Friday, March 26, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Modern Charleston County includes a large number of public parks and recreational sites at which citizens can gather and enjoy a variety of outdoor activities. We take such amenities for granted today, but their profusion is a relatively recent development. Dedicated recreational space was not part of the vocabulary of urban planning in colonial-era South Carolina, so Charlestonians were obliged to borrow private land for use as public greens. The earliest evidence of a shared space for sport and leisure in our community points to a forgotten suburban site once known as the Bowling Green.

The original ground plan of the present City of Charleston included approximately two hundred acres of dry land at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. When the street grid of the unnamed town was laid out in the early 1670s, its northern boundary was a line now marked by Beaufain Street and its imaginary continuation across the peninsula. All of the high land south of that line was divided into approximately 300 half-acre building lots and what was then a very modern grid of eleven streets. Unlike many older towns in Europe, however, Charleston’s original plan did not include any green space reserved for public use. There was no “common” set aside for grazing animals, for recreation, or for the gathering of the inhabitants in general. Moreover, South Carolina’s early government granted all of the land to the north of the original town boundary to a number of individuals who held large suburban tracts of forest and pasture. If the people of the early capital town—white or black, enslaved or free—wished to congregate, perambulate, or engage in recreational activities in a verdant field, they were obliged to trespass on someone else’s private property.

 

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, when Charleston was still a very young settlement, most of the inhabitants lived and worked near the Cooper River waterfront. We might imagine that they their children played and denizens occasionally congregated on the undeveloped green spaces on the western edge of the town plan. As the population increased and development spread across the lower peninsula, however, the people of Charleston seem to have looked northward for recreational green spaces. The surviving records from the first half of the eighteenth century provide very few clues about the geographic location or the nature of their recreational activities, but we know that they ran, played, congregated, mustered, paraded, and grazed at some place or places in proximity to the town. The earliest clues that I’ve found to this mystery point to a location familiar to almost anyone who’s ever visited Charleston—the historic heart of the town’s first suburb, Ansonborough.

George Anson (1697–1762) was a young captain in the British Navy who first came to Charleston in July 1724 and was stationed here until June 1730. He returned in June 1732 and remained through May 1735. During that time he acquired property in and near Charleston and elsewhere in South Carolina, some of which he held for many years after his departure. The heart of the historic neighborhood we know as Ansonborough was once a diversified suburban farm that Captain Anson called Bowling Green plantation.

The property in question was originally part of a larger tract located immediately north of urban Charleston, stretching across the width of the peninsula between the rivers Ashley and Cooper. It contained more than three hundred acres of high land, which the provincial government granted in 1672 to one of the first settlers to arrive in the colony. By 1696, ninety acres of that grant, located on the east side of the peninsula, had passed into the hands of Isaac Mazyck (1661–1736), an affluent merchant and leading member of one of South Carolina’s early French Huguenot families. Mazyck subsequently trimmed approximately twenty-six acres from the southern and western edges of this property in the early eighteenth century. The Huguenot merchant sold the remaining sixty-four acres to Thomas Gadsden (1688–1741) in 1720, and Gadsden sold it, along with the adjacent tidal marsh, to George Anson in the spring of 1727.[1]

Anson’s suburban plantation included all of the land bounded on the west by the Broad Path leading in to Charleston (now King Street), east on the Cooper River, north on a creek that now forms part of Calhoun Street, and south on a smaller suburban plantation known as Rhettsbury, owned by William and Sarah Rhett (the boundary between the neighbors being a line now approximately midway between Society and Wentworth Streets). That long rectangle contained approximately sixty-four acres of high land as well as forty-three acres, more or less, of brackish marsh extending into the Cooper River.

