Benne Seeds in the Lowcountry

The benne (or sesame) seed has long been a staple in the traditional foodways of the South Carolina lowcountry. Most people here, especially tourists, first encounter this delicious seed in the benne wafer—sweet, crunchy, bite-sized discs that one finds everywhere in and around Charleston. In recent years, however, historically-minded chefs have been using benne in a wide variety of dishes, from pastries to main courses, in the effort to restore the tiny seed to its former place as a staple of lowcountry cuisine.

With this renewed interest in benne, I’ve heard a number of statements about its history in our community, some of which left me scratching my head. I’m not a culinary historian, but I do have a passion for tracking down documentary evidence that sheds light on the myths and realities of Charleston history. After a bit of archival digging, I can report that while there are still many unknown chapters in the story of benne in the lowcountry, the basic outlines of the story are clear.

Sesamum indicum at Wikipedia

Sesamum indicum at Wikipedia

Benne (also spelled bene, bennie, or benny in historical sources) is one of several West African words for what eighteenth-century Europeans called sesamum indicum, a tall, flowering annual plant that originated in sub-Saharan Africa and was first domesticated in India. As a rich and tasty source of oil and protein, benne seeds were a prized commodity that had spread throughout Asia and and Europe before Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. The plant was known to botanists in England and northern Europe, but the cooler climate of their region was not conducive to the cultivation and commercial production of sesamum. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, sesamum or benne grew wildly and for many centuries its seeds and its leaves were a staple in foodways, medicines, and rituals.

These traditions came with the enslaved people brought to the New World by European colonists, but we cannot be certain about who brought the first benne seeds to the Americas. It could have been the West African slaves themselves who transported the seeds, but there is no definitive evidence of this potential scenario. We know for certain, however, that by 1707 sesamum was being grown in Jamaica “by the Negroes in their Gardens” (Hans Sloane, A Voyage to the Islands Madera Barbados, Nieves, S. Christophers and Jamaica, London, 1707, vol. I: 161). Since there was much trade between Jamaica and South Carolina in the early eighteenth-century, the seed may have come to the mainland by way of our Caribbean neighbors.

The earliest-known documentary evidence of the presence of benne in South Carolina dates from August 1730, when Thomas Lowndes sent a brief description of its cultivation and recently-harvested samples to the Board of Trade and Plantations and to another correspondent in England. His objective was to demonstrate to British colonial officials that the oil derived from sesamum seeds represented a potential cash crop for South Carolina. Such a venture, Lowndes argued, would help Britain and its colonies break their dependence on olive oil imported from the Mediterranean region. Thus while  Africans brought to the Americas by force continued to used sesamum in a variety of traditional ways, their English captors were focused on the seed’s oil as a potentially profitable stream of revenue.

The second quarter of the eighteenth century was a time of great agricultural experimentation in South Carolina. By the 1720s, rice was well-established as a viable and profitable export crop, and investors (planters) were searching for additional uses for our vast and fertile lowcountry soils. In addition, renewed war with Spain and France (the so-called War of Jenkins’ Ear) motivated British agents and colonists to search for ways to reduce their dependence on foreign imports. The plants sesamum and indigofera were our next big contenders and the subjects of many practical trials and theoretical discussions. Anyone with the least familiarity with South Carolina history knows that a deep-blue dye stuff made from indigofera became an important export beginning in the 1740s, but one doesn’t hear anything today about what we might call “the great sesamum experiments” of the the 1740s.

Capitalizing on the local availability of sesamum seeds and the knowledge of their African slaves, several lowcountry planters raised crops in the 1740s and pressed the seeds to extract the valuable oil. The earliest known evidence of this activity appears in late September 1746, when James Island planter Francis Gracia (ca. 1694-1764) first advertised his “Sallad Oyl” made from “Cessamum or Benny Seed.”

Francis Gracia's first

Francis Gracia’s first “sallad oyl” advertisement in the South-Carolina Gazette, 22 September 1746.

