During this cool season of the year, many Charlestonians (myself included) begin to dream of warm summer days and the joys of wearing fewer layers of cumbersome clothing. Come June, however, most of us will be pining for a chilly breeze and an iced beverage to beat the heat. Firewood has helped humanity survive the winter months for thousands of years, but the notion of cooling the summer months is a much more recent phenomenon. In twenty-first century Charleston, it’s easy to take things like refrigeration and air conditioning for granted, but have you ever wondered how and when such technological changes came to the Lowcountry of South Carolina? The short answer is this: the unnatural notion of perpetuating winter into summer began with the idea of preserving ice in hot climates. Let’s turn our time machines back to the 1790s and explore an era that I like to call Charleston’s first “ice age.”
The Lowcountry of South Carolina has recently witnessed many days of record cold temperatures, and we even had a serious dusting of snow that lasted for several days. On icy, gloomy winter days such as these, you’ll find most folks huddled indoors just trying to stay warm. What could be more inviting and comforting on a cold winter’s night than a warm fireplace, filled with a blazing and crackling pile of firewood? Just the mental image of such a scene is enough to lower one’s blood pressure and relax the mind. Even though most of us can now heat our homes with the simple push of a button or the turn of a knob, the very idea of a wood-burning fireplace conjures up nostalgic feelings of well-being and security. In the age of the Internet and our increasingly virtual lives, the popularity of high-definition videos of crackling fireplaces testifies to the enduring primal appeal of this cozy scene.
The first day of January marks the beginning of a new calendar year in Charleston, as it does in most other places in the world, but this holiday did not exist in the early days of our community, or anywhere in the colonies that became the United States of America. For the first 81 years of life here in the English colony of South Carolina, we officially celebrated the start of the new year on March 25th. More than just a curious old tradition, this is a very important fact that should be familiar to anyone interested in the history of Charleston, or anyone studying the history of their own family. In early America, the concept of dating the new year from January 1st was quite literally a foreign concept. The adoption of this new “new year” practice in 1752 was part of a remarkable cultural shift that had lasting repercussions in Charleston and the United States in general.
Most everyone in these United States recognizes the first day of January as New Year’s Day, but that’s not the only holiday being celebrated in our community on this date. Since 1866, the people of Charleston have celebrated the first of January as Emancipation Day—a holiday that includes a parade, orations, religious services, and feasting. If you’re not familiar with this event, it’s well worth your time to learn a bit more. It’s one of Charleston’s oldest public celebrations, and one that everyone should acknowledge and applaud. In fact, I believe Charleston’s annual celebration of Emancipation Day is a unique phenomenon that deserves national recognition.
In our last episode, we talked about the events of the American Revolution leading up to this evacuation, in an effort to understand the context of this big event and its significance. Let’s pick up the story in early December 1782, when the end of the long war was quite literally in sight. Most of the American army in South Carolina, consisting of several hundred men under the leadership of General Nathanael Greene, was camped on a number of plantations on the west side of the Ashley River. When intelligence suggested that the British forces in urban Charleston were nearing the end of their preparations for departure, General Greene gave the order for the American advance guard to cross the river and investigate.
The 14th of December is an important date in the calendar of Charleston history that deserves to be remembered and celebrated. On this day in 1782, the last of the British forces that had occupied this city for more than two-and-a-half years made their final mass exodus from our shores. After seven years of warfare and many months of preparation, the remnants of Britain’s southern army, including thousands of soldiers, loyalist civilians, and enslaved Africans, departed peacefully in a massive navy flotilla, and American soldiers and civilians immediately reoccupied the deserted town. This dramatic event marked the end of the war for Charleston, for the state of South Carolina, and, one could argue, for the United States in general. The American Revolution didn’t begin in Charleston, but the evacuation of Charleston on 14 December 1782 marked the end of our War of Independence. It was, in many ways, our Victory Day.
The Charleston County Public Library system has officially existed for just about eighty-seven years, but this week we’re celebrating the 90th anniversary of our oldest branch. In the autumn of 1927, Susan Dart Butler opened a free library in a building known as Dart Hall in downtown Charleston, and the present Dart Library is hosting a celebratory event this Saturday to commemorate ninety years of service to the community. In honor of this milestone, I’d like to share with you a brief history of the Dart library, as told by its founder. But first, a bit of background about Susan Dart Butler and her family here in Charleston.
Let’s continue our conversation about the connections between South Carolina and the Caribbean Island of Barbados with a bit of review to refresh your memory.
Barbados and the Roots of Carolina, Part 2
At the turn of the seventeenth century, England was very keen to get involved in the European real estate bonanza in the New World. By that time, Spain and Portugal had already claimed nearly the entire continent of South America, the southern parts of North America, and most of the islands known as the West Indies, or Caribbean Islands. Then, in a burst of colonial activity between 1607 and 1640, English settlers established colonies in Virginia, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, Bermuda, Barbados, and a few other tiny islands in the Caribbean Sea. This creative burst was followed by a relatively brief lull, however, in which England’s colonial aspirations ground to a halt. Between 1642 and 1659, the English nation was too preoccupied with domestic turmoil to think about initiating any new colonial ventures. This was the era of the English Civil War, followed by the Commonwealth, and then the Protectorate. With the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660, however, a renewed spirit of optimism compelled many English investors to look back to the New World for new opportunities for profit and expansion.
It’s Thanksgiving season again, and for most people that means a day of rest, relaxation, and feasting with close friends and family. As a historian working in an old city, I have learned that Thanksgiving also includes at least ten people asking me the same question: “When was the first Thanksgiving in Charleston?” I don’t mind the question at all, but the answer is generally more complex than most people care to hear. If you don’t mind a quick stroll through the historical record of early South Carolina, however, I’m happy to offer an answer to this annual holiday question. Continue reading →
If you pick up any book about the origins of South Carolina in the late 1600s, you’ll be sure to find references to the island of Barbados and the great influence it exerted on our early history. Nearly 350 years later, in November 2017, a number of Lowcountry residents are collaborating with officials in Barbados to commemorate the cultural ties that continue to bind our two communities together. The Barbados and Carolina Legacy Foundation, founded by Bajan native Rhoda Green, is leading a coterie of Carolinians to Bimshire (as some natives call the island) this month to celebrate our shared past. I’ll be traveling along with the Charleston delegation, and I look forward to sharing the fruits of my journey when I return.