Charleston's 1776 defenses

In 1680, the settlers from Albemarle Point moved their Charles Town to the peninsula, where our modern city would thrive. This image depicts what grew after nearly a century. It is an image from a 1777 map, "The Harbour of Charles Town in South Carolina from the Surveys of Sr. Jas. Wallace Captn. in his Majesty’s Navy & others with a view of the Town from the South Shore of the Ashley River." It shows the peninsula fortified by palmetto logs. Provided 

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of serialized columns about Charleston's history in recognition of its 350th anniversary.

The Charles Town colonists had barely settled in at Albemarle Point before the peninsula beckoned.

The wooded stretch of land, a couple of miles downstream at the confluence of the two rivers, jutted into the harbor gloriously. They alternately called it “Oyster Point” or “White Point” because of the abundant shells discarded there by local Native Americans. Its allure was unmistakable.

Within a year of their arrival at Albemarle Point, some colonists were promoting Oyster Point as a possible site to relocate the town. Even Gov. William Sayle suspected the land might offer a defensive advantage against any Spaniards who sailed into port. At least they’d see them coming.

Others simply considered Oyster Point a potentially more comfortable home, particularly in the summer months. “It is as it were a Key to open and shutt this settlement into safety or danger,” Joseph Dalton wrote to Lord Ashley Cooper.

As Walter J. Fraser Jr. notes in “Charleston! Charleston!,” Dalton — a member of the town’s governing council — speculated that the peninsula seemed “very healthy being free from any noisome vapors and all the Sumer long refreshed with Coole breathing from the sea.”

The idea that ocean breezes on the peninsula would make Lowcountry summers bearable, and mitigate the spread of disease, was an idea that manifested itself in Charleston. It would entice future generations of plantation owners to build grand summer homes — mansions, by most standards — in the city. Most would never realize the origins of that idea dated back to the settlement’s first years.

By 1672, a half-dozen settlers were given land grants near Oyster Point, including Hugh Carteret, John Coming and William Murrell. Fraser speculates that the carpenter John Norton and his African slave, Emanuel, most likely built the first home on the peninsula.

Nearly a decade would pass before Charles Town completely relocated, however. In the meantime, there was consternation and confusion in the colony.

Less than six months after Sayle died (and recommended Joseph West succeed him as governor), the Lords Proprietors installed Sir John Yeamans — who’d twice abandoned Carolina settlement efforts — as its governor.

Yeamans had arrived with 200 African slaves in the spring of 1671, and proceeded to harass West because he considered himself the rightful governor. But the settlers didn’t cotton to Yeamans and, after his appointment, most came to the conclusion that he put his own financial success above their own.

In “South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government 1670-1719,” historian Edward McCrady wrote that Yeamans curiously exported many of the colony’s provisions to Barbados. “That Governor Yeamans engaged too extensively in these exports was perhaps the chief cause of the clamors and discontent of the people.”

By the spring of 1674, complaints about Yeamans reached a crescendo and the Lords Proprietors sent word to reinstall West as governor. But Yeamans, who’d been in poor health for years, died before learning he’d been fired.

West would oversee a gradual migration from Albemarle Point to the peninsula. By the decade’s end, there were more than 20 homes near Oyster Point, and about as many under construction. Notably, the colonists were also installing cannons and digging entrenchments around the new settlement, a nod to the greater exposure they risked by living within sight of the ocean.

In December 1679, the Lords Proprietors officially deemed the peninsula “a more convenient place to build a towne” than Albemarle Point and asked West to oversee the move. They suggested the town should have wider and straighter thoroughfares than were found in London. They asked for “broad” streets.

The announcement was a welcome sign for the settlers, who’d come to fear the Lords Proprietors had just about lost interest in the colony … or at least any hope of ever seeing a profit. But Charles Town, which saw more new residents arriving each month, had been given a second chance.

So the colonists moved, most of them building homes along the eastern river, which would become the second Carolina waterway named in honor of Lord Ashley Cooper. By the spring of 1680, the entire colony had resettled on the peninsula.

The city would never move again and, for centuries, the peninsula’s allure would endure.

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