A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 2

In our last episode, we began to survey the rights and “disabilities” (to use an old legal term) that framed the lives of women in the first century of South Carolina.  In this episode we consider the antiquated options for marriage dissolution and explore the precarious legal existence of widows, with examples from the lives of real women to illustrate our points.

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 2

In the early days of South Carolina, the laws of this province recognized four stages in a woman’s progress through life: Infancy, Spinsterhood, Marriage, and Widowhood. Last week I left you with a description of the career of Mary Stevens, the wife of a musician in Charleston who enjoyed a brief career as a “feme sole” or “sole trader” before the American Revolution. Mary was the proprietor of a boarding house and coffee house on East Bay Street, a business she ran independently from her husband. She was able to enjoy this unusual degree of freedom because her husband had signed a legal document pledging to stay out of Mary’s business affairs. In the eyes of the law, John Stevens was giving up some of his traditional rights over his wife’s money and property in order to empower Mary to earn her own money. As I mentioned last time, there were hundreds of femes sole or women traders throughout the colonies of early America, and they were usually found among the working class of folk—people who might gladly forfeit some traditional paternalistic rights in exchange for a larger household income. We might imagine that some husbands allowed their wives to act as sole traders because their families were in need of the extra income. Allowing these colonial women to work outside the home, after all, meant that traditional duties such as childcare and domestic chores had to suffer a bit. On the other hand, we can also imagine that some husbands might have been happy to give their wives a bit of non-traditional freedom to work and earn independently. We’ll never know the details of the relationship between John and Mary Stevens, for example, but it’s certainly possible that they had a good marriage, and that John was happy to take advantage of this legal loophole that allowed Mary to act with more independence than most married women.

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Charleston Slavery to African Freedom: Two Amazing True Stories

Boston King and John Kizell may not be familiar names in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, but these two men lived heroic lives that deserve to be remembered.  Both King and Kizell escaped slavery in the Charleston area during the American Revolution and, through a dramatic series of twists and turns, managed to blaze a trail back to a life in their ancestral homes on the west coast of Africa.

Thousands of other enslaved African-Americans and their descendants followed a similar path, but very few of these people wrote down the story of their journeys.  Boston King and John Kizell both left behind a paper trail, however, and from their life stories we can re-imagine the symphony of stories of those people who made the transatlantic crossing back to Africa.

If you missed my recent presentation on this topic, here’s a link to a video of me speaking to an audience at the John’s Island Regional Library on 11 April 2017:

And if you’d like to learn more about this fascinating topic, click this link for a list of suggestions for further reading: King_&_Kizell_bibliography


A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 1

This week we’re traveling back in Lowcountry history to talk about women. Every March we celebrate women’s history month, and in the past I’ve presented some programs on various aspects of this topic around the community. Rather than profiling the lives of famous South Carolina women, or talking about famous events in local women’s history, I’ve taken a different tack and tried to focus on the bigger picture, and to include the voices of obscure women. Whether she was rich, poor, enslaved, or free; whether she was of African, European, or Native American descent, the lives of ALL women in early South Carolina were bounded and constrained by a set of laws created by white men, based on ancient laws brought over from England at the founding of the Carolina colony. In order to gain a better understanding of how women lived, say in the first century of South Carolina, we need to understand how the law influenced their passage from the cradle to the grave.

A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina, Part 1

It’s a big, complicated topic, and I’ve been struggling to find a good title for this work. My first title was simply, “Women’s Rights in Early South Carolina,” but in reality it’s more like “The Lack of Women’s Right’s in Early South Carolina.” A more precise title might be “An Examination of the Legal Boundaries of a Woman’s life in Colonial South Carolina,” but that’s just too wordy. So how about this, simply: “A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina.” By progress, I don’t mean the accumulation of rights and liberties, as in the women’s progressive movement in the early twentieth century. Rather, I’m talking about a woman’s progression through the stages of life. Not the biological stages of life, but the legally recognized stages of a woman’s existence, from infancy to widowhood.

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April 2017 Programs

Podcast production is taking a lot of my time right now, so this month I’m curtailing my “live” presentations a bit. This won’t be a permanent slow-down, but rather an attempt to get caught up with the Time Machine’s rapidly expanding itinerary.

