The Tornado of 1811

Hurricane season brings its share of anxiety, so I’d like to offer a bit of distraction from our current weather uncertainties.  At the risk of adding to your stress, let’s turn back the calendar to early September of 1811, when a tornado measuring approximately one hundred yards in diameter churned diagonally across the city of Charleston, leaving a swath of death and destruction in its furious wake.

The Tornado of 1811


Each year between June and November, powerful cyclonic storms form in the eastern Atlantic and move westward and then northward with the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. Charleston and the Lowcountry of South Carolina stand within the potential path of these storms, of course, but some hurricane seasons are busier than others.  These tropical cyclones also seem to work in cycles, so we might experience a rash of storms in a few short years, while other times decades might pass without a significant hurricane.  Around the turn of the nineteenth century, Charleston was in the middle of a relatively busy cycle.  We weathered four storms of varying strength within a ten-year period between 1797 and 1807.  As you can imagine, the city and the region in general was a bit hurricane-weary by the time the stormy season commenced in the summer of 1811.  To make matters worse, the tornado of 1811 arrived just eleven months after another dreadful calamity—a large fire that destroyed a significant portion of the neighborhood around what is now Philadelphia Alley in October 1810.  But we’ll save that story for another day. . . .

The tornado of 1811 arrived in Charleston around mid-day on Tuesday the 10th of September.  In the two days preceding the tornado, we experienced a great deal of strong winds and continuous rain.  Considering these facts, it’s likely that the tornado was associated with some sort of tropical cyclonic activity.  Charlestonians are used to keeping an eye open for storms during this season, but the tornado of 1811 caught everyone off-guard.  As tornados generally do, this one arrived without warning and rapidly blazed a path across the peninsular city.  Touching first near Fort Mechanic at White Point, approximately in the center of modern East Battery Street, the twister spun in a northwesterly direction toward the Ashley River, cutting a diagonal swath of destruction that ended near the present site of the Joe Riley Baseball Stadium.

Our best resource for descriptions of the tornado of 1811 is the local newspapers of mid-September.  At that time, there were three daily newspapers in Charleston—the Courier, the City Gazette, and the Times (and evening paper)—as well as one weekly—the Carolina Gazette.  I’ve read all the papers in search of the best descriptions, and I’d like to share with you some excerpts from the stories published by the Courier and the Carolina Gazette.  According to these reports, the tornado of 1811 claimed approximately twenty lives in downtown Charleston.  At that time, however, not all lives were valued equally in our community.  As we read the following excerpts, note that the language of these newspaper reports reveals a greater concern for the loss of white Charlestonians, while the loss of so-called “colored” and “Negro” lives is somehow rendered less tragic.  Such is the reality of life in Charleston of 1811, but of course it is not so today.  Before reading these texts, I just wanted to draw your attention to the prejudice inherent in these documents.

So without further ado, let’s fasten our safety belts and brace ourselves for the arrival of the Tornado of 1811:

(From the Charleston Courier, Wednesday, 11 September 1811:)

Dreadful Calamity.

It is again our painful duty to detail the awful effects of a dreadful visitation upon our ill-fated city. A Tornado having passed through it, carrying death and desolation in its progress.

On Sunday evening last [8 September], the wind which had been for some days light and variable, shifted to the north east, and blowing very fresh through the night, it continued in the same quarter all day on Monday, and Monday night;  on Tuesday morning it blew with increased violence, and during the whole time from Sunday evening, there was an almost uninterrupted fall of rain.  About ten o’clock in the forenoon of Tuesday, the wind shifted to the S.E. and at half past twelve o’clock, a Tornado, unprecedented here in its extent and effects, crossed a section of our city.—It first took effect at Fort Mechanick [sic], situated on the south-east point of the city, and passing from thence in a north-west direction, it crossed the town in a direct line to the pond on the north side of Cannon’s Bridge;  how far it has extended its ravages into the country we have not yet learnt [sic].—In its progress it over turned and completely destroyed a great number of houses and out-buildings, un-roffed [sic; roofed] others, and prostrated trees, fences, and almost every thing coming in contact with it.—It is computed, from a hasty view of the scene of devastation, that the loss to the city will fall little if any short of that experienced by the calamitous fire in October last.—But, in addition to this great loss of property, we have, on this occasion, to lament the loss of several valuable lives.

