Friday, May 07, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The steady growth of Charleston’s population in the generations after the American Revolution required municipal authorities to provide a succession of public burial grounds for its poorest citizens, transient visitors, and enslaved people of African descent. The potter’s fields provided for their burials occupied nearly thirty-five acres beyond those used during colonial-era, but all of that real estate has been developed for other uses over the past two centuries. By tracing the outline of this forgotten landscape and the records of public burials within the city, we can estimate the frightening extent of that subterranean population.

Let’s continue this topic with a quick review of last week’s program. Charleston’s original public burial ground, as delineated on surviving copies of the “Grand Model” of the town in 1672, was situated within a vague landscape of approximately fourteen acres on the northwestern edge of the town. A subsequent land grant made to a private party in 1698 reduced that public space to a square containing four acres, but the statutory creation of a “Negro burying-ground” in 1746 added 2.26 acres to this public domain. In the late summer of 1780, during the British occupation of Charleston, military authorities expropriated several additional acres of vacant lands adjacent to the earlier public burial grounds. Following the evacuation of British forces from the town in December 1782 (see Episode Nos. 44–45), ownership of this cumulative burial space containing approximately ten acres, more or less, reverted to the State of South Carolina. The state legislature ratified the incorporation of the City of Charleston in August 1783, at which time the state ceded this and other public lands on the peninsula to the new City Council.[1]


We know little about the city’s management of Charleston’s public burial grounds during the final years of the eighteenth century. If the city kept written records of the names of persons interred and number of burials made during this period, such records disappeared in the spring of 1865 during the confusion that reigned over the city at that time (see Episode No. 79). It’s also unclear who was responsible for supervising the burials and maintaining the grounds. Such duties likely fell to the Commissioners of the Charleston Poor House (established in 1736), who probably followed a colonial-era practice of hiring enslaved laborers to dig graves when occasion required. Like their predecessors, the municipal managers of the public burial grounds were responsible for interring the bodies of various people who, for whatever reason, were not entitled to burial within the city’s churchyards and private cemeteries. This mixed population included White paupers and visitors known as “strangers,” enslaved people of African descent, indigent free people of color, as well as the bodies of White children from the Charleston Orphan House (established in 1790), White adults from the city’s Poor House, and enslaved people who died at the city’s notorious Work House.

By the end of 1792, city authorities determined that the old public burial lands located on the northwestern edge of urban Charleston were approaching their maximum capacity. In January 1793, the City Council purchased from John Poaug a vacant, rectangular lot at the northeast corner of Coming and Boundary (now Calhoun) Streets containing 3.4 acres. To help you visualize the outline of this property, let’s take an imaginary tour of the site. We’ll begin at the northeast corner of Coming and Calhoun Streets and walk 635 feet to the north. At the corner of Vanderhorst Street, we turn to the east and walk towards the Cooper River. After traversing 189 feet, we turn to the south and proceed 183 feet 6 inches through the middle what is now an asphalt parking lot. At the southern edge of that lot, we again turn eastward and proceed 63 feet to the southeast corner of the parking lot. From that point, the property line extends southward a further 426 feet to Calhoun Street, and then continues westward for 252 feet to our starting point at the corner of Coming Street.[2]

Twenty months after purchasing Mr. Poaug’s land, Charleston’s City Council determined to close the old public burial lands that had been in use since 1672. As I mentioned in last week’s program, that accumulated land might have received as many as 13,000 corpses over a period of one hundred and twenty years. On August 20th, 1794, City Council adopted the following resolution, which was immediately published in the local newspapers: “Whereas it becomes at this time necessary that a place be appropriated for the burial of strangers, those who may die in the poor house, hospitals, and negroes: therefore resolved, that the lot of land lately bought from John Pouag [sic], on the north side of Boundary-street, be applied to the above purpose, and that the commissioners of the poor-house have the same under their direction.”[3]

Starting in the autumn of 1794, if not earlier, the commissioners of Charleston’s municipal Poor House were nominally in charge of maintaining and supervising the public cemetery. Little is known of their activities, however, beyond the fact that the city erected a wooden fence around the perimeter of the new potter’s field. Municipal authorities kept no paper record of the number of people buried within its bounds, or of the causes of their respective deaths. There was no agent charged with the duty of ensuring the graves were dug in vacant soil, and that the grave shafts descended to a proper depth. White folks and Black folks might have been buried side by side without regard to the customary distinctions of race or class. Bodies were occasionally interred without the knowledge or permission of municipal authorities, sometimes taking place after dark or before sunrise under questionable circumstances. It is possible, also, that some persons illegally removed corpses from public cemetery for use in anatomical dissections, although documentary evidence confirming such activity has not yet been found.[4]

