Gadsden's Wharf

The "sacred site" of Charleston's planned International African American Museum, the place where many enslaved Africans disembarked, was Gadsden's Wharf. 

Tens of thousands of people in chains entered Charleston at Gadsden’s Wharf.

“It’s absolutely a place of reverence and remembrance,” said local historian Nic Butler, who has been researching the importation of slaves to the area. “The fact that the ground selected for the (International African American Museum) has been confirmed to be containing remnants of Gadsden’s Wharf, and the warehouses where those people were kept, I think it’s a very fitting place for the museum.”

The warehouse site will be marked in the museum garden, the work of Hood Design Studio.

It’s thought that up to 800 captive Africans quarantined there died during the cold winter of 1807 and were unceremoniously thrown into a mass grave nearby, according to museum director Michael Boulware-Moore.

Christopher Gadsden began building the large wharf in the 1760s, Butler said. Gadsden expanded it, repaired it and updated it several times in the years following the American Revolution.

In March 1787, the South Carolina Legislature prohibited slave imports for three years, then extended the ban repeatedly until 1803, Butler said. Merchants knew the ban would be lifted and prepared accordingly.

“Between Dec. 1803 and the end of 1805, approximately 80 ship cargoes of Africans (arrived), bringing in just over 14,000 people,” Butler said. “There’s a feeding frenzy of slavers waiting to get in.”

The first newspaper ads featuring enslaved Africans for sale at Gadsden’s Wharf appeared in 1806.

“On that Feb. 17, the city passed an ordinance that all (slave) vessels had to land at Gadsden’s Wharf,” Butler said. “So for last two years of the legal slave trade, Gadsden’s Wharf was the singular point of entry.”

Those last two years of the sanctioned transatlantic slave trade were the busiest along the Charleston waterfront. That’s probably why city officials decided to centralize the commercial activity. Before then, slaves were introduced to the Charleston peninsula up and down the waterfront, Butler said. It was probably a confusing and chaotic scene.

Slavevoyages.org maintains a database of slave voyages and reports that just under 200 cargos of captive Africans landed in Charleston during 1806 and 1807, bringing a little more than 33,000 people.

“For those 33,000 people, the only place to land was Gadsden’s Wharf,” Butler said.

On Jan. 1, 1808, Congress’ ban on slave imports took effect and Gadsden’s Wharf was put to other use, though slavers continued to trade in human beings until the 1860s.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.