The Tornado appears to have been about one hundred yards in width—after it had prostrated the flag staff on Fort-Mechanick [sic], unroofed the houses within the inclosure [sic] of that fort, thrown down the blacksmith shop contiguous to it, and unroofed all the houses immediately adjoining the fort, it crossed over to Lynch’s-Lane, where it unroofed several houses;  from then it proceeded across Church-street continued, to Meeting-street, where several houses were unroofed, particularly the large new brick house of Nath. Russell, Esq. whose loss in furniture, &c. cannot amount to less than 20,000 dollars;  from Meeting-street it crossed to Tradd-street, where a large three-story wooden house on the south side, about half way between Meeting and King-streets, was blown over, which crushed two adjoining houses in its fall;  and most of the houses on both sides of the street to the corner of King-street were unroofed, or much shattered.  It passed up King-street, nearly to Broad-street, unroofing and shattering several houses in its progress, until it reached Broad-street;  here, the house of Dr. Alex. Baron, situated at the corner of Orange-street, and the venerable mansion of the late Dr. Chandler, on the opposite corner, were very roughly handled;  the latter being old and weak was completely wrenched to pieces;  on the opposite side of Broad-street, the premises lately purchased by the St. Andrew’s Society, and occupied by Mr. Henry Inglesby;  the mansion of the late gen. McPherson, and some other buildings, were either unroofed or much damaged;  passing thro’ Vaux-Hall Garden, it crossed over Queen-street, near to the corner of Friend-street, and shattering several houses in its progress, it went on to the corner of Magazine and Mazyck-streets;  two or three small houses fronting on the former of these streets were blown down;  and in the progress of the Tornado up Mazyck-street several houses were unroofed or otherwise much damaged.  One or two houses were prostrated on Beaufain-street.  After leaving Beaufain-street, the houses being less compactly situated, the marks of its ravages are not so distinctly to be traced though it appears to have lost nothing of its violence.—The mansion-house of the Hon. Judge Desaussure, was violently assailed, and suffered very considerably;  one of the chimneys was thrown down;  and a part of the family, who were at the time in an upper room of the house, were precipitated with the falling bricks through two floors into the kitchen.  Providentially no lives were lost, excepting that of a negro girl.—Several other houses in the out-skirts of the city were either unroofed or much injured; and we also understand that much injury has been sustained in the village of Islington, but we were unable last evening to obtain any further particulars.

The most painful part of our duty still remains.—It is to record the deaths which have been occasioned by this dreadful disaster—they are, so far as has come to our knowledge, as follows:  Miss Margaret Cozzens, aged 21 years, killed in a house adjoining Fort-Mechanick.  Doctor Conton, a native of France, a worthy man; killed by the falling of his house in Beaufain-street.  Mr. Peterson, a native of Germany, grocer, at the corner of Magazine and Mazyck-street.  A free Mulatto Man, in Church-street continued.  A French Mulatto Girl in King-street.  Two Mulatto Children, either killed or drowned by the falling of [illegible] House [illegible] which was blown into the Mill Pond at Cannon’s Bridge.  A Negro Man, belonging to Mr. Dener, Mazyck-street.

We have also heard of two or three other Negroes killed, but did not learn to whom they belonged.  Besides which a great number of persons have either had their limbs broken, or been very much bruised;  and we fear that others have perished, whose bodies have not yet been discovered.

This dreadful visitation is more afflicting than even the ravages of a conflagration.  The Tornado struck suddenly; passed through the city with the rapidity of lightning, and, in an instant, involved in destruction and death both the habitation and the inhabitant.  No notice of the approaching danger was given, and before friendship and humanity could fly to the relief of the sufferers, all was involved in ruin.  It was preceded by a momentary deceitful calm, and was attended by a steady rumbling noise, resembling that of a carriage rattling over a pavement.