To address all of these shortcomings, Charleston’s City Council ratified an ordinance in July 1801 to create greater oversight of the public cemetery. The first three paragraphs of this law provide valuable information about the new officer in charge of the facility and the physical layout of the segregated ground under his control, and so they merit a full reading (with the original spelling):


“I. “Be it ordained by the Intendant and Wardens in City Council assembled, and it is hereby ordained by the authority of the same, That a discreet and proper person be elected by council, to the office of superintendant of the city burial ground, to remain in office during the pleasure of the city council, to be paid by the fees and emoluments herein after mentioned and reserved to him; whose duty it shall be to keep the keys, and have charge of the said burial ground, and under whose superintendance and privity, the same shall, from time to time, be opened, and interments made as hereinafter directed, or as may from time to time be directed by the city council.

II. And be it further ordained by the authority aforesaid, That a partition fence (similar to the fence with which the whole [cemetery] is already enclosed), shall be erected through the present burial ground, so as to cut off, the northern side of the same, an area not exceeding one acre, to be exclusively reserved and appropriated to the interment of free white persons, strangers and foreigners, not subject to be interred in the yards of any of the churches in this city. That the part allotted as aforesaid, be divided by right [angle] lines into oblong areas of eight feet in breadth; that the graves be opened across the said areas in regular succession, so that each area be filled before any ground be broken in the next; that the graves to be dug shall be at the distance of not more than one foot from the broken ground of one grave, to the broken ground of the next; that regularity and uniformity be preserved, and the ground œconomised as much as possible.”

III. And be it further ordained by the authority aforesaid, That the residue of the said burial ground be appropriated for slaves, and people of colour, free negroes, mulattoes, and mustizoes. That the uneven places be levelled, and when done, that the whole be divided into oblong areas of eight feet in breadth, in the manner as mentioned in the preceding clause of this ordinance, and that the graves in future be dug therein, as nearly conformable to the regulations aforesaid, as the nature and circumstances of the ground will admit.”


The public cemetery ordinance of July 1801 further directed that no graves shall henceforth be opened except under the direction of the superintendent, who was empowered to collect various fees for his attendance and hire grave diggers to perform the work. The superintendent was required to keep record books identifying the individuals buried under his care, including their name, age, place of nativity, and cause of death. Anyone attempting to sneak bodies into (or out of) the public cemetery without the superintendent’s permission would be subject to a fine of twenty dollars. The superintendent was responsible for ensuring that bodies were buried at least six feet below the surface of the ground, and that no burials took place after sunset or before sunrise. At all other times, however, he was required to be “always ready, without delay,” to receive applications for burials from private citizens and from the officers of various municipal institutions.

Bodies received from city Orphan House, Poor House, or Marine Hospital were to be interred free of charge, but all other parties were required to pay the superintendent for the right to use the public cemetery. To this end, the city ordinance of 1801 provided a schedule of fees that ranked corpses by race and stature. “For the digging of the grave of a [White] stranger, a mariner, or seaman, and causing the interment,” individuals had to pay a fee of two dollars. The owners of enslaved adults measuring “upwards of four feet six inches in length” were required to pay one dollar and twenty-five cents, while the burial of “slaves less than four feet six inches in length” cost only one dollar. For the burial of “free person of color, of whatsoever dimensions,” the superintendent of the public cemetery charged one dollar and twenty-five cents.

We might think of Charleston’s early public cemeteries as featureless landscapes, unencumbered by tombstones and other markers, where the community’s poorest citizens might wander freely to remember their loved ones. According to the fee schedule established by City Council in 1801, however, such was not the case. The superintendent of the public burial ground was authorized to charge six-and-a-quarter cents to unlock and open the gate “for any person desirous of visiting the same, (except city officers).” He also charged six-and-a-quarter cents for recording the decedent’s information in his record book, and a similar sum to anyone (except city officers) wishing to peruse the records books for information about past burials. If family or friends wished to install a marker above a particular grave, they were obliged to render further fees to the superintendent. For opening the gate and “attending to the erection of any form over any grave,” he charged twenty-five cents for markers made “of wood only,” and one dollar and fifty cents “where the form erected is of brick, stone, marble, in whole or in part, or of materials other than wood.”[5]

