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!

Charleston’s First Orchestra: The St. Cecilia Society

Votaries of Apollo, by Nic Butler (USC Press, 2007)

Votaries of Apollo, by Nic Butler (USC Press, 2007)

November 2016 marked the 250th anniversary of the first concerts of the most significant musical organization in the early history of the United States—Charleston’s St. Cecilia Society.  In this episode, we’ll take quick tour of the society’s history, from its origins in 1766, through the Revolution and the War of 1812, to its final concerts in 1820. Along they way we’ll enjoy a few examples of the sort of music that filled this remarkable 54-year-long concert series.  If you’d like to learn more about this topic, come to the library and check out my book, Votaries of Apollo, published by USC Press in 2007.


Charleston’s First Orchestra: The St. Cecilia Society

Charleston Alphabet Soup

Rather than following one large topic from beginning to end, this episode offers a bowl of Charleston alphabet soup—an A-to-Z feast of 25 short biographies profiling (mostly) obscure Charlestonians, each of whom would make a great subject for your next historical novel, screenplay, or school report.  Bon appetit!

Charleston Alphabet Soup


  • A is for Antigua (the man)
  • B is for Broadhurst, Dorothea
  • C is for Cartwright, Hugh
  • D is for Daniels, Margaret
  • E is for Eldridge, Jane
  • F is for Fayolle, Peter
  • G is for Guillotin, Francois
  • H is for Haly, John
  • I is for Ioor, Claas
  • J is for nobody
  • K is for Kizzel, John
  • L is for Lombois, Jacques
  • M is for Moise, Penina
  • N is for Natchez
  • O is for O’Keefe, William
  • P is for Pennefather, John
  • Q is for Quash
  • R is for Reichart, Karl
  • S is for Shinner, Charles
  • T is for Trajetta, Philip
  • U is for Utting, Ashby
  • V is for Valk, Jacob
  • W is for Williman, Jacob
  • X is for Xavier, St. Francis
  • Y is for Yonge, Francis
  • Z is for Zierden, Martha

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 2

Here’s the conclusion of our overview of notable hurricanes in the history of Lowcountry South Carolina, from the dramatic storm of 1804 to the mild passing of Matthew of 2016.  Learning about these old tropical twisters will help you get in the grove for the next hurricane season, which is always just around the corner. . . .

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 2

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 1

Hurricanes are an inescapable part of living in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, and our community has weathered quite a few storms over the past three centuries.  Join me for a look back at the most memorable and significant hurricanes to hit the shores of Charleston, from the Spanish-thwarting storm of 1686 to the battery-breaking cyclone of 1804.

Lowcountry Hurricane History, Part 1

February 2017 Programs

time_machine_feb_2017This February, please join me in celebrating some amazing true stories from Charleston’s past.  In honor of Black History Month, I’ll turn the spotlight on several individuals who stood strong in the face of adversity and helped bring about positive changes.  I’m also partnering with the Daniel Island Library this month (even though they’re technically in Berkeley County), as part of their new local history series.  At the end of the month, we’ll resume our series on “Opera in Charleston” and look at late-nineteenth century production at the Academy of Music on King Street, and O’Neill’s Opera House on Meeting Street.  If you can’t join us in person, then stay tuned for upcoming radio and podcast versions of these programs in the coming months.

In my first program, we’ll trace the amazing journeys of Boston King and John Kizell, two African men who escaped slavery in eighteenth-century South Carolina and pioneered the trail for other ex-slaves to return to Africa. If you haven’t heard of these men, then come on over to Daniel Island for the inside scoop.

From Charleston Slavery to African Freedom: Two Amazing True Stories

Monday, February 6th at 1:30 p.m., Daniel Island Library, 2301 Daniel Island Dr., 29492

Next, I’ll be talking about some forgotten Civil Rights activity that took place in our community in the aftermath of the Civil War, when a few brave folks took deliberate steps to test new federal legislation that promised equal rights for all.  All are welcome, and we plan to have a crowd of 8th graders from Haut Gap Middle School present.

First Steps Towards Civil Rights Equality in Charleston, 1866-1870

Tuesday, February 14th at 10:15 a.m., Johns Island Regional Library, 3531 Maybank Hwy., 29455

And finally, I’ll return to my series on local opera history with a program looking at operatic performances in Charleston in the decades after the Civil War.  By then, opera was well established in the United States, but the rise of Vaudeville gave opera a healthy run for the money.

Opera in Charleston, Part 4: The Academy of Music

Tuesday, February 28th at 6 p.m., Main Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.