Shared from the 7/5/2020 Post & Courier eEdition

Decade of prosperity ends with heavy toll for Charles Town

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the 11th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate its 350th anniversary.

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Middleton Place

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Hicks

John Williams started building his grand country home on the Ashley River in the late 1730s.

The house, which would come to be called Middleton Place, was just upstream from land John Drayton Sr. had secured to build his own Drayton Hall — because it was clear he was not destined to inherit his birthplace, nearby Magnolia Plantation.

As Robert Rosen writes in “A Short History of Charleston,” the early years of Charles Town’s time as a British colony were a golden age for the proliferation of plantations — Snee Farm and Fenwick Hall among them. The rice market was thriving, and many planters and merchants were enjoying an economic boon.

In the first half of the 1730s, the port was filled with ships exporting rice — more than 40,000 barrels, each containing 420 pounds of the crop —leftthecity each year. As the decade progressed, the price of rice nearly doubled, and alotofpeople got very rich. It was during these early colonial days that Charles Town began to resemble the city it would become. St. Philip’s Church had reopened in its new location on Church Street nearly a decade earlier. In 1736, the Dock Street Theatre opened down the street from the church with a performance of “The Recruiting Officer.” The theater was the first building in the New World constructed exclusively for theatrical performances.

The St. Andrew’s Society, the St. George’s Society and the South Carolina Jockey Club were founded in the 1730s, and plans were in the works for a Charleston Library Society. The city got its first newspaper when the South Carolina Gazette began publishing in 1732. The paper was founded by Thomas Whitmarsh, who’d learned the printing business in Philadelphia from a man named Benjamin Franklin.

During the 1730s, Charles Town doubled in size, growing to 160 acres. And it was becoming a hub of culture in America, fueled in large part by the wealth of the planters who maintained residences in the city.

If rice was the largest export, the city’s most common import was the enslaved labor needed to cultivate the crop. Between 1730 and 1740, more than 20,000 African slaves were brought into Charles Town, a number that caused some residents to wonder if there should not be some limits imposed. The population imbalance worried the white residents of Charles Town, and there were always rumors of uprisings or plots among the colony’s enslaved labor. As Walter J. Fraser Jr. writes in “Charleston! Charleston!” most of these rumors “were more imagined than real: garbled stories reported in second or third hand.”

But not all the stories were unfounded.

On Sept. 9, 1739, a slave named Jemmy gathered two dozen enslaved laborers south of Charles Town and marched down a dirt road carrying a banner that read “Liberty!” They stopped at a store near the Stono River bridge, 20 miles south of the city, killed two people and took all the weapons and ammunition they could find.

According to Walter Edgar’s “South Carolina: A History,” they decapitated the store owner and his clerk, leaving their heads on the store’s front steps.

The group was headed for the refuge of Spanish Florida and along the way burned a half-dozen plantations in the colony, killed more people and recruited at least 50 more enslaved workers. Near the Edisto River, Lt. Gov. William Bull saw the group, outran them and alerted the militia.

Armed colonists caught up with the group late that same day, and a gunfight broke out. The militia had more firepower and ultimately overtook the slaves, but many of them escaped into the woods.

The hunt for these “rebels” went on for nearly a week, and many were executed on the spot where they were caught.

In all, nearly 100 black and white South Carolinians died in the “Stono Rebellion.” It was the largest slave uprising in the history of the colonies, and it led Charles Town to put a moratorium on the importation of enslaved people. But that would be only temporary.

There was too much money to be made from rice — and the enslaved labor that cultivated it. By 1740, the city’s continued prosperity depended on it.

Reach Brian Hicks at

bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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