Last evening the wind shifted to the south-west, and although it continued to blow with some violence, we trust that the storm has spent its force.  We did not gain any intelligence from Sullivan’s Island last evening; but as the tide did not rise so high as on some former occasions, we hope that the citizens at present upon the Island have escaped without injury.  What effect this severe storm may have had upon the crops on our sea-board, remains to be seen;  we think the damage sustained must be very considerable.  We trust that our sea-faring brethren upon the coast, have been enabled to weather the storm—the shipping in the harbor have sustained but little injury;  a few small craft were sunk at the wharves.

On the following day, September 12th, the Charleston Courier published a new column of fresh information about the storm that offers some very useful insight into the scope and nature of the damage to the city.

(From the Courier, Thursday, 12 September 1811:)

The Tornado.

In addition to the particulars furnished in yesterday’s Courier, of the dreadful devastation occasioned by this awful visitation to our city, many other particulars have since come to our knowledge.  We shall not attempt to particularise [sic] the numerous sufferers on this melancholy occasion, convinced that it would be impossible to give a correct statement of every individual loss.  Our opinion of this great general loss which has been sustained, is strengthened by a resurvey of the ruins, which are even more extensive than we had at first apprehended;  and immense number of houses which were not immediately within the vortex of the Tornado, have suffered more or less from the falling ruins of those which were more immediately the subjects of its fury.  Slates and tiles, torn from the roofs [sic] of houses, are to be seen in every direction, half buried in the sides of neighbouring [sic] buildings; and in some instances joists, and even massy beams, are found transfixed through the contiguous buildings.  Large masses of lead, and pieces of iron, which had been attached to houses, have since been discovered nearly buried in the walls of other buildings, at the distance of several hundred yards.  The more we reflect upon the awful subject, the more we are astonished, that, comparatively, so few have perished under the ruins.  In addition to the deaths of white persons enumerated in our last, Mrs. Stewart’s daughter, about twelve years old, has since died, from the wounds received by the falling of a house in Church-street;  and several Negroes, have also died of their wounds.  The number of deaths, altogether, will not, probably, fall short of twenty.

Among the many instances of divine protection on this awful occasion, the following was peculiarly interesting: — A Lady, far advanced in pregnancy, was reposing with her sister on her bed in an upper apartment, when the Tornado reached the house.  The noise so alarmed a Negro Girl in waiting, that she sought for refuge under the bed, on which her mistress was lying.  A stack of chimneys was struck by the wind with such tremendous violence that it fell on the roof, and forced its way through the house to the ground, precipitation the floors along with it.  The bed fell with the floors, but the ladies, we are happy to state, escaped without any injury.  The negro girl beneath the bed was crushed to pieces.

The happy tidings that no injury had been sustained upon Sullivan’s Island, which reached town early yesterday morning, gave relief to many an agonized heart, whose family or connexions [sic] were in that exposed situation, while it was utterly impossible to fly to their assistance.

The carrier of the Southern Mail, in crossing the causeway on this side of [the] Ashley River Bridge, in a sulkey, was swept off, and carried nearly 200 yards;  the horse was drowned, but the driver fortunately escaped, with the Mail, altho’ it was much damaged.  The effects of the Tornado have extended some distance into the country, prostrating trees and fences in its progress.

A map of the path of the tornado of 1811, with landmarks mentioned in newspaper accounts.

On Saturday, 14 September 1811, a weekly newspaper called the Carolina Gazette published a pretty good summary of the effects of the recent tornado, drawing its text largely from the coverage published by the Charleston Times earlier in the week.  The version published by the Carolina Gazette contains some additional notes, however, so I’d like to focus on its coverage of the tornado for the moment.  The text contains a few misspellings of names and some awkward sentence constructions, but these errors don’t really detract from the overall impact of the narrative.