The implementation of various service fees at the municipal potter’s field might seem mercenary today, but Charleston’s City Council deemed the charges necessary for the improved management of an important public amenity. Nevertheless, citizens complained about the imposition until the city offered a compromise. In August 1802, one year after adopting its new schedule of cemetery fees, City Council conceded that the prices were “too exorbitant” and ratified a reduced pricelist. To ensure that the superintendent of the public burial ground would remain attentive to his superiors, the city also made his employment subject to an annual review and re-election every October.[6] Throughout the succeeding decades, the city repeatedly revised the schedule of fees due to the superintendent and continued his position beyond the Civil War.

The potter’s field opened by the City of Charleston in August 1794, which encompassed 3.4 acres of land, was declared to be filled to capacity with human bodies exactly thirteen years later, in the summer of 1807. If we follow the instructions articulated in the city’s cemetery ordinance of 1801, which specified that each grave should occupy a space eight feet long and approximately four feet wide (32 square feet), we can estimate that the land’s subterranean population had reached a total of approximately 4,600 individuals of various sizes and ages. Dividing that figure by thirteen years, we can conclude that the city superintendent of the public burial ground interred an average of approximately 350 people every year, or nearly one per day. During an era when Charleston’s urban population averaged around 20,000 people, municipal authorities buried approximately 1.75% of the city’s residents in a pauper’s grave every year. Such numbers would cause outrage today, but they were not unusual during that era of poor health care and the rigid politics of systemic racial oppression.[7]

On the 20th of June, 1807, Charleston’s City Council ratified an ordinance to regulate interments in a new “City Burial Ground” and to refine the duties of its superintendent. The preamble to this law declared that “the public city burial-ground, between Boundary Coming and Vanderhorst streets, is so filled with graves, as to be no longer fit for interments.” “For the purpose of obtaining another suitable cemetery” outside of Charleston’s corporate limits, city authorities had “lately purchased a piece of land, situate, lying, and being at Cannonborough, and forming a square, bounded by Thomas [now Ashley], Bee, President, and Doughty streets.” From and after the first day of August, 1807, continued the ordinance, “all interments on the aforesaid burial-ground between Boundary, Coming and Vanderhorst streets, shall cease, and from thence and thenceforth the above described public square at Cannonborough shall be known and distinguished by the name of the city burial-ground, and exclusively used as such.”[8]

Although the square in question was to be used exclusively as the city’s public cemetery, the property was not entirely devoted to burials. To make the superintendent more attentive to his duties at the site, the city paid for the construction of a house, kitchen, and outbuildings on a portion of the square containing less than two acres. The ordinance of 1807 required the superintendent “to keep his residence upon the aforesaid public square at Cannonborough,” which he occupied without paying rent. In return for such free accommodations, the city required the superintendent to maintain the house, fences, and grounds and to pursue no other forms of employment that might “require his absence from the aforesaid place of his residence.”

As in the public cemetery ordinance of 1801, the revised law of 1807 directed the superintendent to divide the remaining ground into two segregated parcels, the larger of which was reserved for enslaved people and free people of color, and to erect a partition fence between the White and Black sections. Within each portion, he was to lay out rows eight feet wide and economize the space devoted to each burial, as specified in the earlier ordinance. To keep pace with the increasing deaths within Charleston’s growing population, the city instructed the superintendent to “always have and keep in his employment, two able bodied grave-diggers” and to ensure that the shafts they excavated placed the bodies at least five and half or six feet below the surface. The rest of the law continued the schedule of fees established in 1802, the mandatory record books, as well as customary prohibitions against burials after sunset and before sunrise.[9]

In December 1809, the South Carolina General Assembly ratified an act authorizing the City Council of Charleston to build “a substantial brick magazine for the storing of gun powder” within “the enclosure” of the City Burial Ground in Cannonborough. Several years later, in the aftermath of the War of 1812, the city also determined to build an arsenal for the storage of military equipment on another portion of the public cemetery that might have already been filled with the graves of paupers, strangers, or slaves. An advertisement for this project, published in May 1815, specified that the proposed arsenal was to be built on the northeast corner of the cemetery, adjacent to the intersection of Ashley and Bee Streets. The facility in question did not materialize for several years, however, and the arsenal was later converted into the house of worship now called St. Luke’s Chapel on the campus of the Medical University of South Carolina.[10]

