the spring of 1868.

What was the longest tenure of a Charleston Mayor? Forty years, of course, a record held by you-know-who.

Speaking of the man of the hour, I’ll leave you with this photo of the Honorable Joseph P. Riley Jr., unveiling a new historical plaque in the summer of 2007 during the bicentennial anniversary of the City Market. In case you’re not familiar with our Joe, the mayor is the distinguished gentleman on the right. On the left is the author of the text of that historical plaque, yours truly.

Nic Butler and Joseph P. Riley Jr., 2007

Nic Butler and Joseph P. Riley Jr., 2007

Thanks for all you’ve done for us. We’ll miss you, Mayor Riley!


November Programs

Time_Machine_Nov_2015Early Spanish raiders, late-arriving African captives, and Gilded Age velocipede mania—that’s the menu for our November adventures in Charleston history.  Once again we begin the month with a program inspired by the South Carolina 8th grade history curriculum, offering a local perspective on the U.S. Constitution’s oddly delayed closing of the African slave trade.  Then we’ll leap backward to examine the 1686 Spanish invasion of Edisto Island and the broader ramifications of that long-forgotten event.  Finally, we’ll end the month with a fun two-wheeled tour of the velocipede/bicycle mania that swept Charleston and the rest of the nation in the final years of the nineteenth century.

The U.S. Constitution and the African Slave Trade, 1787–1808

When the framers of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 sought to end the importation of enslaved people from Africa, delegates from South Carolina successfully argued for a twenty year delay before closing this trade. Join us for a discussion of the opaque politics behind this delay and of the “final victims” who came to South Carolina directly from Africa.

  • Thursday, 5 November at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401
  • Tuesday, 10 November at 11:15 a.m.,  John’s Island Regional Library, 3531 Maybank Highway, Johns Island, SC 29455 (with students from Haut Gap Middle School


Unresolved Fury: The 1686 Spanish Raid on Edisto Island

The early development of Edisto Island suffered a great setback in 1686, when Spanish forces from Florida invaded and destroyed most of the island’s English settlements. Were it not for the sudden arrival of a hurricane, the Spanish would have continued northward and challenged the nascent fortifications of Charleston.  Join us for a look at the motivations behind this attack and its impact on the early history of both Edisto and South Carolina in general.

  • Thursday, 12 November at 5 p.m., Trinity Episcopal Church Hall, 1589 Highway 174, Edisto Island, S.C., 29438
  •  Monday, 16 November at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401


Charleston’s Bicycle Mania, 1885–1910

The advent of the “Safety” bicycle in the 1880s fostered an explosion of cycling activity across America and in Charleston, with clubs, parades, tournaments, and white-knuckle oval-track racing. Please join us at Affordabike on King Street for the amusing true story of the excitement and chaos in the streets during Charleston’s “Golden Age” of cycling.

  • Tuesday, 24 November at 6 p.m., Affordabike, 573 King Street, Charleston SC 29403


Questions? Drop me a line at butlern[at]ccpl.org or call 843–805–6968 for more information.

October Programs



Stories of weighty decisions, colorful music, and powerful politics—that’s what you’ll find at the Charleston Time Machine this October.   We begin the month by continuing our chronological survey of state history for 8th graders with a Revolutionary War topic, and end the month with a look at the deep background of Charleston’s mayoral politics (just in time for the upcoming election).  Between these grave topics, we’ll explore an exciting, but little-known chapter in the story of African-American music in the lowcountry of South Carolina.  These free programs are suitable for all ages, of course, and I hope to see you in a library soon.


Choosing Sides in Revolutionary South Carolina

During the American Revolution, free white and enslaved black South Carolinians faced a choice about whether to support the struggle for independence or to pledge loyalty to the British government.  Men and women on both sides struggled with this weighty decision and then faced the consequences of their allegiances.  Some were banished, some became heroes, some suffered miserably, and some won freedom.  Join me for a look at the options available to lowcountry residents during those years of crisis.

  • Wednesday, October 7th at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401
  • Tuesday, October 13th at 11:15 a.m.John’s Island Regional Library, 3531 Maybank Highway, Johns Island, SC 29455 (with students from Haut Gap Middle School


Black Violinists in Early Charleston

Black violinists were a common feature of Charleston’s early cultural scene, where they provided music for both black and white audiences at formal and informal dances.  To learn more about these “negro fiddlers” and the instruments and music they played, please join me for a look at the evidence of this little-known feature of Charleston’s musical heritage.