From the Carolina Gazette, 14 September 1811 (Saturday):

The Tornado.

After the most unremitted exertions on our part to obtain as correct an account as possible, the following are, as far as we could learn them, the principal sufferers.  To obtain a list of all who suffered by this dreadful calamity is scarcely possible, as many in various parts of the city who were not within the vortex of the Tornado have suffered considerably by the falling of timber, slates, tiles, &c.

A most extraordinary instance of the force of the wind occurred at the house of Mr. Ruddock in King-street.  A piece of timber nearly thirty feet long, about six by nine inches square, was taken from the balcony of the house of Mr. Boisgerard in Church-street, and carried through the air to the distance of a quarter of a mile, when in its fall it went through the roof and two floors, and when we saw it was still in this position, one end out at the roof, the other projecting about three feet into the kitchen below, the amazing force with which it fell was such that the holes made in the roof and floors were only large enough to admit the timber.  At Mr. Fayolle’s, in King-street, a piece of scantling about three or four inches square struck a tree in the yard with great violence, from whence, with unbroken force, it struck a large pillar that supported the piazza which it prostrated, it then struck a mahogany table standing against the wall of the house, the outer leaf of which it shattered to atoms, went through the other into the brick wall about one inch with such force as to knock off the plaistering [sic] on the inside.

New East-Bay-Street [now East Battery Street].  It commenced at the house of captain [sic] Warren, which it entirely destroyed; a young lady, Miss Cozens, was thrown from the garret of this house, a distance of about thirty feet, into the third story of Mr. Kinmonts [sic] house and killed.  Mr. Kinmonts [sic], house and blacksmith’s shop, one heap of ruins—four negroes badly wounded, two of them, it is feared, mortally.

Lynch’s Lane [now Atlantic Street].  Mr. M’Gillivray’s house unroofed, and otherwise much damaged.  Mr. Hollowell, ditto ditto.  Mr. James Welsman, ditto ditto.  Messrs. Hays & M’Kinlay, ditto ditto.  Captain John [illegible] out houses entirely destroyed.  Mrs. Roger’s out buildings entirely destroyed, dwelling house much injured.  Mr. Galloway, pilot, house much shattered.  Captain Bonnell’s house unroofed and otherwise much damaged.

Church Street-Continued.  Mr. Joseph Yates, one end of the house blown out and otherwise much injured.  Charles Pinckney, esq’s. [sic] garden wall blown down.  Mr. Keenan’s house, occupied by Mr. M’Fee, irreparable, out houses a heap of ruins.  Mr. Lindsay’s out houses totally destroyed.  Mr. William Bee, house unroofed.  Mr. J. Broughton, (property of Mr. Keenan) house irreparable.  Mr. Thomas Fitzsimons, out houses destroyed and a mulatto Boy killed. Priscilla Porter, a brown woman, house entirely gone.  Mrs. M’Cleish, house partly unroofed and otherwise much damaged.  Mrs. Stewart, house entirely destroyed, her daughter since dead of her wounds, and herself not expected to recover.  Mr. Edward Simons, house unroofed.  Mr. Chisolm’s house partly unroofed, out buildings unroofed and otherwise much injured.  Mrs. Baker’s house much damaged, chimnies [sic] thrown down.  Mr. Jervey’s house partly unroofed and otherwise injured.  Dr. Read’s house, balcony carried away, several out houses destroyed;  the top of Mrs. Baker’s chimney thrown into his [sic] balcony, distance not less than twenty feet.

Meeting-Street.  Mrs. Rivers, house unroofed, front blown out and the out buildings destroyed—three servants wounded.  Mr. Joseph Butler, house much shattered. Both the above are the property of J. H. Stevens, esq.  Mrs. Simmons, chimney blown down and house otherwise injured.  Mr. Brisbane’s and Mr. J[ames]. Mitchell’s houses partly unroofed.  Mr. T. C. Cox, editor of the Times, house partly unroofed, moved from the foundation and rendered irreparable.  A House near the above, in Price’s-alley, belonging to Mr. Cox and occupied by Mr. Gilfert, chimney thrown down and house much injured.  Nathaniel Russell, esq.[’s,] elegant large mansion house unroofed, windows all stove in, house otherwise much damaged;  furniture destroyed and out houses unroofed—loss estimated at nearly 20,000 dollars.