Over the next several years, Gracia, known primarily as a “joyner” in urban Charleston, advertised his salad oil in the newspapers, but the product failed to take root on a commercial scale. By 1749, profit-minded lowcountry planters were throwing their investment resources into cultivating and processing indigo for export, and the dream of a South Carolina benne oil industry fizzled. This commercial failure did not discourage enslaved Africans from continuing to sow, harvest, and enjoy the seeds, however, and so benne quietly thrived for several more generations in the small patches of slave gardens on various lowcountry plantations. Its presence was acknowledged by some white agriculturalists of the late-eighteenth century, but the mania for cotton in the 1790s and beyond quickly eclipsed any further serious consideration of benne.

In the early years of the nineteenth century, when the American economy suffered because of trade wars with Britain, lowcountry planters turned their attention to the small domestic gardens of their enslaved laborers in search of alternatives to expensive imports. Once again the humble benne seed became the object of attention, not only as a rich source of oil but also as a nutritious ingredient in a variety of dishes and a logical rotation crop for domestic provision gardens. From that point on, benne was on the radar, so to speak, of every lowcountry agriculturalist.

Following the end of the Civil War in 1865, one hundred and fifty years ago this month, the long-established agricultural traditions of coastal South Carolina began to crumble and disperse. In the ensuing struggle to create a new economy not based on slavery, many lowcountry residents turned away from agriculture, and the story of the humble benne seed was largely lost in the shuffle. Benne continued to be cultivated and used locally, of course, but mostly by those at the lowest end of the economic scale. As tourism began to emerge as a viable local industry in the early twentieth century, visitors embraced the small, sweet benne wafer as a deliciously curious souvenir of the lowcountry experience. In fact, for many tourists, the benne wafer is the signature taste representing Charleston in their memories.

Today the benne seed is found in a variety of dishes in a growing number of lowcountry homes and restaurants. Local chefs have embraced the seed, and culinary historians are busy tracing the story of its migration from Africa to the Americas. As the veneration of the humble sesamum continues to grow, I encourage everyone to learn more about its colorful history and the wide variety of uses for its seeds and leaves. If you’d like to hear more about the local history of this important plant, please join me for a program titled:

Benne Seeds in the Lowcountry: A Brief History

Thursday, April 30th 2015 at 6 p.m.

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

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

Nat Fuller Rests in Peace

Last night I had the pleasure of joining nearly one hundred guests at “Nat Fuller’s Feast,” an event commemorating the 150th anniversary of a mixed-race fancy dinner hosted by a recently-freed former slave, Nat Fuller (1812-1866), the premier catering chef of mid-nineteenth-century Charleston. It was a wonderful feast, populated by the most charming and interesting guests one can imagine, and I am honored to have been invited to the table. If Nat Fuller’s story has eluded your attention, you can find a detailed profile of his life and career at the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative’s new online exhibit, Nat Fuller’s Feast: The Life and Legacy of An Enslaved Cook in Charleston.

We can thank Dr. David Shields of the University of South Carolina for the exhaustive research into Nat Fuller’s life, and for authoring the biographical profile that you’ll find online. Summarizing the details of that biographical work, Dr. Shields lamented that he could not find the location of Fuller’s grave. That comment aroused my attention because here at CCPL, in our Charleston Archive, we have the City of Charleston’s extant “Return of Deaths,” or weekly ledgers of interments, dating from July 1819 through December 1926. Arriving at work this morning (a bit late and sluggish after the big five-hour feast), I went straight to the “Return of Deaths” and immediately found Nat Fuller.

