Today we’re going to travel back to the year 1765 and listen to the words of Lord Adam Gordon, who visited Charleston and the Lowcountry of South Carolina as part of an extended tour of the American colonies.
Lord Adam Gordon’s Description of Charleston, 1765
Adam Gordon was born around the year 1726, the fourth son of Alexander, second Duke of Gordon. A native of Scotland, Lord Adam entered the British military at an early age, and in 1763 he was promoted to colonel of the 66th Regiment of Foot, a position he held until 1775. I n the early 1760s he was stationed briefly in the West Indies. Before returning home, 38-year-old Lord Adam sailed to Florida and began a long, slow northward tour through the other American colonies. He arrived in Charleston by way of Savannah in early December 1764 and lingered here in the Lowcountry until the middle of March 1765. After his return to Britain, Lord Adam never returned to the colonies, or the United States, and his long travel diary was forgotten among his papers. He died in 1801, and his manuscript journal eventually found its way to the British Museum. In 1916 it was finally published among a collection of colonial-era travel accounts, which you can find online through the Library of Congress: “Journal of an Officer who Traveled in America and the West Indies in 1764 and 1765,” in Travels in the American Colonies, 1690–1783, ed. Newton D. Mereness (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 365–453.
So let’s travel back to the spring of 1765, and listen to Colonel Lord Adam Gordon’s impression of Charleston and the surrounding Lowcountry.
“I arrived at Charlestown, the Metropolis of South Carolina, on the 8th Decemr. 1764, having landed at Beaufort in Port Royal Island, some days before from Savannah river, which divides it from Georgia, as an imaginary Line does this Province from North Carolina.
It is of all the Southern Provinces the most considerable, on account of the Number of Inhabitants, the quantity and the variety of its productions and Exports, and the good condition of its Inhabitants. There seems in general to be but two Classes of people—the planters who are the proprietors, and the Merchants who purchase and Ship the produce.
Rice and Indigo are the two grand Staples of this Province, of which very great quantities are annually made and Exported to Europe and elsewhere.—It has been augmenting annually in Numbers, wealth and Industry, since the Crown purchas’d out the Lords proprietors, and as none of its Exports or productions, interfere with those of the Mother Country, it will be prudent in her to give this Province all possible encouragement.
Almost every family of Note have a Town residence, to which they repair on publick occasions, and generally for the three Sickly months in the fall, it being a certainty, that the Town of Charles Town, is at present the most healt[h]y spot in the Province; fevers and other disorders are both less frequent in it, and less virulent in their Symptoms; this is attributed to the Air being mended by the Number of Fires in Town, as much as to its cool Situation, on a point, at the junction of the two navigable Streams, called Ashley and Cowper [Cooper] Rivers.
The Inhabitants are courteous, polite and affable, the most hospitable and attentive to Strangers, of any I have yet seen in America, very clever in business, and almost all of them, first or last, have made a trip to the Mother Country. It is the fashion indeed to Send home all their Children for education, and if it was not owing to the nature of their Estates in this Province, which they keep all in their own hands, and require the immediate overlooking of the Proprietor, I am of opinion the most opulent planters, would prefer a home life. It is in general believed, that they are more attached to the Mother Country, than those Provinces which lie more to the Northward, and which having hardly any Staple Commodities of their own growth, except Lumber, Stock and Horses, depend mostly on Smuggling Molasses and other Contraband Commodities.
The Town of Charlestown is very pleasantly Seated, at the conflux of two pretty rivers, from which all the Country product is brought down, and in return all imported goods are sent up the Country.—The Streets are Straight, broad and Airy, the Churches are handsome; the other places of Worship are commodious, and many of the houses belonging to Individuals, are large and handsome, having all the conveniencies one sees at home.—There is a Law against building houses of Wood, which like other Laws in other Countries no body observes, however, the most considerable buildings are of Brick, the others of Cypress and yellow Pine. The houses now are about fifteen hundred, but increase annually in a very surprising manner.
