How does one find evidence of an earthen wall and moat that were dismantled nearly 300 years ago?  In urban Charleston, a traditional archaeological excavation is not always possible because the built environment is now quite dense, and because there are a myriad of private property concerns.  An alternative is to use ground penetrating radar (GPR), which allows one to “see” features below the surface without disturbing the ground at all.  But can GPR technology identify a centuries-old earthen feature that now might be just a stain in the ground?  That’s the question the Walled City Task force hopes to answer this summer with a test in the school parking lot of downtown Charleston’s First Baptist Church.

In the late afternoon of Tuesday, June 21st 2016, task force members gathered at the First Baptist parking lot to meet with Dr. Jon Marcoux, an archaeologist and professor at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island.  While in town conducting an archaeological field school at Charles Towne Landing, Jon offered to work with the Task Force to perform some quick GPR work downtown, and we steered him toward the aforementioned parking lot.  Why?  Because it’s a relatively open area that has been relatively undeveloped, and might afford us the best opportunity to locate and measure the earthen wall and moat that once protected the southern side of early colonial Charleston.

In December 1703 the South Carolina General Assembly voted to surround the highest and dryest 62 acres of the town with a system of fortifications constructed mostly out of earth and wood.  They had obtained credible intelligence that Spanish soldiers from St. Augustine and Havana were massing for an invasion of South Carolina, and there was little time to spare.  The eastern part of the town, along the Cooper River waterfront, was already being fortified with a solid brick wall that had commenced in 1696, but the remaining south, north, and west sides of the settlement were naked.  With great haste, the provincial government pressed the enslaved Africans belonging to both town and country inhabitants into work on an entrenchment—an earthen wall and adjoining moat—to surround the remaining parts of the town.  The resulting fortifications created a “walled city,” which was “largely perfected” by October 1704. The earliest known view of these fortifications was published in London by coffee roaster Edward Crisp in 1711, in a map commonly called “The Crisp Map.”

A portion of the "Crisp Map" of 1711, showing urban "Charles Town."

A portion of the “Crisp Map” of 1711, showing urban “Charles Town.”

The present school parking lot of First Baptist Church is located approximately midway between Church and Meeting and Meeting Streets in downtown Charleston, slightly north of Water Street (which was formerly Vanderhorst’s Creek) and south of Tradd Street.  By laying a 1721 map of the town’s fortifications over a modern Google Earth view of this site, and attempting to rectify the differing scales of these maps, we determined that a significant portion of the earthen wall and moat might be located under the northeast area of the present parking lot.  In the image below, I’ve used a red square to outline the approximate size of the area surveyed on 21 June 2016.


With permission from the kind folks at First Baptist Church, we created a temporary grid of approximately twenty by twenty-five meters of uninterrupted space in the asphalt-paved parking lot.  We could have done a slightly larger area, but our efforts were restricted by time, a large storm water drain, and an errant parked vehicle.  Jon used a 400 MHz GPR antenna, which is capable of “seeing” a few meters deep, but in our sandy soil the resolution is a bit compromised.

With the grid established, the process of acquiring the data was pretty simple: Jon pushed the GPR antenna across the parking lot in a series of north-south parallel lines, spaced 50 cm apart.  It’s not very exciting to watch, but here are a couple of images to illustrate the repetitive back-and-force nature of the work (with archaeologist Ron Anthony as human placeholder):

Jon heading north

Jon heading north

Jon heading south

Jon heading south

The GPR equipment includes a real-time display that shows the operator a rough outline of the earth below the antenna.  During our work on Tuesday, Jon observed a repeating pattern of “slumping”—a feature appearing to trail off from shallow to deep—that might indicate an edge of the moat.  If this turns out to be the case, it will be the first time that anyone has located evidence of the town’s early earthen walls and moat that were dismantled in the early 1730s.

Dr. Marcoux is again busy with his field school, and will soon return to Rhode Island.  We’ll have to wait a few weeks for him to compile and analyse the data, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed.  If you’d like to learn more about this investigative process and the results, you’ll have a chance in late August, when I’ll host a public program at the Charleston County Public Library.

Searching for Colonial Charleston’s South Wall

  • Tuesday, 30 August 2016 at 6 p.m., at Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 

The accumulated fortifications that surrounded urban Charleston in the spring of 1780 proved insufficient to withstand a powerful British siege, and the town ultimately surrendered to the invading army on the twelfth day of May.  The details of that long, bloody siege have been discussed by many historians (most ably in Carl Borick’s 2003 book, A Gallant Defense), but the relative calm that settled over the Charleston after the surrender has received far less attention.  During that period of two years, seven months, and two days, the denizens of urban Charleston lived under a repressive yet oddly conscientious shadow of British martial law.  Those who publicly pledged loyalty to the Crown enjoyed greater personal and commercial freedoms, of course, while those who scorned the occupying power enjoyed few liberties and lived under the eyes of constant surveillance.