During Anson’s residence at Bowling Green plantation, the land was divided into two distinct parts separated along a north-south axis that became Anson Street in 1745. The eastern half, containing approximately twenty-four acres of high land abutting tidal marshes of the Cooper River, included Anson’s residence, garden, wharf, landing, spring, and brewery. To the west of these features stood a largely undifferentiated tract containing nearly forty acres of relatively level and high ground (two to four meters above mean sea level). Because it abutted the principal road or Broad Path leading travelers to and from urban Charleston, the western half of the Bowling Green plantation afforded less privacy to its owner and its use was more public in nature. This landscape might have included an unknown quantity of trees, but a sizeable proportion of it must have been an open grassland that inspired the name of the plantation. In George Anson’s day, the phrase “bowling green” usually denoted a treeless recreational greenspace, like a sports pitch or field. To underscore this function, Captain Anson’s pasture, as it was occasionally called, included its own tavern called the Bowling Green House and hosted many of the earliest-documented examples of public diversions, private challenges, and martial assemblies in colonial South Carolina.

George Anson’s pasture or bowling green was a nearly-square parcel measuring approximately 1,300 feet (400 meters) on each side, now bounded by King, Society, Calhoun, and Anson Streets. During the era of his occupation, this land would have been virtually indistinguishable from the neighboring suburban plantations to the south, west, and north. All of the surrounding acreage, owned by Sarah Rhett Trott (to the south), John Harleston (to the west), Joseph Wragg (to the northwest), Isaac Mazyck (to the northeast), and their respective heirs, were identified as large, single-family tracts used primarily for pasturage during most of the eighteenth century. The boundaries of Anson’s land, especially that abutting the public Broad Path into town, might have been defined by some sort of wooden fence, but descriptions of such mundane features do not survive. Similarly, the extant records of Anson’s early years in Charleston contain no information about his personal use of the expansive bowling green, nor any public uses that he might have condoned. Following the advent of South Carolina’s first weekly newspaper in January 1732, however, published notices and advertisements portray Anson’s suburban pasture as a popular recreational site for the people of urban Charleston. The origins of this sporting tradition are now obscure, but it likely commenced some years before the newspaper first took notice of such events.

From the public’s point of view, the focus of George Anson’s large pasture adjacent to the Broad Path was the public house or tavern that stood at the southwest corner of his plantation (now defined by the intersection of King and Society Streets). This edifice, commonly called the Bowling Green House, welcomed guests and their horses, hosted events, and stood as a sort of synecdoche for the larger pasture in general. A map of Charleston published in 1739 depicts only the southwest corner of the Bowling Green just north of the town boundary, where a pair of rectangular structures stood on the east side of the “High Way” (King Street). The southernmost of these buildings, abutting the edge of the main road into Charleston, was the house or tavern proper, while the second, slightly-recessed structure to the northeast was likely a stable. Both of these buildings also appear on the 1746 plat of the initial subdivision of Anson’s plantation, which also depicts an enclosed garden, approximately one hundred feet square, adjoining the latter structure. The house, stable, and garden were surrounded by a fenced pasture measuring nearly three hundred feet by six hundred feet (90 by 180 meters) and encompassing a total of four acres.[2]

At some point before the advent of local newspapers, Captain Anson or his agent leased the Bowling Green tavern to a vintner named Samuel Eldridge. Following Samuel’s death in August 1732, his widow, Jane Eldridge, continued to operate the tavern through the spring of 1737 and perhaps as late as 1740. Notices published during her tenure demonstrate that a number of individuals in urban Charleston tolled their horses in the Bowling Green pasture and paid Mrs. Eldridge for their care.[3] Such boarding services were common among the public houses of early South Carolina, and suggest the presence of unidentified hands, probably enslaved men and boys, who tended to the animals and performed other outdoor chores. On at least three occasions during her tenure, Jane Eldridge organized raffles to dispose of horses and carriages that were likely left in her care and seized for default of payment.[4]