Nat Fuller's interment record, from the City of Charleston

Nat Fuller’s interment record, from the City of Charleston “Return of Deaths,” 16-22 December 1866; from the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

According to this manuscript ledger, Nat Fuller, a 54-year-old black male, a native of Charleston, died of “fever, typhoid” at his residence at 77 (now 103) Church Street on 16 December 1866. He was buried at the “Heriott [sic] Street Cemetery,” which is a little-known patch of land just a stone’s throw north of the Charleston city limit, and in close proximity to several other large cemeteries created in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Heriot Street was laid out in the mid-nineteenth century on property of the Heriot family, and by 1866 an African American cemetery, measuring approximately 150 feet by 187 feet, had been established on the south side of the street. No deed identifying the owner of the property can be found, but between the 1860s and the 1930s the cemetery was variously called the Heriot Street Cemetery, the Trinity Colored Heriot Street Cemetery, and the Centenary Burial Ground. Only a handful of headstones remain standing today, but, according to the “Return of Deaths,” this cemetery holds at least 300 unmarked graves.

If you’d like to visit Nat Fuller’s final resting place, you can set your GPS coordinates to n32 48.955 , w79 57.137, which will take you to Heriot Street. From downtown Charleston, simply take King Street north and turn left onto Heriot Street at the new fire station. I’ve been by this site many times before without knowing about Nat Fuller’s amazing story, so I’ll take a closer look when next I’m in his neighborhood. Perhaps one day there will be a marker in his honor at this overgrown, forgotten site.

A Google Map showing the location of the Heriot Street Cemetery

A Google Map showing the location of the Heriot Street Cemetery

The Forgotten Armory / Arsenal of Colonial Charleston

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

Effective fortifications require support structures in which to store and maintain the supplies, accessories, and tools that enable a successful defense in times of military crisis. The colonial-era government of South Carolina funded several magazines for the storage of gunpowder, for example, and that story is admirably interpreted at the venerable 1713 Powder Magazine on Cumberland Street. Our colonial lawmakers also knew, however, that it was unwise to store metallic objects like guns and bayonets, which might produce sparks when moved, in close proximity to gunpowder. So where were the publicly-owned muskets, cutlasses, and cannon of early Charleston stored? The answer is two-fold: “small arms” were stored in an armory, while cannon and carriages were stored in an arsenal. So where were those buildings in colonial Charleston?

In the early years of South Carolina, the government owned a relatively small number of small arms and cannon, and the storage and maintenance of these weapons was not…

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The Big Memory Loss of 1865

This week in Charleston there will be much a-do about the 150th anniversary of the re-raising of the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter—a dramatic event on 14 April 1865 that officially marked the end of the Civil War for our community. While the press is busy covering that broad story, I’d like to take this opportunity to draw attention to a smaller, overlooked story that took place in the shadows of that historic event of mid-April 1865 and forever altered the collective memory of Charleston. I’m talking about the looting of the city by both military and civilian visitors.

As a word of preface, I should mention how my point differs from two other stories that have made recent headlines. Much ink has been spilled on the destruction of Columbia, South Carolina, under Union occupation in February 1865, but I’ll let others tell that story. In his recent book, Stolen Charleston: The Spoils of War, Grahame Long also examines the looting of art, jewelry, furniture, and other material objects from local plantations during the Civil War. My focus, however, is on paper documents—letters, ledgers, and unique manuscript records of all description.

A U.S.C.T. soldier stands guard at the Charleston Orphan House in 1865.

A U.S.C.T. soldier guards the Charleston Orphan House in 1865 (image from Library of Congress).

United States military forces occupied Charleston on 18 February 1865, just hours after Confederate forces fled the peninsular city. After a year and a half of shelling from Union cannon on James and Morris Islands, Charleston was nearly a ghost town. The Confederate army had ordered non-combatants to evacuate in 1863, and the city’s sparse remaining population consisted largely of soldiers, laborers, and “servants” who were left to guard their exiled masters’ homes. The great fire of 11 December 1861 had left a diagonal swath of charred rubble across the city, and the impact of Union artillery shells had peppered both residential and commercial neighborhoods.