Back in October 2016 I scheduled an event at the Edisto Island library branch, but Hurricane Matthew blew that plan off the calendar.  This month I’m going to honor that plan by returning to Edisto Island on Thursday, April 6th to present an illustrated lecture about “The Life and Times of Thomas Grimball (1744–1783).”  The Grimball family has been part of Edisto history since about 1682, but most folks have never heard of of TG III, as I like to call him.  He died at the conclusion of the American Revolution, having been a prisoner of war for too long, but the legacy of his musical patronage lives on in the spirit of jazz.  How?  Well, it’s a long story.  If you can’t join us at the Edisto library on Thursday the 6th, please join me for an encore presentation at the Main Library on Thursday, April 13th.

Also this month, by popular demand I’m repeating a recent program dedicated to the biographies of Boston King and John Kizell, two men who were enslaved in the Charleston area but escaped slavery in late 1782 by evacuating South Carolina with the British Army.  Both men lived for several years in Nova Scotia before each found his own path back to Africa in the 1790s.  Individually, King and Kizell worked to create a new home for themselves and for thousands of other ex-American slaves who sought to return to their motherland.  Curious?  Please join us at the John’s Island regional library for “From Charleston Slavery to African Freedom: Two Amazing True Stories” on Tuesday, April 11th at 10:15 a.m.

The Language of Libations

The Ale House Door, ca. 1790, by Henry Singleton

The Ale House Door, ca. 1790, by Henry Singleton

Today we’re going to travel back in Lowcountry history in search of something to drink. Time travel can make a body thirsty, you know. Let’s imagine that we’re traveling back to colonial South Carolina, that is, sometime between the arrival of the first European settlers here in 1670 to the 1770s, the era of the American Revolution. The journey has made us parched, so we’re in search of a beverage to quench our thirst. Choices abound, but you might be unfamiliar with the vocabulary. For example, would you care for a bowl of arrack? A pipe of syracuse? How about a nice butt of malmsey? My point is this: the beverage lingo of early South Carolina was quite different from our own, and there was a heavy emphasis on alcoholic concoctions. To understand the logic behind this situation, and to navigate the menu of colonial-era drinks, we need to start with some vocabulary help. In that spirit, I offer you this primer that I call . . .

The Language of Libations in Early South Carolina

The first and most important lesson is this: Water is not necessarily your friend. Most of our early settlers stayed near the coastline, bordered by the salty sea and brackish rivers. If you dig a well into these low-lying lands, you’re likely to get sandy water with a pretty foul smell and taste. Consider the topography of peninsular Charleston, for example. The land ranges in height from sea level to about twenty feet above sea level, and it’s bordered by two brackish rivers. If you dig a well, you’ll hit the water table just a few feet down, and the water will be sandy and brackish, and not exactly potable. Nevertheless, nearly every household yard in early Charleston had a well, and there were also public wells in many of the streets. But these wells weren’t necessarily used for drinking. Well water was mostly used for cooking, cleaning, fire-fighting, and light industry (such as tanning leather, felting hats, or making bricks and oyster shell mortar).

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John Laurens and Hamilton, Part 3

John Laurens (1754--1782) by Charles Willson Peale

John Laurens (1754–1782) by Charles Willson Peale

We’ve followed the adventures of John Laurens from his childhood in Charleston to the America siege of British-held Yorktown, and now we conclude this dramatic story by tracing the last ten months of his tragically short life.  Award-winning biographies and hit musicals dedicated to Laurens’s best friend, Alexander Hamilton, don’t provide an accurate description of John’s role at the surrender at Yorktown or his final days back in South Carolina, and that’s a shame.  In this episode, we focus on the tense stalemate between British and American forces in the last year of the war, and take a close look at the facts and the meaning behind the death of Lt. Col. John Laurens in late August 1782.

John Laurens and Hamilton: A Closer Look (Part 3)

John Laurens and Hamilton, Part 2

John Laurens (1754--1782) by Charles Willson Peale

John Laurens (1754–1782) by Charles Willson Peale

This week we continue our narrative adventure through the life of John Laurens (1754–1782), with comparisons to his portrayal in the hit musical, Hamilton.  

We rejoin the story in the early months of 1778, after John has asked his father, Henry Laurens, for permission to use some men enslaved by the Laurens family as the nucleus of a proposed regiment of black soldiers.  This week we follow John’s successes and failures up through the cease-fire at Yorktown in October 1781.

John Laurens and Hamilton: A Closer Look (Part 2)

Tune in next week for the conclusion of the saga of John Laurens and Hamilton!

