Charleston Time Machine

Charleston Time Machine

Dr. Nic Butler, historian at the Charleston County Public Library, explores the less familiar corners of local history with stories designed to educate, entertain, and inspire audiences to reflect on the enduring presence of the past in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

Episodes

May 7, 2021 40 min
The public cemeteries for Charleston’s poorest citizens and enslaved people of African descent between 1794 and 1927 occupied nearly 35 acres beyond those used during colonial-era, but all of that real estate has been developed for other uses over the past two centuries. The paper trail of evidence suggests the existence of tens of thousands of unmarked urban graves.
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The historic landscape of urban Charleston contains several large unmarked public cemeteries that are filled with the remains of thousands of nameless bodies interred by local government. Those buried between 1672 and 1794 are contained within a well-settled neighborhood on the city’s west side, where the forgotten graves were built over and ignored by successive generations.
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Although the telegraph is functionally irrelevant in the 21st century, its legacy is more important to our modern lifestyles than we realize. The advent of the telegraph in the 1840s sparked a bold new era of telecommunication that connected South Carolina to an international conversation and brough Charleston “one line” in the winter of 1848.
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The identity of the author of a well-known Charleston poem from 1769 is obscure, but clues imbedded in the manuscript suggest a candidate whose unfamiliar name recalls a distant era of local maritime history, and whose biography provides a colorful backdrop for the creation of a famously bold description of the colonial capital.
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Granville Bastion, a brick structure mounting a dozen cannon, stood at the south end of East Bay Street from its creation in 1697 until its partial demolition in the 1780s. A new investigation of its genesis reveals that South Carolina’s oldest English fortification was originally conceived as one corner of a four-bastioned structure that was never completed.
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Since the first bookmobiles hit the road in Charleston County in 1931, generations of drivers have carried books to remote corners of the county to foster a love of learning outside of traditional libraries. As CCPL’s thirteenth “mobile library” prepares to continue this ninety-year-old tradition, let’s review a brief history of the county’s books (and more) on wheels.
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Dedicated recreational space was not part of the vocabulary of urban planning in colonial South Carolina, so early Charlestonians were obliged to borrow private land for use as public greens. The earliest evidence of a shared space for sport and leisure in our community points to a forgotten suburban site once known as the Bowling Green.
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Charles Shinner garnered prestige and wealth after his arrival in South Carolina, but the enforcement of a controversial British law in late 1765 triggered a tidal wave of political resistance that undermined his life and career. During his final years, Shinner buried his wife and children while fighting a losing battle to defend his character against vengeful political assassination.
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Charles Shinner was an obscure Irish lawyer whose wealthy English client nominated him to be Chief Justice of South Carolina. He and his young wife arrived in Charleston in 1762 and settled into a prosperous life. In the face of growing political opposition in the mid-1760s, the defects of Shinner’s education soon undermined his career and endangered his family.
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Catherine was cheated out of freedom by an unscrupulous master, but she boldly asserted her independence and found an attorney to lobby for her emancipation. While they petitioned for justice, Catherine’s predicament was confounded by unresponsive litigants and the shifting sands of statute law. Legal manumission remained elusive, but she gained a measure of freedom in her later years.
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In the early 1800s, a trio of French Charlestonians agreed to allow an enslaved woman named Catherine to purchase her own freedom. After laboring for many months, Catherine amassed the required sum and paid her master, Antoine Plumet. Rather than setting her free, Plumet defrauded Catherine and died without honoring their bargain. Undeterred, Catherine asserted her freedom until the law intervened.
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In 1750, the South Carolina legislature emancipated an enslaved man known as Doctor Caesar for sharing his secret antidote for poisons and snakebites, prepared from a combination of familiar plants. This simple decoction earned Doctor Caesar immortal fame, but it also provided a modicum of comfort during his final years and benefitted his family members who remained enslaved.
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In 1872, James Henry Conyers became the first man of color to enter the U.S. Naval Academy. Although he spent the majority of his life in Charleston, few here remember his legacy. In this episode we’ll trace the arc of his biography and try to place his family and his education within the broader context of our community’s past.
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South Carolina has one of the most recognizable flags in the nation, but the details of its the creation and the meaning are elusive. While others debate the shape of its signature palmetto tree, we’ll explore the background of flags and symbols in early Charleston that led to the creation of a proud blue banner of hope and resilience.
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Auctions of enslaved people were a familiar sight on the streets of early Charleston until local authorities sought to constrain such spectacles into enclosed “marts” during the second quarter of the 19th century. This commercial change endured into the era of Civil War, but historic documents illustrating this form of human trafficking are not always what they purport to be.
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Local legend says that George Anson acquired Ansonborough in a card game with Thomas Gadsden. While the documents related to that 1727 conveyance contain no hint of a gambling debt, the circumstances surrounding two transactions with Charles Codner of Daniel Island in 1735 suggest that the legend of Captain Anson’s gambling success might have been applied to the wrong property.
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The beginning of a new calendar year in January is one of a variety of “new year” anniversaries that our forebears observed to mark the advent of a new life, monarch, or entity. The various methods of annual calculations in early South Carolina might seem arcane today, but a familiarity with their underlying concepts can help us better understand the past.
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The arrival of captured enemy vessels and booty was a familiar sight in Charleston during the War of Jenkins’ Ear, but the value of a French prize brought here in December 1744 surpassed all imagination. While unpacking her mysterious cargo in the days before Christmas, the crew discovered the most amazing cache of riches ever witnessed in the American colonies.
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When Charleston sacrificed a forest of street trees in 1837 for the sake of civic improvement, the loss triggered a long debate about the value of various tree species and the role of local government in promoting public health. Before the Civil War, the city selected a specific native, deciduous tree and commenced to renew the lost green canopy.
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The street trees of urban Charleston’s contribute greatly to the city’s beauty and historic atmosphere, but they haven’t always been there. Our colonial streets were largely naked, and less familiar species preceded the present palmettos, live oaks, magnolias and crepe myrtles. The story of when, where, and why these street trees arose is rooted deep in the city’s past.
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