Into this wasteland entered several thousand embittered Union soldiers who camped around the city and occupied public buildings that were transformed into makeshift barracks. Among these men were members of the recently-formed United States Colored Troops, former slaves who had joined the U.S. Army as it liberated plantations of the South Carolina lowcountry. Most of these “colored” soldiers were lodged in the Charleston Orphan House, the usual residents of which had removed to Orangeburg during the bombardment of the city. In the last fourteen months of the war, Charleston’s municipal government had used the Orphan House as its meeting place and records repository, out of range of the Union artillery. Despite having been saved from the havoc caused by the big guns, the bulk of the city’s antebellum municipal records disappeared from the Orphan House in the spring of 1865 and were never seen again. One can only imagine that these priceless papers went up in cooking fires and down in latrines.

Raising the U.S. flag at Fort Sumter, 14 April 1865 (image from the Library of Congress).

Raising the U.S. flag at Fort Sumter, 14 April 1865 (image from the Library of Congress).

Following the capture of Charleston in February 1865, the United States government was determined to created a public-relations extravaganza to mark the conclusion of the war at the site where it had begun. The date of 14 April 1865 was announced for a grand celebration of the re-raising of the U.S. flag over Fort Sumter, where Federal troops had lowered the same flag four years earlier after being bombarded by rebellious South Carolina troops. Military leaders, Federal officials, and civilian dignitaries were invited to mark the occasion, and thousands of northern tourists journeyed southward to both witness the historic event and to see for themselves the storied ruins of the once-great Charleston.

For example, one group of 200 civilian tourists, a bold delegation from Brooklyn, New York, chartered the steamship Oceanus and set out on 10 April 1865. During their week-long adventure, they toured the tattered sites of Charleston, witnessed the official flag-raising ceremony at Fort Sumter, and helped themselves to paper records as souvenirs of the old regime. How do we know about this episode? Because the passengers of the Oceanus were bold enough to publish later that year a narrative of their exploits, titled The Trip of the Steamer Oceanus to Fort Sumter and Charleston, S.C., Comprising the Incidents of the Excursion, the Appearance, at that time, of the City, and the entire Programme of Exercises at the Re-raising of the Flag over the Ruins of Fort Sumter, April 14th, 1865.

The Steamer Oceanus in Charleston, 1865

The Steamer Oceanus in Charleston, 1865

In their narrative, composed by “a committee appointed by the passengers,” the Brooklyn tourists describe “exploring” private residences, banks, auction houses, commercial buildings, and public buildings throughout Charleston, and taking away “ancient and curious documents” that formed “valuable acquisitions” and mementos of their journey.

Title page of the narrative, from the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

Title page of the narrative, from the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

This seemingly harmless pilfering, carried out by masses of tourists in the spring of 1865, was actually a great loss for our community. Thousands of manuscript documents, containing unique information about the people and places of Charleston, were either destroyed or migrated northward to clandestine destinations. As a result of these actions, and similar episodes at plantations throughout the lowcountry, we are left with numerous blind spots (what academics call lacunae) in our history that can never be filled. Nearly all of the public records of the municipal government of Charleston, 1783–1864, disappeared without a trace. The corporate records of dozens of private organizations and institutions, such as our St. Cecilia Society (the first musical organization in America), the Société Française de Bienfaisance, and the Planters and Mechanics Bank, to name a few, also mysteriously vanished. The looting tourists especially relished documents relating to slavery, the evil system that perished in 1865. While the practice of buying and selling human beings was indeed horrible, the lost documents recording such transactions would now be invaluable to thousands of African Americans attempting to reconstruct their family history.

Without such written records, we are left with a fractured narrative of the history of Charleston. There are many questions that will forever remain unanswered, and many valuable stories that have been lost. In Charleston today, tourism is an important industry predicated on telling our city’s colorful stories, but most people here are unaware how this valuable economic venture was handicapped by the looting that took place in the spring of 1865.

