June is the time to get out in the sun and soak up some warm-weather history, and Charleston has plenty of it. First on the docket is Colonial Lake, the popular downtown park that is officially re-opening after a major facelift. I’ll be on site on Saturday the 4th sharing information about the lake’s long history with representatives from the City of Charleston and the Charleston Parks Conservancy. Later in June I’ll turn back to the intriguing story of Sgt. William Jasper as we celebrate the 240th anniversary of Carolina Day.
Charleston’s Colonial Lake: A Brief History
The serene rectangular pond and park on the southwest side of the Charleston peninsula has been a messy construction site for the past two years, but it will officially reopen on June 4th with a grand celebration. Officially known as Colonial Lake since the summer of 1881, it is one of the jewels of the city’s urban parks and the gathering place for many generations of residents of the Harleston neighborhood. But it was not always so.
Colonial Lake, looking southeast, circa 1890
From the earliest days of colonial Charleston to the early years of the nineteenth century, the area now encompassed within Colonial Lake was a stinking mudflat that was underwater at every high tide. The South Carolina legislature designated this area to be a “public common” in 1768, but its sole use during the second half of the eighteenth century was as a garbage dump for the “street sweepings” collected by the city scavenger carts. As the mud flat was gradually filled and the “made land” crept westward toward the Ashley River in the early 1800s, the City of Charleston began selling off parcels of the “common” and leasing “water lots” to steam-powered saw mills along the riverfront. Only after neighboring citizens sued the city did the garbage dumping cease, and the city was forced to consider a different method of “improving” the mud flat. In the late 1850s, Charleston’s city engineer devised a plan to create a temporary pond to collect the incoming tidal waters in order to facilitate the construction of streets and building lots in the neighborhood. The idea was to let the natural accumulation of silt, brought in with every high tide, gradually fill the pond, which could then become building lots. After the Civil War, however, there was no money to complete the project, and the pond persisted–literally stagnated. In 1875 a group of citizens sued the city again for failure to create the “public common” envisioned by the 1768 act of the legislature. In the summer of 1881 the Charleston County Court of Common Pleas ruled in favor of the citizens, and the City of Charleston was forced to ready the site for public use. In July of that year the city created a group of Commissioners of the Colonial Common and charged them with the responsibility of creating and maintaining the park that quickly became known as Colonial Lake. Trees were planted, benches installed, and the muddy pond was transformed into a man-made “lake” with tabby walls and broad sidewalks.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of this once-unsightly mudflat on the banks of the Ashley River, please join me for an illustrated review of the park’s rise from a colonial-era dump to a premier example of urban landscaping.
- Tuesday, 14 June at 6 p.m., Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29401
Sgt. William Jasper: An Enigmatic Hero
June brings us Carolina Day, when we celebrate the American victory at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island on 28 June 1776. In retelling the dramatic tale of that battle, no storyteller omits the legendary exploits of Sergeant William Jasper, who bravely rescued and hoisted the fallen flag of South Carolina amid a shower of British cannonballs. The sheer reckless bravery of Sgt. Jasper’s actions inspired his comrades to fight on with renewed vigor and ultimately to win the day. From that moment onward, Jasper was a celebrity whose continued acts of valor garnered much admiration from his fellow soldiers. In October 1779, however, Sgt. Jasper was caught in the American confusion at the Siege of Savannah, where he was mortally wounded while defending his regimental colors.
Since his untimely death in 1779, the name of Sgt. William Jasper has been invoked by countless historians in retelling the American victory at Sullivan’s Island in June 1776. But as time passed it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between Jasper the legend and Jasper the man. Writers have found few reliable facts about his origins and family, and some controversy has emerged about whether he was of German or Irish descent. Jasper’s widow and children passed away in the early nineteenth century, and with them the last opportunities to learn the facts. Faced with a paucity of documentary evidence, writers began to invent anecdotes about Jasper’s life that have persisted for many generations.
As a citizen of the Palmetto State, I feel strongly that we owe it to the memory of William Jasper to strive for a more accurate telling of his biography. With that goal in mind, I’ve been collecting “new” facts about Jasper’s life from contemporary documentary sources that help us separate the reality from the fiction. He was a native of Ireland, born around the year 1734, who most likely emigrated to South Carolina in the 1760s. He was indeed a tall, athletic man, and for those precise attributes he was recruited as a grenadier—not as an infantryman or a dragoon—in 1775. And his last surviving child, Elizabeth Jasper Brown, attested to these facts before her death in 1845.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, I invite you to celebrate “Carolina Day” by joining me for a profile of the enigmatic Sgt. Jasper and some new insight into his family’s legacy.
- Thursday, 16 June at 7 p.m., Addlestone Library Room 227, 205 Calhoun Street, Charleston SC 29424
- Wednesday, 22 June 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.