Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Garden History - Charleston, SC Before 1776 - Seen through the eyes of Gardeners, a Plant Collector, a Ship Captain, & a Patriot

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1773 Charleston, South Carolina. Library of Congress

Early views of Charleston do not portray the genteel town of our imaginations.

Charles-town 1769.

Black and white all mix’d together,
Inconstant, strange, unhealthful weather
Burning heat and chilling cold
Dangerous both to young and old
Boisterous winds and heavy rains
Fevers and rheumatic pains
Agues plenty without doubt
Sores, boils, the prickling heat and gout
Musquitos on the skin make blotches
Centipedes and large cock-roaches
Frightful creatures in the waters
Porpoises, sharks and alligators
Houses built on barren land
No lamps or lights, but streets of sand
Pleasant walks, if you can find ’em
Scandalous tongues, if any mind ’em
The markets dear and little money
Large potatoes, sweet as honey
Water bad, past all drinking
Men and women without thinking
Every thing at a high price
But rum, hominy and rice
Many a widow not unwilling
Many a beau not worth a shilling
Many a bargain, if you strike it,
This is Charles-town, how do you like it.

This poem was written by a Captain Martin, captain of a British warship, a Man of War.

It is certainly true that several other pre-Revolution chroniclers wrote of Charleston's trendy and affluent high society and of her pesky crawling critters.

English plant hunter and naturalist John Lawson (1674-1711) wrote in 1709, "The Town has very regular and fair Streets, in which are good Buildings of Brick and Wood...This Colony was at first planted by a genteel Sort of People that were well acquainted with Trade, and had either Money or Parts to make good Use of the Advantages that offer’d, as most of them have done by raising themselves to great Estates...and...considerable Fortunes...They have a considerable Trade both to Europe and the West Indies, whereby they become rich and are supply’d with all Things necessary for Trade and genteel Living."

John Lawson was an explorer, plant collector, surveyor, and author of A New Voyage to Carolina (London, 1709). A London botanist and apothecary, James Petiver (1658-1718), was seeking someone to collect American specimens for him, and Lawson volunteered to do this without charge. Thirty of the South Carolina plant specimens that he sent still survive in the Sloane collection at the British Museum. Hans Sloane (1660-1753) was a friend of Petiver. Sloane amassed a huge collection of plants, animals, and objects which became the founding core of the British Museum and Natural History Museum in London.

Agriculturalist & gardener Eliza Lucus Pinckney (1722-1793) wrote to her brother Thomas in England in 1742, "The people in general hospitable and honest, and the better sort add to these a polite gentile behaviour...4 months in the year is extremely disagreeable, excessive hot, much thunder and lightning, and muskatoes and sand flies in abundance. Charles Town, the Metropolis, is a neat pretty place. The inhabitants polite and live in a very gentile manner; the streets and houses regularly built; the ladies and gentlemen gay in their dress."

Rev. Johann Martin Bolzius (1703-1765),
leader of the German Lutheran settlement of Ebenezer, Georgia, wrote of Charleston in 1750, "It is expensive and costly to live in Charlestown...The splendor, lust, and opulence there has grown almost to the limit...Its European clothes it would have to change according to the often changing Charlestown fashion. Otherwise there would be much humiliation and mockery."

In Georgia, Bolzius was also intensely interested in gardening & agriculture. He urged the adoption of new agricultural technology and helped the struggling community to construct a gristmill, a rice mill, and a sawmill to supplement their funds. He encouraged his wife to experiment with the cultivation of black and white mulberry trees to help the women of Ebenezer develop a small-scale silk production.

Philadelphia merchant, Pelatiah Webster (1725-1795), wrote of his business trip to the city in 1765, "The laborious business is here chiefly done by black slaves of which there are great multitudes...Dined with Mr. Liston, passed the afternoon agreeably at his summer house till 5 o’clock P. M. then went up into the steeple of St. Michael’s, the highest in town & which commands a fine prospect of the town, harbour, river, forts, sea, &c...The heats are much too severe, the water bad, the soil sandy, the timber too much evergreen; but with all these disadvantages, ’tis a flourishing place, capable of vast improvement."

Pelatiah Webster, while not known for his gardening efforts, was the author of a number of thoughtful and accurate pamphlets on the potential finances and government of the United States, most of which he reprinted in his “Political Essays” in Philadelphia in 1791. He was such an ardent supporter of the patriot cause, that the British imprisoned him for 4 months in Philadelphia; before they were dispatched back to the beautiful emerald isle.
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