John Laurens and Hamilton, Part 1

John Laurens (1754--1782) by Charles Willson Peale

John Laurens (1754–1782) by Charles Willson Peale

Over the past several months I’ve spoken with a number of people around Charleston, fans of the hit musical, Hamilton, who asked me what I thought of the portrayal of John Laurens in the musical—was it accurate, was it fair, and wasn’t it just so cool?  I have to admit, at first, I had no idea what they were talking about.  I am not a consumer of pop culture, and—full disclosure—I am not a fan of the Broadway musical experience.  Nevertheless, the question itself is valid—how accurate and fair is portrayal of John Laurens in the musical, Hamilton?  And let’s be honest, many young fans of the musical are asking the more basic question: who was John Laurens?

Here’s my short answer to both of these questions: John Laurens was a wealthy young man from Charleston who used his talents, influence, and raw physical energy to fight for independence from Great Britain during the American Revolution.  In the end, he fell victim to the military violence of the war, but the portrayal of John Laurens in the musical, Hamilton, is grossly oversimplified, and not entirely accurate.  To explain what I mean by this, we’ll have to travel back to the second half of the eighteenth century and take a brief tour of the life and times of John Laurens. . . .

John Laurens and Hamilton: A Closer Look (Part 1)

Tune in next week for Part 2 of the saga of John Laurens and Hamilton!

March 2017 Programs

time_machine_march_2017I’ve got two new, wildly different live programs coming up this month you won’t want to miss.  Be prepared to tap your feet with delight, and then shake your fist in disgust.  History is like that—some stories make you feel glad and proud, while others stories push back the fog that obscures some painful truths.

In the first program, we’ll look back at the roots of the dance known as “the Charleston,” and retrace the trajectory of a home-grown rhythm from the streets of Charleston to a world-wide phenomenon.  Yes, our community is the native land of that wonderful, infectious dance, but it’s more than just a series of steps, kicks, and turns.  The “Charleston” is an assemblage of African rhythms and American steps, put into motion by the mass migration of thousands of African Americans from the Lowcountry to “the North” in search of better lives in the early twentieth century.

Tracing the Roots of the “Charleston” Dance

  • Tuesday, 14 March at 10: 15 a.m., John’s Island Regional Library, 3531 Maybank Highway, Johns Island, SC 29455
  • Thursday, 16 March at 6 p.m., Main library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401


Later in the month, we’ll turn to the sobering facts story of the limited rights and opportunities afforded to women in early South Carolina.  I’m not talking about the pioneering work of suffragettes in the early twentieth century, or temperance activists in the mid-nineteenth century.  Rather, I’m talking about the legal framework of English Common Law that defined the limits of a woman’s life, from cradle to grave, from the arrival of the first settlers in South Carolina in the 1670s to the end of the eighteenth century.  We’ll hear about real women whose struggles personify the legal limits placed on women in our early days, and try to connect the dots between colonial-era oppression to South Carolina’s enduring legacy of domestic violence.

Women’s Rights in Early South Carolina

  • Tuesday March 28th at 6 p.m., Main library auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401


As always, these programs are free and open to the public!

Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Lowcountry Rice

Harvesting rice in the Lowcountry of South Carolina (Harper's Monthly Magazine, November 1859)

Harvesting rice in the Lowcountry of South Carolina (Harper’s Monthly Magazine, November 1859)

The cultivation of rice in early South Carolina had a tremendous impact on the development of Lowcountry culture and history.  It inspired the forced migration of thousands of people from West Africa, created a wealthy elite, and dominated the economy and culture of our state for many generations.  In an effort to raise awareness about the local story of this humble grain, I’ve assembled a list of what I consider the most significant facts about Lowcountry rice history that form the basis for our community’s shared heritage:

Ten Things Everyone Should Know about Lowcountry Rice

  1. Rice defined early South Carolina.
  2. The origins of South Carolina’s rice are obscure.
  3. Plantation owners capitalized  on African rice knowledge.
  4. There were two types of rice cultivation: inland rice and tidal rice.
  5. To control the flow of water on rice fields, enslaved people in South Carolina moved a volume of earth comparable to that of the pyramids in Egypt.
  6. Rice cultivation was hard work, but it wasn’t all done by hand.
  7. Rice generated a polarized pair of cultural identities in South Carolina.
  8. Rice formed a staple part of the South Carolina diet.
  9. The rice industry in South Carolina continued after the Civil War, and ended before World War II.
  10. Rice is again being commercially grown in South Carolina.

Listen, savor, and digest.  Bon appetit!