George Anson’s local attorney, Chief Justice Benjamin Whitaker, advertised to let the Bowling Green tavern in late 1740 to “a good husbandman who wants employment.”[5] One William Rigden contracted with Whitaker to lease the property for £200 South Carolina currency (approximately £28.11.5 sterling) per year, and continued to toll horses within the pasture. When Rigden failed to make a quarterly payment of £50 on Christmas Day, 1744, Whitaker filed suit against him in Anson’s name and ejected the tenant from the property.[6] At the same time, prominent local merchant Joseph Wragg advertised to sell the remaining three years of Rigden’s lease of “the house and other buildings, commonly called the Bowling Green House, together with the pasture thereunto adjoining.” The plan to continue leasing Anson’s tavern was soon superseded, however, by his decision to subdivide and sell the western half of the plantation. Accordingly, Benjamin Whitaker advertised in February 1745 the sale of a four-acre parcel including the Bowling Green house, garden, and outhouses, and conveyed the property out of Anson’s hands early April of that year.[7]

The paucity of local records from the 1720s renders it impossible to determine whether the Bowling Green tavern existed before Captain Anson purchased the property in 1727 or if he was responsible for its creation. Regardless of this ambiguity, the surviving evidence suggests that it functioned as a typical public house of that era. In other words, it provided “entertainment” in the contemporary sense of food, drink, and lodging for both man and beast, as well as occasional activities of a more colorful nature. In May 1732, for example, Samuel Eldridge advertised the commencement of cockfighting series at the Bowling Green House for the entertainment of “all gentlemen who are lovers of this Royal Diversion, and will bring their cocks.” A betting syndicate had been arranged among private parties, and Eldridge promised “there will be a good pit built.” Shortly after the series commenced, and days before Captain Anson’s return to Charleston in HMS Squirrel, an anonymous correspondent scolded the printer of the local newspaper for publishing what he deemed useless information concerning “the common ridiculous themes, such as fencers, horse-races, cock-matches, and the like; or feasts, or fashions, cookery and winds, who eats, drinks, or dresses best, and such stuff.” Another correspondent who identified himself as “Push” took umbrage with this public chastisement and threw down the gauntlet. “My profession, you must know, is the art and management of the sword. Which, entitling me better company than you have been pleased to tack to me, I can’t with honour put up [with] such usage; and therefore shall expect to see you to-morrow morning, behind the Bowling-Green [house], as early as you please, and prepared (if you know what belongs to a gentleman) to give satisfaction.”[8]

Jane Eldridge continued to host cockfighting matches at the Bowling Green house after her husband’s death and expanded the property’s sporting profile. During Captain Anson’s final, idle months in South Carolina, Mrs. Eldridge published notices for the earliest-documented horse race in the colony. On 1 February 1735, four horses carried white jockeys in a one-mile heat at the Bowling Green. Because Anson’s forty-acre pasture was too small for a circular or ovular course measuring one mile in circumference, the horses must have run multiple laps around a fractional circuit. The four-acre enclosure surrounding the Bowling Green tavern was too small for even a quarter-mile track, so the race likely took place in the middle of the larger pasture, centered around the modern intersection of George and Meeting Streets. Anticipating a sizeable crowd at the event, Mrs. Eldridge begged participants and spectators “not to bring any dogs with them, in order to avoid accidents that may happen, by their interrupting the sport, and indangering the riders.” The surviving newspapers from the spring of 1735 include no further information about the race nor the identity of the rider who took home the winning prize—“a handsome sadle and bridle” valued at £20 currency (nearly £3 sterling). A similar race “at the Bowling Green” in April 1736 offered the winner “a large silver hilted small sword” valued at £30 currency (approx. £4.5.8 sterling). Prospective riders were invited to view the sword and pay their entrance fees to Mrs. Eldridge at the Bowling Green House in advance of the race.[9]

Horse racing may very well have commenced in South Carolina earlier than the aforementioned events at the Bowling Green, but documentation of equestrian sport prior to 1735 has yet to be found. A similar case could be made for the game of golf in the Palmetto State. Recent archival discoveries have uncovered evidence that golf clubs and golf balls were shipped from Scotland to Charleston as early as 1739, and rounds of golf may have played in this community even earlier. Charleston’s St. Andrew’s Society, a benevolent organization formed in 1729 by affluent Scots merchants, might have facilitated local interest in the sport. There was no dedicated golf course in South Carolina at that time, of course, but it seems reasonable to propose that the early shipments of golf balls and clubs might have been put to use on the capital’s customary recreational space of that era, George Anson’s Bowling Green. If this hypothesis is accurate, then the tavern known as the Bowling Green House served as the nation’s first "nineteenth hole."[10]