My goal here is two-fold: first, to raise awareness among Charleston’s tour guides and citizens of the great memory loss of 1865, and second, to spread the word about the post-war northward migration of valuable records from Charleston, in the hopes that some surviving records now hidden in attics and cellars north of the Mason-Dixon line might someday return to Charleston. If you share this hope, please spread the word, and let’s all look in our cupboards and closets for those lost paper treasures.

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

“Looting Charleston in the Spring of 1865″

Wednesday, 15 April 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 20401

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

1897 Trolley Barn Rehabilitation

A 1938 photo of the "trolley barn" on Meeting Street.

A 1938 photo of the “trolley barn” on Meeting Street. From the collections of the Charleston Archive at CCPL.

In recent lectures about the old street car and trolley systems that plied the streets of urban Charleston from 1866 to 1938, I’ve been happy to mention the “barn” built on upper Meeting Street in 1897 to house the electrified trolleys that went into service that year. This cavernous building (27,000 square feet) was used to house and repair the trolleys (and later, diesel buses) until the 1960s, but it’s been in a sad state of decline for several decades.

As you may have read in the Charleston Post and Courier recently, the old “trolley barn” is now being rehabilitated, and will soon be reborn as the principal workshop space for the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA). Coincidently, this weekend the ACBA will host its annual Masters of the Building Arts Festival, which will include a preview of the plans for the renovation and future use of this historic structure. In addition, I’ll be following that discussion with an overview of Charleston’s old street railway systems, including a bit of history about the genesis of the 1897 “trolley barn.”

If you missed my recent presentations on this fun topic, then I invite you to attend my free lecture on “The Rise and Fall of Charleston’s Trolleys,” in the Drawing & Drafting Studio inside the Old Charleston Jail (21 Magazine Street, 29401) at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday, April 11th, 2015.

The ACBA’s “Masters of the Building Arts Festival” includes many other interesting free events this weekend, so I encourage everyone to check out their online event calendar. I hope to see you there!

Recent Archaeology at South Battery

If you’d like to learn more about the recent, brief archaeological dig at Charleston’s South Battery Street, you’ll have two opportunities this month to hear a recap of the project. On Saturday, March 21st, and Wednesday, March 25th, I’ll present an illustrated overview of the target of our search, what we found, and why it’s significant for understanding the history of Charleston.

The brick seawall stood five feet above ground, on top of a Bermuda stone foundation, and was faced with split palmetto logs. Drawing by Nic Butler

The brick seawall stood five feet above ground, on top of a Bermuda stone foundation, and was faced with split palmetto logs. Drawing by Nic Butler.

In case you missed the local headlines in late January 2015, the Mayor’s Walled City Task Force undertook a two-day dig on the south side of South Battery Street in White Point Garden. We sought and found physical evidence of a brick and Bermuda stone wall that was constructed in 1768-1769. That wall represented the first steps toward enclosing the expansive beach at White Point, the southern tip of the Charleston peninsula, which we all take for grated today as one of the city’s most scenic and iconic features.

Seating is limited, so come early!

Recent Archaeology at South Battery

Saturday, March 21st at 1 p.m.

Wednesday, March 25th at 6 p.m.

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

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

Lyttelton’s Bastion in the Spotlight

Nic Butler, Ph.D.:

Leaping back to the mid-eighteenth century, the Charleston Time Machine sheds light on one our city’s forgotten wonders: Lyttelton’s Bastion.

Originally posted on Rediscovering Charleston's Colonial Fortifications:

A 1757 illustration of Lyttelton's Bastion by its designer, William De Brahm A 1757 illustration of Lyttelton’s Bastion by its designer, William De Brahm

Lyttelton’s Bastion was perhaps the most sophisticated and expensive of all the fortifications built in colonial Charleston. Completed in 1757 and named for newly-arrived Royal Governor William Henry Lyttelton, this work was designed as a “middle bastion” on White Point between Granville’s Bastion and Broughton’s Battery. Its construction employed earth, wood, brick, and tabby, and included a pair of flaking moats and floodgates to harness the tidal waters. More importantly, it featured two levels of cannon platforms to maximize the firepower of its compact, geometric shape. In the end, however, these impressive elements caused William De Brahm’s ambitious fortification designs for Charleston to be both over budget and behind schedule, and De Brahm was sacked before the bastion was completed. It was then finished, and perhaps simplified, by his successor, the young engineer Emmanuel Hess.