The Investiture of Charleston, S.C.,” a ca. 1780 British map now among the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress

Carl Borick’s 2012 book, Relieve Us of this Burden, provides a much-needed examination of the British treatment of American prisoners of war following the capture of Charleston.  But what about the lives of the town’s civilian population? The British military authorities created a “Board of Police” to administer the town, a system that actually marked an improvement over the old Provincial government’s relatively negligent rule of unincorporated Charles-Town.  Commissioners were appointed to oversee the markets, interments, streets and address numbers, and civil suits.  For many loyalist citizens, the town was running smoother than ever and business opportunities were ample.  For most rebels, however, the two-and-a-half year occupation reinforced their anger and fueled their desire to push their enemy out of South Carolina.  The British intended used the capture of Charleston as an example to pacify the rest of the state into submission, but their gross mismanagement of the situation ultimately gave strength to the American resistance.

If you’d like to learn more about this unsung episode in South Carolina history,  please join me for a new lecture titled

The British Occupation of Charleston, 1780–1782

  • Wednesday, 13 April 2015 at 6 p.m., at Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401. 

Determining the location and the scope of the remnants of Craven’s Bastion is not as easy as studying those of Granville’s Bastion. Significant portions of the latter bastion remain standing under the Missroon Building at 40 East Bay Street, while the foundations of the former are obscured by large-scale nineteenth century construction. In short, it’s very difficult to pinpoint the precise location of Craven’s Bastion, and, without engaging in some very destructive excavation, it may be impossible to determine if any of its brick foundations remain below the modern street scape. Nevertheless, the historical record provides some valuable clues that offer hope for determining the approximate location of this once-formidable fortification.

Craven’s Bastion was conceived in late 1703, but its construction dragged on for several years because of the general demand for bricks for the various fortification projects then underway in Charleston. It formed the northeast corner of the “walled city” of early Charleston, one half a mile north of Granville’s Bastion, and stood until the summer of 1789. As the last vestige of the city’s colonial fortifications to be demolished, Craven’s Bastion was surveyed and platted on several occasions because it formed an obstruction in the city’s post-colonial efforts to widen and straighten the northward extension of East Bay Street. The existence of several plats illustrating the growth of that street around—and then over—the vestiges of the bastion allows us to determine, with a moderate degree of confidence, the approximate location and size of this lost defensive work.

A 1789 plat of Craven's Bastion superimposed on a recent satellite image of the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street, showing the approximate size and location of the bastion.

A 1789 plat of Craven’s Bastion superimposed on a recent satellite image of the U.S. Custom House on East Bay Street, showing the approximate size and location of the bastion.

Most of Craven’s Bastion is now under the expansive granite steps leading from East Bay Street to the west facade of the United States Custom House (built 1859–79). That site, once a mud flat washed by the tides, was filled with hundreds of wooden piles during the construction of the Custom House. Thus it is likely that the majority of the remnants of Craven’s Bastion were obliterated during the third quarter of the nineteenth century. The foundations of the westernmost part of the bastion, including its entry gate and a two-story brick residence, however, might still survive. Those portions probably lie under the broad concrete sidewalk on the east side of East Bay Street, and probably extend into the street itself. As the image to your right illustrates, a person pausing on the sidewalk to read the bronze bastion marker mounted on the south pillar of the Custom House steps is potentially standing a few feet from the gateway into the old bastion. Permission for an exploratory excavation of this site might be impossible to obtain, but the use of ground-penetrating radar technology might reveal the outline of the bastion under the sidewalk.

If you’d like to learn more about the colorful history of Craven’s Bastion, please join me for a presentation next week titled:

“A Brief History of Craven’s Bastion, 1703–1789”

Time: Wednesday, May 28th 2014 at 6:00 p.m.

Place: Second Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun St., 29401.

Elevation of Broughton's Battery, north side, by William De Brahm, July 1757

Elevation of Broughton’s Battery, north side, by William De Brahm, July 1757

The most elaborate and extensive plans for fortifying colonial Charleston were drafted by William De Brahm in the 1750s, during what we now call the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War. De Brahm, a German engineer working for the British government, created at least three separate plans for enclosing the town in a complex system of walls and moats, each of which was hotly debated by the South Carolina legislature. Surviving copies of his plans depict massive defensive works that our colony could scarcely afford, and therein lies the root of De Brahm’s ultimate failure to complete his fortification plans for Charleston.

If you’d like to learn more about this interesting episode in Charleston’s fortification history, and see reproductions of De Brahm’s plans, please join Dr. Nic Butler for a program entitled

“William De Brahm’s Fortification Plans For Charleston, 1752–1757”

Time: Saturday, September 21st at 1:00 p.m.