Tradd-Street.  Mr. John Renold [sic], house on side blown out and otherwise injured.  Rose Somers, coloured [sic] woman, house destroyed.  A large three story frame house belonging to Mr. Ehrick, unoccupied, thrown over, and in its fall crushed to atoms the house of Mr. Thomas Harper, and rendered irreparable one belonging to Miss Murray, also unoccupied.  Mrs. Harper’s life was saved by getting under a table, from whence she was taken unhurt.  Stephen Lee, esq.[’s,] three story brick house partly unroofed.  It was in the third story of this house, that a piece of lead, weighing near 40 lbs. was thrown by the wind, from the house of Mr. Russell, a distance of about one hundred yards.  A house belonging to widow Marshall, unoccupied, unroofed and otherwise much injured.  Mr. Robert Dewar, lower part of the front of this house blown out.  Another house belonging to Mr. Dewar, and occupied by Mrs. Wainwright, unroofed.  Mrs. Kay’s house much injured, out houses destroyed.  Mr. James Flemming’s, ditto ditto.  Capt. Cole’s house, partly unroofed and much damaged.  James Harper’s back buildings, unroofed and much other damage.

King-Street.  Margaret Wilson, colored woman, house destroyed.  Mr. Paroden’s [sic] house, gable end blown out.  Mrs. Esnar’s [sic] whole front of the house blown out, and a Mulatto Girl killed by its fall.

Broad-Street.  The mansion house of the late Dr. Chandler torn to pieces.  Dr. Barron’s large house, one half the roof taken off and otherwise much damaged.  Mrs. McPherson’s house, roof much damaged and all the glass in the front windows destroyed.  The buildings belonging to the St. Andrew’s Society, in the occupation of Mr. Henry Inglesby, roofs in part carried away and otherwise much damaged.  A large brick house, owned by Mr. Cohen, was untiled.  Mr. Nicholson’s house, occupied by Mr. Thos. Martin, chimney blown down and otherwise injured.  Mr. James Gregory’s fences thrown down and part of the roof of the out buildings carried away.  Vaux-Hall Garden—it passed through the centre [sic] walk, in which there is scarce a tree left standing.

Queen-Street.  A large house occupied by the Miss Marsan’s, upper part of the Piazza blown away, out houses down and otherwise much injured.  Capt. John F. Brooks, front of the house blown out, chimney thrown down and piazza destroyed.  A house belonging to Mr. Christie and occupied by Mr. John Smyth, chimney blown upon the roof, windows burst in, and otherwise damaged.  At this place an outbuilding twenty feet square was taken off its foundation, carried three feet and set down uninjured.

Magazine-Street.  Mr. Drummond’s house, occupied by Messrs. Archie [sic; Archar in Times, 12 September] & Peterson’s  totally destroyed, and the latter killed by its fall.   Mr. Richard Stiff’s house and a great part of the furniture destroyed.  A new frame house belonging to Mr. Caleb Walker thrown off its foundation.

Mazyck-Street [now Logan Street].  Mr. George Dener’s chimney thrown down and a Negro Man killed by its fall.  Mrs. Legare’s large three story house, partly unroofed and otherwise much damaged.  Mr. James Sweeny’s two houses much injured. [The Times, 12 September 1811, also reported “The Poor House partly untiled, and the Wash-House in the yard unroofed.”]

Beaufain-Street.  Dr. Conton [sic], killed, house entirely destroyed. Mr. Wm. Tommon’s [Simmons in Times, 12 September] house, entirely destroyed.  (Both the above were the property of Mr. Brenan.)  House occupied by Major James Simons, belonging to Dr. Moore, chimnies [sic] thrown down and the roof much damaged.  Mr. Ornensetter’s [or Omensetter’s] chimney thrown down.