Their Bar [at the entrance to the harbor], which is very intricate, seems their only defence, for tho’ they have a Fort below the Town, and a kind of earthen Rampart, with some Tabby works, round particular parts of Charlestown, yet it would not be tenable, against attacks of Shipping, or from the land, and therefore must fall a prey to any Enemy, the moment we lose our Superiority at Sea.—A Forty Gun Ship has been in, but small Frigates and Sloops are generally employed on that Station. The Town of Beaufort, Situated on Port Royal Island and Sound, has more depth of water on its Bar, but being on an Island there is a difficulty of bringing down the exportable Commodities, which will for ever prevent its Rivalling Charlestown, in wealth or grandeur.
On the Northern part of South Carolina, stands George-Town, a pretty little Town near Wynyaw [Winyaw] river, and not far from Pedee, Black river and Wakama [Waccamaw], which river, I should think, would make a more Sure and Commodious boundary, between the two Carolinas, than any limits they now have.
The back Country towards the Cherokee Mounts [mountains] and Nation, is all healthy and fertile land, producing large Oak, and other deciduous timber, and is finely watered, without much Sand or Pine-barren, but is not yet fully peopled;—In general what part of South Carolina is planted, is counted unhealthy, owing to the Rice-dams and Swamps, which as they occasion a great quantity of Stagnated water in Summer, never fails to increase the Number of Insects, and to produce fall fevers and Agues, dry gripes and other disorders, which are often fatal to the lower set of people, as well White as Black.
Within these two or three last years, a pretty considerable quantity of Flax and Hemp, has been raised by the Germans and other back Settlers, which, as well as the produce of a considerable part of North Carolina, comes down to Charlestown in Waggons, drawn with four Horses, two abreast–perhaps at the distance of three hundred Miles—this would appear extraordinary at home, but it must be remember’d that they live at no more expence when travelling than they would at home, since the[y] lie in the woods all night, make a good fire to dress their Bacon, and turn their Horses loose near them, ’till day light, after which they proceed on their Journey, and carry back in Return what goods they stand in need of themselves, or for their neighbours in the back Settlements.
It is pretty singular to remark, that the Number of White Inhabitants, fit to bear Arms in one of their back Counties, called Craven County,—does,—at present exceed what was the Number of fighting Men, in all the Province Seven years ago,—from this—I conclude that the farther you go back from the Sea Board in America, the more fertile the land is, and the more healthy the Climate, for there the people increase and breed, and rear up more Children than towards the Pine barren and Sandy Shores.
The Tide Swamp land in these Southern Provinces is by much the most valuable, since, when they are properly banked in, and your trunks and dams in perfect good order, by a judicious use of these advantages, it is alternately equally capable and fit to produce the two great Staple Commodities—Vizt. Rice and Indigo, the first requiring an uncommon degree of moisture or Water, and the last, dry and rich land, altho’ the light land very near the Shore, will fetch very Surprizing Crops of Indigo, for two or three years, but it must then be thrown out, and left to time to recover its fertility.
Poultry and Pork, particularly Hams are excellent here.—Beef and Mutton middling, and Fish very rare and dear; the general drink of the better people is Punch and Madeira Wine, and many prefer Grog and Toddy.—All the poor, and many of the Rich, eat Rice for Bread, and give it even a preference; they use it in their Cakes, called Journey Cakes and boiled, or else boiled Indian corn, which they call Hominy, and of this they have two sorts, the great and small—the last I think the best.
Upon the whole, this is undoubtedly one of the most opulent, and most increasing Colonies in America, and bids fair to exceed all the others, if it advances in the like proportion as it has done for forty years past.
The unhappy differences which have Subsisted for some years past, between the Governour [i.e., Gov. Thomas Boone] and the Commons House of Assembly, and are not yet set to rights, have been the means of this Country not standing so well at home, as otherways [sic] they would have done, and as they really deserve to do.
. . . . I left Charlestown the Middle of March 1765, and proceeded on to North Carolina, thro’ a very bad Country, from Wakama [Waccamaw] River to Brunswick.”
I hope you’ve enjoyed this first-hand account of the area written just a decade before the beginning of the American Revolution. There are scores of similar eye-witness descriptions of our community written by travelers who passed through the neighborhood in ages past, and I think they make excellent time-travel devices. To put it another way, descriptions like the one written by Lord Adam in 1765 make excellent fuel for the Charleston Time Machine, and I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey.