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The Evolution of Charleston’s Name
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To commemorate the 236th anniversary of the incorporation of the City of Charleston, let’s take a close look at the legal document that defined the new municipality. Our focus isn’t politics or policy, however, but spelling. The city’s 1783 charter famously shortened its colonial name, “Charles Town,” and the surviving manuscript contains a curious spelling anomaly that provides new insight in the evolution of the familiar name, “Charleston.”
If you have a bit of familiarity with local history, you probably know that Charleston was originally known as “Charles Town.” If you’re a connoisseur of local history, or if you belong to the noble tribe of tour guides in this city, then you certainly know that the spelling of the city’s name officially changed on the thirteenth day of August, 1783, when Charleston was incorporated by an act of the state legislature. On hearing this information, visitors and newcomers frequently ask a very legitimate question: Why did the spelling of the city’s name change when Charleston was incorporated in 1783? Unfortunately for all of us, the city leaders of 1783 did not provide any sort of written explanation for this change, and so generations of Charlestonians have been asking that same question.
Some people have advanced the hypothesis that the spelling was altered in 1783 to conform to the customary local pronunciation. In other words, this theory posits the idea that the “w” in “town” was practically silent in the local dialect of 1783, and the act of incorporation provided a convenient opportunity to change the spelling officially to reflect the local pronunciation. Thus “CharlesTOWN” became “CHARLESton,” or perhaps even “CHAHLston.”
This hypothesis is, however, mere speculation. It isn’t based on any empirical data found in primary sources contemporary with the spelling change. Rather, it’s predicated on the notion that perhaps people living here more than two centuries ago spoke with the same accent as some old-timers in modern-day Charleston. The spelling “Charleston” does not appear in any known texts prior to August 13th, 1783, however, and this was a period when many people spelled words and names phonetically—the way they sounded. This sudden, universal shift in spelling in 1783 doesn’t seem to me to reflect a preferred pronunciation. But we don’t have any audio recording from the 1780s, unfortunately, so it seems impossible to prove or dis-prove this hypothesis. Or is it?
Let’s play history detective for a moment, and ask a corollary question: Why did the city leaders of 1783 not provide any sort of written explanation for the change in the spelling of the city’s name? The answer to that logical question is much easier to tackle: They didn’t provide an explanation because the reasons for the change seemed perfectly obvious to them. In their minds, there was no need for an explanation. In human behavior and culture, change is inevitable and common, but change usually elicits explanation only when it deviates from a predictable pattern or observable chain of events.
More than two centuries after we dropped the “w” from Charlestown, it’s a bit of a struggle to read the minds of the men who made that decision. We live in a very different world than they did, shaped by a experiences and conditions radically foreign to those found in late eighteenth century Charleston. All we have is a collection of written documents and tangible artifacts from the past that we must fashion into some sort of metaphorical time machine to attempt to understand their world. This means close, careful reading, with attention to detail. Remember—this is detective work, and small details are often important clues.
Recently I was pondering the 1783 “Act to Incorporate Charleston,” and thinking about how it helped to shape the trajectory of the city’s history. If you’re not familiar with the text of that important document, you can drop by CCPL’s South Carolina History Room and let the staff help you find it, or you can find the entire text in one of several compilations of state laws on the Internet, such as in volume seven of the old but authoritative series called The Statutes at Large of South Carolina. With that 1840 volume of statutes in my hand at the library, I spent some time reading and re-reading the city’s 1783 charter, trying hard to see if there were any subtle clues I had missed. My eyes kept returning to a couple of sentences that didn’t quite make sense to me.
The “Act to Incorporate Charleston” divided the peninsular city into thirteen wards, and the descriptions of the boundaries of Wards No. 3 and No. 4 seemed garbled. The geographic description of various landmarks did not make sense, no matter how many times I read the text and consulted a map. I concluded that the editor of this 1840 volume might have made an error in his transcription. I knew from experience that the original 1783 manuscript version of this law was probably resting among a huge but well-organized collection of legislative records at our state archive in Columbia, so I made a trip to the modern capital city to have a look at the original text.
The 1783 “Act to Incorporate Charleston” is one of hundreds of thousands of documents available to the public at the amazing South Carolina Department of Archives and History. In their spacious reading room, I filled-in a call slip and the staff quickly retrieved the oversized manuscript from its secure storage. This is always my favorite part of researching at any archive—opening the folder and seeing the handwritten document created by people who lived right here in our community all those years ago, and walked the same streets I do today. My first glance at the 1783 charter immediately revealed something that I did not expect to see. The name of the city was, well, different. In bold cursive letters, the title read “An Act to Incorporate Charles Ton.”
The spelling “Charles Ton” is a variant of the city’s name that I have never seen before, and it’s repeated several times throughout this 1783 act. I believe this strange spelling is unique to this singular document, but remember, this isn’t just any old document. It’s the legal charter of the corporate City of “Charles Ton.” In other words, this is the legal record of the official spelling of the city’s name. So, have we all been spelling “Charleston” incorrectly for the past 236 years? Well, perhaps yes and perhaps no. I’ll leave that question for the lawyers to decide.
Although the curious spelling monopolized my attention for several minutes, I eventually remembered that my initial purpose in looking at this document was to review the description of the boundaries of the city’s Wards 3 and 4. The published version of this description, as it appears in the Statutes at Large and in other historical compilations of state laws, doesn’t quite make sense, as if someone had mis-transcribed the original text. Casting my eyes over the paragraph in question on the original manuscript, I immediately saw the source of the confusion. The official engrossed manuscript copy of this law is supposed to be the polished, clean and “fair” copy that the state preserves in perpetuity, but someone altered the text of this 1783 manuscript in a most irregular manner.
As you can see in the photographs that I’m posting online with the text version of today’s program, someone—perhaps the clerk of the South Carolina House of Representatives or the clerk of the Senate—rather crudely inserted some extra text between the lines in several places. These sorts of “interlineal insertions,” as they’re called, are not uncommon in old manuscripts, but they are generally found only in rough drafts (or “foul” copies) of documents rather than in finished (or “fair”) copies that are meant to be preserved for official purposes. Despite the clerk’s efforts to amend the text, it’s difficult to understand his written description of the boundaries of Ward No. 3 and Ward No. 4. When later editors copied the text and set it into type for publication, they apparently shared the same confusion and did they best they could to decipher the intended meaning.
In short, there’s no way to dispel the confusion of the ward boundary descriptions because the official source document is defective. Notwithstanding the crude corrections and interlineal insertions, not to mention the curious spelling of the city in question, this is the very legal charter for “Charles Ton” that was approved and ratified by the members of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Governor of South Carolina late on the evening of August 13th, 1783. Apparently everyone was tired at the end of a long legislative session at the conclusion of the eight-year War of Independence, and the general assembly was moments away from a five-month recess. It must have been impossible to ask the entire general assembly to remain in session for a few more hours while one of the clerks re-copied the act, or to come back the following day for more work. Our elected representatives apparently deemed the not-so-fair manuscript “Act to Incorporate Charles Ton” to be sufficient for legal purposes and signed it into law that night.
In the decades after 1783, a number of authors transcribed and published the text of the city’s act of incorporation. In each case, their published works smoothed over the flaws in the engrossed manuscript and presented an orderly charter to the public, without the least hint of disorder in the original source. Over the past two centuries, many thousands of historians and students have consulted these published transcriptions and published their own references to the city’s 1783 charter. Few, it appears, have taken the time to consult the original document. If they did, they didn’t get hung up on its defects like I have.
Returning to our original train of thought about the motivation for altering the name of the city in 1783, let’s ask a new question: Does our peek at the engrossed manuscript version of the original charter shed any new light on this topic? Yes, I think it does. In fact, I think we might consider it the “missing link” in the evolution of the name of our fair city. With this new hypothesis in mind, let’s quickly review the chronology of that name.
Throughout the first one hundred and thirteen years of this town’s existence, the name of the capital of South Carolina was spelled four different ways: “Charles Town,” with and without a final “e,” sometimes hyphenated and sometimes not; and “Charlestown,” with and without a final “e.” People occasionally ask me which of these spellings is “correct,” or which spelling was used during a certain period of time. There was very little spelling consistency in the early days of South Carolina. In fact, the entire concept of spelling was rather loose until the educational reforms of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the surviving records of early South Carolina, for example, it’s not uncommon to find the same word spelled several different ways within one document written by one person. I’ve even seen records in which a writer spelled his own name two different ways in one document.
The point is that spelling conventions were very fluid and informal in the first century or so of South Carolina history. The notion of a “correct” and “incorrect” spelling or a word or a name evolved over time. We take “correct” spelling for granted today, but we cannot expect early Carolina writers to have the same sense of right and wrong. The surviving documents written by Arthur Middleton (1681–1737), for example, a prominent man who was President of South Carolina during the late 1720s, contain the most abysmal spellings. The grammar and style of his writing reflect the ideas of a reasonably-polished gentleman, but his spelling is completely savage when compared to modern standards.
The first English settlers arrived here in April of 1670 and established a camp on the west side of the Ashley River (now Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site). That campsite would eventually grow into a wee town, but when did it acquire a name? The earliest reference to the town’s name that I know of dates from the autumn of 1670. On the first of November, Anthony Ashley Cooper, the most active of the Lords Proprietors back in England who owned the Carolina colony, wrote to Captain Joseph West, the leader of the first wave of settlers, with the following instruction: “You are to take notice that . . . the Towne you are now planted on we have named and you are to call Charles Towne.”
Throughout the surviving documentary Carolina records of the 1670s (which is not a lot of material), the spelling “Charles Towne” appears with much greater frequency than the alternate spelling, “Charles Town.” Because there are scarce few surviving documents from 1680s Carolina, it’s difficult to know the most common spelling of that decade. Surviving legislative acts from that era demonstrate, however, that another spelling, “Charlestowne” was already in use. By the 1690s, an era for which there is a relatively robust collection of surviving legislative records, “Charles Towne” and “Charles Town” appear in relatively equal proportion. And “Charlestowne” was definitely gaining traction at the end of the seventeenth century.
In the early years of the eighteenth century, the use of the final “e” in the town’s name was definitely in decline. The two-word “Charles Town” and one-word “Charlestown” predominate, appearing in relatively equal proportion in the surviving records of this era. By the end of the year 1729, when the British crown formally purchased the Carolina colony from the Lords Proprietors, the final “e” was a rarity. Beginning in 1730, with the commencement of a “Royal era” of South Carolina history, life in this colony and its capital town became more regular. The economy stabilized a bit, the political system became more orderly, and our cultural life began to blossom. By January of 1732, when South Carolina’s first printed newspaper appeared, the final “e” was virtually extinct.
I’ve heard some folks state that the two-word spelling “Charles Town” was a Proprietary-era phenomenon (1670–1729), while the one-word “Charlestown” was the preferred spelling during the Royal era (1730–1775), but this assertion is not supported by the surviving documentary record. In that era without strict spelling rules, both versions of the town’s name appear with roughly equal frequency, even in the official records of the South Carolina legislature. In fact, the two-word spelling “Charles Town” appears quite regularly in legislative documents created during and immediately after the American Revolution, as late as August 12th, 1783.
From the beginning of this town in 1670 to the middle of August, 1783, the scribblers of South Carolina’s capital were apparently quite content to include a “w” in the spelling of “Charles Town” (whether they wrote it as one word or two). Then, on the evening August 13th, our elected representatives officially dropped the “w” and adopted the two-word name, “Charles Ton.” I believe the curious, unique spelling indicates a temporary mental resistance to the idea of shortening of the town’s name. The space inserted between the letters, and the use of a capital “T” do not suggest, at least to my mind, a preferred pronunciation, as mentioned earlier. Rather, I think the clerk composing this manuscript was experiencing some difficulty in wrapping his brain around the idea that Charles Town was no longer a town.
As I mentioned in an earlier program about the evolution of Charleston’s municipal government (see Episode No. 56), Charleston was an unincorporated town from its inception in 1670 through mid-August 1783, and the spelling “Charles Town” (in all its permutations) reflected that political status. Furthermore, the name “Charles Town” placed the community within the well-established English tradition of civic hierarchy; that is, village, borough, town, and city. The capital of the colony of South Carolina was simply a town, and its name reflected that humble status. The elevation to the status of “city” required a charter, which usually came by way of a royal decree from the reigning monarch.
When Governor Francis Nicholson insisted that Charles Town be incorporated as a city in the summer of 1722, the South Carolina legislature fashioned a strange, home-made charter for the incorporation of what they called “Charles City and Port.” British officials back “home” did not approve of the form and content of the city’s charter, however, and voided the act of incorporation. In October of 1723, “Charles City” quietly reverted to “Charles Town” in due observance of its humiliating demotion.
Fast-forward to 1783, when the elected representatives of the urban parishes of St. Philip and St. Michael introduced to the legislature a bill to incorporate Charles Town. Their goal was not to change the spelling of the town’s name to reflect the preferred local pronunciation. Their objective was to provide a more robust and effective system of municipal government for a growing and increasingly disorderly urban community. The old town desperately needed to shape up, act its age, and finally become a mature city.
The act of incorporation, ratified on August 13th, 1783, was a significant political transformation that created a new corporate entity endowed with new powers and responsibilities. The name “Charles Town” (in all its permutations) had served the town well for one hundred and thirteen years, but its elevation to the status of a city was an important step that merited a new name. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the members of the South Carolina legislature discussed some alternative names for the new city during the summer of 1783, but we have no record of such conversations. By simply removing the “w” from “Charles Town,” however, they appear to have found an acceptable candidate. They retained the core and spirit of the town’s traditional name while simultaneously eradicating the notion that it was still a humble “town.”
So now we come to the grand finale questions: Have we all been spelling this city’s name incorrectly for the past 236 years? Is “Charles Ton” legally correct? Does the city need to change their corporate seal? I think it’s safe to say the answer to all these questions is a resounding “no.” Remember what I said earlier about the lack of strict spelling conventions in the eighteenth century? To the people of Charleston in August of 1783, the difference between “Charles Ton” and “Charleston” was immaterial and inconsequential. From a legal perspective, I would imagine that the two spellings are fungible (mutually interchangeable). And furthermore, Charleston’s 1783 charter was amended and revised several times over the years until it was finally superseded by South Carolina’s “Local Government Act” of 1975, which established standardized charters for city governments across the state.
When I first laid my eyes on the two-word spelling of “Charles Ton” in the city’s 1783 handwritten charter, I was immediately intrigued by its novelty. But this manuscript mis-spelling is more than just a curious anomaly. It provides us with a new way to understand the thought process that was recorded in ink on paper 236 years ago this week. By looking closely at that document’s text and exploring its historical context, we can almost see a handful of men working late into the night to craft the language to define a bold, new corporate entity. I like to think of old documents like this corporate charter as a wee time machine that provide a means of taking a small peak into the past. Happy corporate birthday, Charles Ton!
 See, for example, Walter J. Fraser, Charleston! Charleston! The History of a Southern City (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989), 169.
 See “An Act to incorporate Charleston,” ratified on 13 August 1783, in published sources such as John Faucheraud Grimké, ed., The Public Laws of the State of South-Carolina (Philadelphia: R. Aitken & Son, 1790), page 327–30; Alexander Edwards, ed., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1802), 3–5; David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 97–101.
 Theodora J. Thompson and Rosa S. Lumpkin, eds., Journals of the House of Representatives 1783-1784. The State Records of South Carolina (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1977), 370.
 The text of the Ward No. 4 description, as published (for the first time) in the South-Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser, 23 August 1783, substituted “Queen Street” for “Quince Street,” which makes less sense than the original manuscript. The ward description published in the 1840 Statutes at Large, 7: 97, is identical to that published in Grimké’s 1790 Public Laws, 328.
 Langdon Cheves, ed., The Shaftesbury Papers and Other Records Relating to Carolina and the First Settlement on Ashley River Prior to the Year 1676 (Charleston, S.C.: South Carolina Historical Society, 1897), 209–10.
 Note, for the sake of comparison, that Georgetown, South Carolina, was incorporated not as a city but as a town, and there was no need to alter the traditional spelling of its name. In “An Act for the Incorporation of Georgetown,” ratified on 19 December 1805, the municipality was “declared to be, a town corporate, and shall be called and known by the name of Georgetown.” See David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 8 (Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 227–33.