The “Walled City” of Colonial Charles Town

An Exact Prospect of Charlestown, the Metropolis of the Province of South Carolina, 1739

Editor’s note: This is the 10th installment in a serialized history of Charleston to commemorate its 350th anniversary.

The rebellion had been simmering a long time.

In the past decade, the Carolina colonists had grown increasingly disenchanted with life under control of the Lords Proprietors. And they had legitimate grievances.

The Proprietors had declined to send reinforcements during the pirate siege and, before that, the war with the Yamassee. In both instances, it was mostly a matter of money. As Walter Edgar notes in “South Carolina: A History,” sending British troops to defend the colony would have required the Proprietors to “mortgage their charter to the king.”

But the relationship had broken down even before Blackbeard held the city to ransom. In 1717, Charles Town had asked Parliament for permission to become a royal colony. It was pretty much a mutiny on the Lords Proprietors.

This development shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Nearly a half-century after the founding of Charles Town, the original Proprietors were all dead, and the families of only three originals still held any stake in the colony; the rest had been sold to new Proprietors.

Change was inevitable. And so were missteps.

When the unrest was made public, the Proprietors dispatched Robert Johnson to take over as the Carolina governor — and demanded he make sweeping changes. They wanted to veto several longstanding laws, as the charter allowed, and quadruple the price of land. They also outlawed some import duties, enraging Charles Town merchants.

Most significantly, the Proprietors ordered a recent reapportionment of council seats thrown out, a play to strip dissenters of any official power.

Johnson wasn’t well-received initially — Charles Town residents thought him a tad condescending — but he could read the terrain well enough. He chose not to mention the government reorganization until 1719, when the Proprietors insisted on new elections. It went over about as well as expected.

Charles Town residents took the summer to plot their response, led by what Johnson later claimed were the colony’s “richest inhabitants.” But the election wasn’t the only development that hastened these plans.

The Spanish reportedly were amassing a fleet in Havana with plans to invade, and Charles Town’s fortifications were in shambles. A 1713 cyclone had destroyed some of the town’s walls, and others had been torn down to expand the city’s boundaries. Charles Town’s defenses were vulnerable at the worst possible moment.

As Walter J. Fraser Jr. wrote in “Charleston! Charleston!” the Proprietors’ recent failings led the Carolina residents to believe “only the Crown could protect them.”

That November, 30 new members were elected to the Assembly — and all but four were revolutionaries. They invited Johnson to continue as governor, but announced they were “unanimously of Opinion that they would have no Proprietors’ government.”

Johnson declined the invitation, but when the Assembly elected Gen. James Moore Jr. to replace him, he tried to stop the coup.

“I have hitherto born the Indignities put upon me, and the Loss I sustain by being put out of my Government with as much Temper as the nature of the Thing will allow of  ’till such time as His Majestys Pleasure shall be known,” Johnson wrote to the Assembly, “but to have another assume my authority when Danger threatens the Province and action is expected … I cannot set down patiently with.”

Johnson raced to Charles Town, hoping to plead his case in person. But when he reached the city, he was met by the militia. He told the men to stand down, but they instead briefly held him at gunpoint. And that was it; the Lords Proprietors’ reign was over.

Col. William Rhett had publicly supported Johnson and the Proprietors, but nevertheless accepted a lucrative contract from the new Assembly to rebuild the city’s fortifications.

Rhett told the Lords Proprietors that he hoped to dissuade the revolution from the inside, but he must have realized there was little chance of that. Charles Town no longer wanted anything to do with its former benefactors.

More than a decade passed while the details were hashed out, Charles Town mostly governing itself. Finally, in 1729, King George II bought out the Proprietors’ interest and reappointed Johnson as governor. The Carolina colony was completely under British rule.

The overthrow of the Lords Proprietors came to be called the “bloodless revolution,” and it would not be Carolina’s last.

It would, however, be Charles Town’s only brush with rebellion that didn’t result in bloodshed.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.