[Here, Times, 12 September, says: “From Beaufain-street, [the tornado] its tract was pretty easily marked, embracing a sphere of about 50 or 60 yards.”]

Wentworth-Street.  A large building belonging to Mr. Williman, and used as a bark-house [sic; bake-house?], entirely destroyed.  A new two story frame house belonging to Mr. Smith totally destroyed.  Mr. Burckmyer’s [sic] back buildings blown down.

Pitt-Street.  Martha Moulton, a black woman, new two story house entirely destroyed.

Montagu-Street.  ‘The mansion-house of the Hon. Judge Desaussure, was violently assailed, and suffered very considerably;  one of the chimneys was thrown down; and a part of the family, who were at the time in an upper room of the house, were precipitated with the falling bricks through two floors into the kitchen.’  Mr. Daniel Cobia’s house partly unroofed, fence down, and other damage.

Bull-Street.  Mr. John Duncan, house partly unroofed, an out house near twenty feet square was thrown on the next lot and destroyed. A Wench who was caught under it, escaped with slight injury!!  Mr. Henry Rose, house roof raised up several inches, piazza carried away.  A handsome out building, 36 feet by 16, was taken up and carried a distance of 70 feet, on the top of a carriage house of 30 by 12 feet, and both crushed to splinters.  A large three story brick house belonging to Mr. Blackwood and occupied by Mr. Parker, partly unroofed and fences blown down.

Boundary-Street [now Calhoun Street].  Mr. N. G. Maxwell’s house, occupied by Mr. Stroble, unroofed and otherwise very much shattered, out buildings entirely destroyed.  Three negroes taken unhurt from beneath the ruins.  Nancy Randol [sic], a coloured [sic] woman, house entirely destroyed, and two Children killed;  the mother’s collar bone broke and otherways [sic] much bruised.  The children were carried on the bed, on which they lay asleep at the time the house upset, a distance of about four hundred feet into the creek and were drowned, as it did not appear that any of the bruises on their bodies were mortal.  Mr. Bartholomew Carroll’s clay house, three stories high, unoccupied, surrounded entirely with piazzas, which were ripped off, although bound by joists passing through the house, which was completely unroofed;  of a building 36 by 18 feet, for kitchen, stable, &c. not a piece is left standing.  It is remarkable that the clay walls, (an experiment made in building by Mr. Carroll) were uninjured. [Times, 12 September, says Mr. Carroll’s clay house was “completely demolished.”]

We have thus traced the Tornado in its destructive course from New East-Bay-Street, near Fort Mechanic, where it entered the city, to its exit out of the city at Boundary-street, from whence it passed the Mill Pond and through Mr. Lege’s garden, did some injury to Mr. Duncan’s out houses, crossed the Cannonsbridge road;  leveling every thing in its course, until it reached the house of Mr. Edward Edwards, the chimney of which it threw down and transfixed a cedar post in the second story of the house, which it entirely pierced, reaching a bed just left by Mrs. Edwards and children; this post was taken out of the ground by the wind, and carried at lest [sic, least] 400 feet.

From this we trace it through a considerable space of open ground until it reached a house occupied by black people, belonging to captain Benjamin Harvey, which it entirely destroyed.  There were several negroes in it at the time, not one of which received any injury!!!  Some outbuildings, the property of Mr. Whiting, were at the same time the objects of fury, several of which it destroyed.

It then passed leaving the bridge [over the Ashley River] to the left, to the farm of Mr. Thos. Gadsden, whose out houses and hay stacks were laid prostrate or carried away.  It here entered the [Ashley] river, and of its direction afterwards we have not heard.

The tornado of 10 September 1811 was a major event in the long history of Charleston, and hurricane seems a fitting time to reflect on the destructive wrath it brought to our community.  As we enter the height of the storm season, it’s high time to check your supplies and keep your eye on the weather.  Be safe, everyone!