If you’ve never…

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Rebirth of Charleston’s Trolleys?

In late 2014 Gabe Klein, a transportation consultant hired by the City of Charleston, released his recommendations for fixing the peninsula’s traffic and transportation woes. His top suggestion is stated simply: “Bring Back the Trolley System.”

The last run of the King Street line, 10 February 1938

The last run of the King Street line, 10 February 1938

“What trolley system?” you might ask. Unless you’re over the age of 77, ignorance of this part of Charleston’s transportation history can be excused. Few in our community remember the “grand celebration” on the 10th of February 1938 when a fleet of thirteen “modern” diesel buses rolled into service and the old electric trolleys, after seventy-one years of activity, were consigned to the scrapyard.

Can the return of the trolley system fix our congestion woes? That’s not for me to decide, but I’ve been asked to assemble a brief history of the old trolleys in an effort to help the community make informed decisions about this matter. In the coming weeks, I’ll be presenting a series of trolley (or streetcar) themed talks, and I hope you’ll join me for this colorful story. As a teaser, here’s a very brief overview of the topic:

The earliest conversations about beginning a “street railway” system of mass transit in Charleston commenced in 1859, and two private companies were chartered in early 1861. The war interrupted their plans, however, and a corporate reorganization took place in 1865. Service commenced in December 1866 with horse-drawn street cars riding on miles of track in the city’s principal streets, and it was a transportation revolution in our community. The street rail system was electrified and reorganized in 1897, and the new “trolleys” continued to be very successful into the new century. The advent of the automobile on Charleston’s streets brought competition and new standards of comfort, however, and by the 1920s the public was clamoring for a more “modern” mode of mass transit. After several years of declining profitability, the operator’s decision to switch from electric trolleys to diesel buses was greeted with bittersweet enthusiasm from the riding public.

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, your first opportunity will a FREE public event be next week at the Charleston Museum, sponsored by the Historic Charleston Foundation:

“The Rise and Fall of

Charleston’s Trolleys, 1859–1938″

Monday, February 23rd 2015 at 6 p.m.

Charleston Museum Auditorium, 360 Meeting Street, 29403.



The Death of Slavery in Charleston

One of many Library of Congress photographs of Charleston taken during the spring of 1865.

One of many Library of Congress photographs of Charleston taken during the spring of 1865.

This week we commemorate the 150th anniversary of one of the most significant, transformative events in the history of our city: the death of slavery in Charleston.

On the morning of 18 February 1865, Federal forces entered Charleston uncontested and secured the city. The last of the Confederate soldiers had fled the previous evening, and the city was essentially a smoldering ghost town. As the new day dawned, thousands of hungry slaves awoke to the fulfillment of many generations of prayers. Union soldiers spread throughout the ruined city and quietly spread the word: “You are a slave no longer. You are as free as I am.”

Click here to download a PDF transcription of the description of the events of 18 February 1865, as published in the Charleston Courier, 20 February 1865.

President Lincoln had rhetorically freed all enslaved persons in the rebellious southern states in 1863, of course, but slavery continued in practice in Charleston through the 17th of February 1865. In the years after the Civil War (and yes, our local newspapers used that phrase in 1865), the African-American citizens of South Carolina struggled to overcome years of prejudice and inequality in order to secure their civil rights. That struggle is a fascinating part of our history, to be sure, but there is another, equally engaging part of this story that is too often overlooked. I’m talking about the microhistory of the events immediately after the 18th of February 1865. What was life like for Charleston’s “freedmen” and “freedwomen” in the first hours, days, and weeks after their emancipation from slavery?