  • Monday, October 12th at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401


From Intendant to Mayor: The Evolution of Charleston’s Executive Office

Since the incorporation of the city in 1783, the office of Charleston’s chief executive has evolved from a part-time, volunteer “Intendant” serving a one-year term to a strong, salaried “Mayor” with significant political clout.  Please join me for a survey of the most significant steps in this political journey and how they shaped the city’s history.

  • Wednesday, October 28th at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401

Questions? Drop me a line at butlern[at]ccpl.org or call 843–805–6968 for more information.

Escaping Slavery in Early South Carolina

Slavery was an abominable institution, but we cannot ignore the fact that it shaped the people and early culture of South Carolina. By exploring the surviving documents found in archives and libraries across the South Carolina, however, one can find stories of people who escaped slavery and found a path to freedom. I believe such stories reveal the hope that many enslaved South Carolinians held for a better tomorrow.

As a historian I spend a lot of time looking at old records, and in the course of my research I’ve identified four different paths to freedom in early South Carolina.

The first I’ll call “government manumission.” Manumission is a term for the act of setting someone free, derived from the verb “to manumit.” That word may be unfamiliar to modern readers, but it’s similar to the verb “to emancipate,” from which we get the word “emancipation,” as in the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. In a government manumission, the agent manumitting the enslaved person was the South Carolina General Assembly.

A second path to freedom was “private manumission,” in which a private citizen who owned a slave voluntarily released that person from the bonds of slavery. This practice was the most common, and the most secure path to freedom in early America. No one has ever made an inventory of private manumissions in South Carolina, but I would estimate that perhaps as many as one thousand South Carolinians were emancipated by this method before 1820. In December of that year, the South Carolina General Assembly passed a law requiring an act of the legislature to manumit any slave. As you can imagine, this new law effectively ended the practice of private manumission.

A third path was for an enslaved person to purchase his or her own freedom. Many enslave people in South Carolina were given opportunities to generate income in their “spare time,” and some enslaved people were “hired out” to work beyond their masters’ property. In such cases, the enslaved people were allowed to keep a percentage of the revenue they generated. After years of hard work, an enslaved person might be able to earn enough money to purchase his or her freedom, as well as the freedom their own family members.

And finally, when there were no other options, an enslaved person might simply run away from his or her owner and attempt to forge their own path to freedom. As you can imagine, this was a pretty bold and desperate act of defiance, and the thousands of South Carolinians who chose to run away from slavery faced a multitude of dangers. Most were not successful, and the consequences of failure were sometimes fatal.

If you’d like to hear examples of each of these paths to freedom, please take a look at the video version of this program from September 2015:

If you’d like to learn more about escaping slavery in early South Carolina, click on this link to download a PDF copy of a suggested reading list.

September Programs



It’s back to school time for many folks, and that’s the theme for the Charleston Time Machine adventures in September. This month I’ll present two new programs, one of which is actually the beginning of a series designed to dovetail with the South Carolina History curriculum taught to eighth graders in this state. These free programs are suitable for all ages, of course, and I hope to see you in a library soon.

Escaping Slavery in Early South Carolina

Tens of thousands of Africans were brought to early South Carolina to work as enslaved laborers, but a small percentage of that number managed to find a path to freedom long before the abolition of slavery in 1865. How was this possible, and what were the consequences? Join me for an exploration of various ways and means of escaping slavery, and examples of specific men and women who found freedom in early South Carolina.

  • Tuesday, September 8th at 11:15 a.m.John’s Island Regional Library, 3531 Maybank Highway, Johns Island, SC 29455 (with students from Haut Gap Middle School)
  • Thursday, September 10th at 6 p.m.Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401

Handwriting Styles in Early South Carolina

Cursive penmanship is a dying art in the digital age, but the ability to decipher historical styles of handwriting is a critical tool for reading manuscripts from various eras of South Carolina’s past. These written words—whether flamboyant, crude, bold, or feeble—can tell us much about the writers of our past. Join me for an illustrated survey of writing styles and conventions found in South Carolina documents from the 1660s onward.

  • Wednesday, September 23rd at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401

Questions? Drop me a line at butlern[at]ccpl.org or call 843–805–6968 for more information.

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]ccpl.org 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.