While surviving newspaper references to horse races, cockfights, raffles, and swordplay at the Bowling Green in the 1730s provide useful information about the history George Anson’s property, they only hint at the more mundane activities it once hosted. The very physical proximity of the Bowling Green pasture to urban Charleston suggests that its use might have been more public and more general than the intermittent notices published in contemporary newspapers suggest. Because the town’s original plan did not include a designated “common” reserved for public activities, citizens wishing to perambulate or congregate in large open spaces were obliged to seek permission from the proprietors of private lands adjacent to the town. Similarly, the officers overseeing the town’s militia, which included every able-bodied white male aged sixteen to sixty, were compelled to negotiate with the owners of adjacent fields. The location and identity of the green spaces used for ad-hoc recreational and routine martial purposes in colonial-era Charleston evolved as the town’s population expanded and open land gradually disappeared. Those participating in such activities knew the preferred gathering spots of their own generation, but the extant records of that distant era refer vaguely to unspecified suburban “greens” adjacent to the town proper. The survival of one piece of evidence suggests, however, that Anson’s Bowling Green might have been the customary parade ground for the local militia during the captain’s tenure in Charleston.

During the 1720s and early 1730s, the town’s urban militia consisted of one elite troop of horse and two companies of foot soldiers, comprising a total of fewer than three hundred men. Provincial law required each company to assemble at least six times a year for training, and the entire corps to muster once a year for a general review before the provincial executive. The town’s infantry expanded to four companies in the autumn of 1735, and the enlarged corps of four to five hundred citizen-soldiers prepared for their annual general muster and review in the spring of 1736. On March 2nd, the gentlemen troopers paraded “under the sound of kettle drums and trumpets,” also mounted on horseback, at an unspecified field on the edge of Charleston described only as “the usual place of rendezvous.” Here they were joined by the four companies of infantry and performed a long series of martial exercises before Lieutenant Governor Thomas Broughton and his councilors. The location of their customary champ de Mars is not known, but the wording of a newspaper report suggests that the militia might have gathered at George Anson’s large pasture. After the rank-and-file had been dismissed from the field and the militia marched back to town, “the gentlemen troopers with their officers return’d to the Bowling Green [house], where they and the officers of the foot companies were regaled with a handsome dinner.”[11]

Captain Anson’s professional duties, though oriented towards the sea, required him to interact regularly with South Carolina’s chief executive and the gentlemen commanding the colony’s militia. As a representative of His Majesty’s armed forces, he might have taken pride in the ability to host gatherings of Charleston’s urban militia at his pasture located so conveniently to the town. Conversations about such uses were not recorded, however, and this martial relationship appears to have ended shortly after Anson’s departure from South Carolina. The rapid expansion of the local population and its urban militia during the late 1730s, combined with the subdivision and sale of Anson’s pasture in the mid-1740s, induced provincial officials to secure other muster fields for the expanding corps of citizen-soldiers.

Immediately after completing his famous four-year journey around the world in 1744, George Anson directed agents in South Carolina to begin liquidating his Charleston property. The western half of Bowling Green plantation was then subdivided into twenty-five lots that were sold in 1745 as the first phase of a new development called Ansonborough. The more private eastern half of his plantation remained in Anson’s hands for several more years, but it too was eventually divided into parcels and absorbed into the expanding suburb.[12] Memory of the early recreational activities on Anson’s Bowling Green soon faded from local memory as Charleston grew and its urban population gathered at new green spaces farther to the north and west.

The idea of reserving green spaces for public use did not take root in this community until the early years of the nineteenth century, and it was a further century before local government began designating public land expressly for recreational use. Despite these late developments, we know that our predecessors here in the Lowcountry craved opportunities for outdoor recreation just like we do today. We are very fortunate that modern Charleston County and its constituent municipalities now provide dozens of verdant sites that host a wide variety of outdoor activities. At this moment, you can even use your library card to borrow a Gold Pass to visit the county’s popular parks and playgrounds. Whether you’re kayaking or swimming or perambulating through George Anson’s former pasture, springtime is definitely the best time to enjoy our community’s natural beauty.