If you were writing a story, a novel, or a screenplay about life during the first days of freedom in Charleston in the late winter of 1865, where would you look for informative details? Just like modern times, the newspapers of that era give us the most detailed glimpses of that era. In Charleston, the Courier  transformed from a Confederate newspaper to a Union newspaper in the space of just forty-eight hours. As a result of this rapid political shift, we have eye-witness reports of the events unfolding in war-torn Charleston during those radical changes of February and March of 1865. In addition, northern reporters on the ground in Charleston sent their observations to the New York Times and other papers, which triumphantly celebrated the capture of the city and the progress of the newly freed people.

Immediately after securing the city, Federal forces quickly set about establishing a practical system of municipal administration. That is to say, they established a chain of command to patrol the streets, to remove debris, to shelter the homeless, to feed the hungry, and even to educate the young. Within a matter of days after capturing Charleston, food and clothing were being distributed to the city’s freedmen and to their country brethren who began streaming in from the surrounding countryside. By the 28th of February—just ten days after entering the city—the occupying forces had established a Department of Education and announced the beginning of regular classroom instruction for the black children of Charleston. As if they had been rehearsing for this day for many years, the city’s black community celebrated in the streets, quickly organized their own relief efforts, and began in earnest the hard but glorious work of forging their own destinies.

Click here to download a PDF transcription of the “Freedmens’ Jubilee” held in Charleston on 21 March 1865, as published in the Charleston Courier, 22 March 1865.

I encourage everyone to commemorate the 150th anniversary of this important occasion, and to learn more about the drama that unfolded in our storied streets. If you’d like to hear more details about the first days of freedom in Charleston, please join me for a program titled:

“The Death of Slavery:

Freedom Comes to Charleston”

Wednesday, 18 February 2015 at 6 p.m.

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

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


The Return of “Beasts of Prey”

This weekend marks the 33rd annual Southeastern Wildlife Expo in downtown Charleston, an event that draws tens of thousands of wildlife enthusiasts to our tame, urban environment. The expo celebrates the fauna of the southeast, the traditions of sport hunting, and wildlife artwork, but it’s a little light on history and context. In an effort to contribute a little background to the scene, I’m going to repeat a lecture from several months back that draws attention to a little-know aspect of our state’s natural history. The program, “Hunting ‘Beasts of Prey’ in Early South Carolina,” looks at the government-funded efforts to eradicate panthers, wolves, bears, and bobcats from the Lowcountry in the eighteenth century.

A red wolf at Charles Towne Landing state park

A red wolf at Charles Towne Landing state park

Recently I visited one of my favorite state parks, Charles Towne Landing, and spent a while admiring the new Red Wolf exhibit. It’s a beautiful space that’s well-integrated into the environment, and the animals are adorable. Three hundred years ago, however, wolves like these  were hunted to extirpation from South Carolina because the early European settlers considered them a threat. Beginning in 1696, our provincial government began offering a bounty to hunters who brought in the scalps (with two ears) of “beasts of prey,” which included wolves, “tigers,” “catts,” and bears. This incentive program was so successful that by 1750 the government voted to let the bounty expire in 1751. In the intervening decades, tens of thousands of animals were killed in our forests by settlers and professional sportsmen, the original “bounty hunters” in colonial South Carolina.

“Beasts of prey” have been exceedingly rare in the Lowcountry since the mid-eighteenth century, but perhaps not completely absent. In December 1783, for example, a “large wolf” was killed at the intersection of Meeting and Broad Streets in the heart of downtown Charleston, after it had been ravaging the Beef Market (now the site of our City Hall). The more recent growth of local bear and bobcat populations, as well as the re-introduction of wolves, are examples of modern conservation efforts that seek a balance between protected natural habitats and human expansion.

If you’d like to learn more about this wild topic, please join me for an illustrated program titled:

“Hunting Beasts of Prey in Early South Carolina”

Saturday, February 14th at 1 p.m.

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

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