Place: 2nd Floor Classroom, Charleston County Public Library, 68 Calhoun St., 29401.

Recently I’ve been asked about the names of the streets illustrated in the “Crisp Map” of 1711. This map, published in London in 1711, depicts the small urban settlement of Charles Town confined within a system of walls. A number of features in the town are marked with letters or numbers and identified in an accompanying “Explanation” or key. Unfortunately, the names of the streets are not included in this key. By referring to other contemporary documents, however, we can identify the street names with some confidence.

When the “Crisp Map” was published in 1711, the South Carolina legislature had not yet legally confirmed the names of any of the streets in Charles Town. In 1722–23, during the short-lived incorporation of what was known as “Charles City and Port,” the provincial legislature contemplated the official naming of the streets as part of a complete re-survey of the town. The British Parliament disallowed the incorporation of Charles Town, however, and the matter was dropped. Again during the mid-1730s, the South Carolina legislature ordered a re-survey of the town and in 1736 attempted to pass an act to confirm the names of the streets. This measure failed, but in a separate act the name of Dock Street was legally changed to Queen Street. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the remaining street names of Charles Town had become so well established by common usage that they resisted change. Only after the incorporation of the city of Charleston in 1783 did the municipal government regard street names as fixed titles that required legislation to alter.

In the absence of “official” street names in 1711, therefore, the streets of Charles Town were designated by fairly flexible system of nomenclature. The street along the waterfront of the Cooper River, for example, was commonly called “the Bay” or “the Bay street” or “Front Street.”  Today it’s called East Bay Street, but that name doesn’t become common until the mid-1700s. The broad central thoroughfare perpendicular to the river was originally designated “Cooper Street,” in honor of Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, the first Earl of Shaftesbury, but the descriptive name “Broad Street” has endured in common usage for more than three hundred years. Several early legislative records mention “South Street” and “North Street” as the other two principal thoroughfares in early Charles Town. These names were occasionally used to designate the two streets parallel to Broad Street, which we now call Tradd Street (south of Broad) and Queen Street (north of Broad).

The surviving records of the early granting and conveying of town lots in urban Charles Town contain many references to streets. From these records, which date back to the 1680s, we learn that street names were most frequently determined by prominent landmarks along their path. The “South Street” perpendicular to the Cooper River, running past the house of Richard Tradd, was commonly called “Mr. Tradd’s Street” (today’s Tradd Street). Similarly, the “North Street” ran past Edward Loughton’s dock (built in 1706) near the bay and was best known as Dock Street (today’s Queen Street). The Street that ran past the Anglican church was called “Church Street” until the church moved in the 1720s. At that time the street in front of the new Church became “New Church Street” (today’s Church Street), and the street by the old church became “Old Church Street” Since the mid-1700s, however, Old Church Street has been more commonly called “Meeting Street” because its path also ran past the Meeting House of the Independent Congregational Church.

Detail from the 1711 "Crisp Map" of Charles Town

Detail from the 1711 “Crisp Map” of Charles Town (click to enlarge)

So what are the names of the streets depicted in the “Crisp Map”? The street fronting the Cooper River is “the Bay” or “Bay Street,” today called East Bay Street, leading from Granville’s Bastion (letter “A” on the map) to Craven’s Bastion (letter “B”). The central street perpendicular to the Bay Street is Broad Street, which leads from the Half Moon Battery and Watch House (letters “G” and “W”) to the town gate (letter “H”). The street leading from Carteret’s Bastion (letter “C”) to Colleton Bastion (letter “D”) was called “Church Street” until the early 1720s, and afterward called “Old Church Street” and then “Meeting Street.” The central street parallel to East Bay Street and Meeting Street did not officially have a name when Crisp published this map, but in the early 1720s it became known as New Church Street, and is now simply called Church Street. The street parallel to and immediately south (left) of Broad Street is Tradd Street, while the street parallel to and immediately north (right) of Broad Street is Queen Street. The narrow street parallel to and between Broad and Tradd Streets is Elliott Street. The narrow lane connecting Tradd and Elliott Street is Bedon’s Alley. The narrow lane connecting Broad Street and Queen Street was called Union Street after the political union of England and Scotland in 1707, but was renamed State Street in 1811. The narrow lane connecting Union Street and New Church Street was called Beresford’s Alley (now Chalmers’ Street).

Note, however, that the streets depicted at extreme south (left) and extreme north (right) of the town represent a bit of artistic license. These streets were not part of the original town plan, known as the Grand Model of Charles Town, and, if they ever truly existed, they disappeared after the earthen walls were dismantled ca. 1730.  Today’s Water Street was created from the creek depicted south (left) of the town in the Crisp Map, and today’s Cumberland Street was created in 1747 near the site of the north (right) town wall depicted in this map.

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