 

 

[1] Henry A. M. Smith, “Charleston and Charleston Neck: The Original Grantees and the Settlements along the Ashley and Cooper Rivers,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 19 (January 1918): 8–10; the reduction of Mazyck’s ninety-acre tract is mentioned in Sarah Rhett to Bently Cooke, enfeoffment, 16 February 1708/9, Charleston County Register of Deeds (hereafter RoD), book A: 188–96; and Isaac Mazyck to Bartholomew Gaillard, enfeoffment, 11 November 1717, RoD K: 434–36. Mazyck’s conveyance to Gadsden, dated 29 October 1720, was not recorded, but it was described in Thomas Gadsden to George Anson, lease and release, 23–24 March 1726/7, in RoD F: 89–99.

[2] G. H. [George Hunter], The Ichnography of Charles-Town. At High Water (London: B. Roberts and W. H. Toms, 1739).

[3] Samuel Eldridge hosted a series of cockfights in the spring of 1732; see South Carolina Gazette (hereafter SCG), 6–13 May 1732; his burial on 6 August 1732 appears in A. S. Salley Jr., ed., Register of St. Philip’s Parish Charles Town, South Carolina 1720–1758 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Cogswell, 1904), 240. For Mrs. Eldridge’s horse-tolling notices, see SCG, 2–9 February 1733/4; SCG, 22–29 May 1736. The collectors of a new suburban tax met at “at the House of Mrs. Jane Eldridge” in May 1737, but militia men gathered “at Mrs. Eldridge’s in Broad Street” in December 1737; see SCG, 14–21 May 1737, and SCG, 1–8 December 1737.

[4] References to Mrs. Eldridge’s raffles appear in SCG, 2–9 February 1733/4; SCG, 24–31 January 1735/6; SCG, 24 December 1736–1 January 1736/7.

[5] SCG, 6–13 November 1740. Whitaker might have advertised the availability of the Bowling Green house sometime in the second half of 1737, but many issues of the local newspaper from that period are now missing.

[6] George Anson vs. William Rigden, 1745, South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Court of Common Pleas, Judgment Rolls, box 28B, item 30A. Anson’s case, prosecuted by attorney John Rattray, stated that Rigden’s annual lease commenced on 25 December 1743 and he failed to make the final quarterly payment of the year. Rigden’s possession of the house must have commenced earlier, however, for he advertised himself (and a missing horse) at the Bowling Green in SCG, 18 July 1743. It seems likely that he contracted a customary seven-year lease commencing in December 1740, leaving three years remaining after his departure from the premises in December 1744. Whitaker issued a writ against Rigden on 1 January 1744/5, and a judgment against the defendant was filed on 17 April 1745.

[7] SCG, 17 December 1744; SCG, 18 February 1744/5; George Anson, by attorney Benjamin Whitaker, to John Watson, feoffment, 6 April 1745, RoD TT: 225.

[8] SCG, 6–13 May 1732; SCG, 3–10 June 1732; SCG, 10–17 June 1732.

[9] SCG, 17–24 February 1732/3; SCG, 11–18 January 1734/5; SCG, 20–27 March 1735/6. I have reproduced the spelling at appears in the original source.

[10] I was honored to collaborate with Dr. David Purdie of Edinburg several years ago to match Scottish shipping records of golf cargos with maritime arrivals in the port of Charleston in 1743 and 1739. A brief summary of this work appeared in an article by Tommy Braswell, “Rewriting History,” Charleston Post and Courier, 30 November 2014.

[11] See the martial notices in SCG, 8 November  1735; SCG, 24–31 January 1735/6; and SCG, 28 February–6 March 1735/6.

[12] For more information on the development of the neighborhood, see Christina R. Butler, Ansonborough: From Birth to Rebirth (Historic Ansonborough Neighborhood Association and Historic Charleston Foundation, 2019).

 

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