Shared from the 5/17/2020 Post & Courier eEdition

Charles Town grew despite epidemics, storms, discord



St. Philip’s Church viewed from Circular Congregational Church cemetery. Although the Circular Congregational Church sits on the same land as its 1681 predecessor, St. Philip’s moved to its current location in the 18th century.



EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth installment in an occasional series recounting Charleston’s history to commemorate its 350th anniversary.

Geography signified the church’s importance. It was built from sturdy cypress at the intersection of Charles Town’s two most prominent streets, not far from the city’s western wall. When St. Philip’s Church opened its doors in early 1681, the first European American congregation south of Virginia finally had a permanent home.

The colonists’ move from Albemarle Point to the peninsula had been planned meticulously. In fact, Charles Town was the first city in North America to lay out its streets before any public buildings were erected — an idea Philadelphia would soon copy.

In Charles Town’s plans, the church was given a prominent location (where St. Michael’s now stands) because it represented the Church of England — and that’s how the Lords Proprietors wanted it. Although advertisements for the colony promised religious liberty, the Lords made it clear which religion they preferred. Because not all of the settlers were Anglican.

That same year,Scottish Presbyterians, English Congregationalists and French Huguenots — “dissenters,” according to Lord Ashley Cooper — established the Circular Church just up the street from St. Philip’s. Before long, locals were calling the road “Meeting House Street,” which was later shortened to Meeting Street.

The broad street (its eventual name) that intersected with Meeting House Street in front of St. Philip’s was initially dubbed Cooper Street. And, as the town’s population grew beyond 1,000, many of Charles Town’s businesses chose to locate there. After the colonists moved to the peninsula, their upstart settlement quickly became an actual city. And with new residents pouring in from Europe and the Caribbean, and Lord Ashley Cooper’s death in early 1683, the Lords Proprietors were having a hard time governing it.

As Walter J. Fraser Jr. notes in “Charleston! Charleston!” the Barbadian emigrants who’d settled upriver in Goose Creek “were determined to keep control of the government and continue their lucrative trade with the Indians and pirates.”

The Lords Proprietors fired Capt. Joseph West as governor in late 1682, replacing him with Joseph Morton and, for a few weeks, Richard Kyle, before reappointing West in 1684. For his third term, he wouldn’t hold the job quite a year.

This fickleness with the colony’s leadership may have reflected the Lords’ growing concerns about the colonists’ trading partners. Perhaps that’s because one local tribe was cutting in on their own slave business.

And the pirates, well, they were just bad for business. The Lords ordered the colonists to hang any who wandered into town at the port’s entrance as a warning. But that fate only befell the poor ones. Rich pirates, and their money, were welcome in Charles Town … for the time being.

The original idea for the colony had been to cultivate a community of planters, but most of Charles Town’s residents in the late 17th century had better luck as traders. In an attempt to attract more folks of their ilk, the Lords Proprietors advertised the Carolina colony incessantly in England. They shamelessly claimed the Lowcountry air “gives a strong Appetite and quick Digestion” and “the Women are very fruitful.” They didn’t mention the malaria epidemic that swept the city in 1684-85, or the dangers of settling land the Spanish still hoped to control. In 1686, Spaniards landed near Port Royal, looting errant plantations as they marched toward Charles Town. By August, they were a mere 20 miles south of the peninsula wall.Gov. Morton, reinstalled for a second term, mustered the militia to fend off these invaders. But before they fired the first shot, they discovered there were some things even more dangerous than marauders.

On Aug. 26, 1686, “a Hurrican wonderfully horrid and distructive” blew in, driving the Spaniards out as it walloped Charles Town. It was the first recorded hurricane in the city’s history; it would not be the last. In fact, it would take another tropical storm, years later, to move St. Philip’s from its prominent home at the intersection of Charles Town’s two biggest streets.

Despite the myriad setbacks, the colony endured and ensured its future. By 1690, Charles Town — with a population of more than 1,200 — had become the fifth-largest city in America. And that was before the colonists realized the potential of their two greatest assets: plantations and the port.

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