By the late 1830s, the military facilities located within the public cemetery occupied around one-fourth of the land bounded by Ashley, Bee, President, and Doughty Streets (approximately three acres), while the superintendent’s residence occupied nearly two further acres within that square. The remaining seven acres (and perhaps some of the land used for interments before the construction of the magazine and arsenal) were nearly filled to capacity with human bodies by the autumn of 1837. On the 24th of October in that year, Charleston’s City Council read a report that the remaining land available for the burial of White persons at the site was low, marshy, and “unfit for that purpose at this time.” The superintendent was instructed henceforth to use a “higher section” of land “where there can be no difficulty in sinking to five feet six inches,” but vacant high land at the site was rapidly diminishing.

In January 1838, City Council determined “that the City Burial Ground, having been already extensively used for many years, is not now of sufficient extent to answer the purposes of the city but for a short period.” “To provide for the future convenience of the people of Charleston in that regard, while large bodies of land, immediately contiguous to the city, may be purchased upon valuable terms,” City Council resolved to begin shopping for a suitably large tract that would accommodate the city’s growing population in the coming decades. While municipal authorities searched for a new potter’s field on the peninsula, Council empowered the mayor to negotiate the sale of the entire public cemetery in use since 1807 to the United States Government for use as a Federal arsenal. The last burials at this site took place on November 21st, 1841.[11]

Of the twelve acres contained within the square bounded by Ashley, Bee, President, and Doughty Streets, at least seven acres were devoted exclusively to the interment of White paupers and strangers, enslaved people, and free people of color. If we use the same formula derived from the city ordinance of 1801 that we applied to the previous public cemeteries, we can estimate that approximately 9,500 people were likely buried within the square now occupied by various buildings associated with the Medical University of South Carolina.

Other historical resources exist that can help us refine this estimate. The City of Charleston created its own Board of Health in 1808, and shortly afterwards began compiling a variety of useful statistics. Perhaps inspired by the 1801 ordinance requiring the superintendent of the public cemetery to keep interment records, the Board of Health collected similar data from all local burial grounds and began compiling a weekly register or “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston.” The earliest death ledgers are lost, but the extant “Returns of Deaths,” covering the period from July 1819 through December 1926, with very little interruption, are now held in the archive of the Charleston County Public Library.[12]

In recent weeks, I consulted the archival “Returns of Deaths” and made a quick tabulation of the interments in the city’s public burial grounds. From the earliest surviving records in mid-July 1819 through mid-November 1841 (a period of 269 months), I counted just over 7,000 individuals, of whom just over 5,000 were people of African descent. That number reflects an average of twenty-six burials per month, or just over 300 burials per year. This figure allows us to estimate that approximately 3,600 people were interred within the public cemetery at Cannonborough during the twelve years preceding the extant records, which yields a total of approximately 10,600 burials at this site between 1 August 1807 and 21 November 1841. I suspect this number is low, however, because the extant death ledgers of this era contain several thousands of entries for which the place of interment was not recorded. At least some of these “blank” entries likely represent burials within the city’s public cemetery, and so the total number of interments at this site might be higher than 11,000.[13]

More than two years before the closure of the public burial ground in Cannonborough, the city secured a new location for its successor. In March 1839, the Committee on Contracts reported to City Council that they had negotiated with John Horlbeck “for the purchase of his farm on Charleston Neck, for the establishment of a public cemetery.” City officials finalized the sale in mid-May, at which time the city paid $7,000 for a mostly-rectangular tract containing 22.25 acres of high land and eight acres of marsh north of the city limits, adjoining the Ashley River.[14] The land in question had once contained the western end of zig-zag line of fortifications built across the peninsula from the Ashley River to the Cooper River in late 1814 and early 1815, during the final months of the War of 1812. The central portion of that defensive line was subdivided and sold during the mid-1820s, at which time the present Line Street was created. Local authorities of that era also dismantled a brick Martello Tower built in late 1814 on a spot of high land near the banks of the Ashley River. By the time City Council purchased the site in the spring of 1839, John Horlbeck’s farmland was still known by the denomination of “Tower Hill.”[15]

On November 15th, 1841, two-and-a-half years after purchasing Mr. Horlbeck’s farm, City Council “Resolved, that the superintendent of the City Burial Ground give notice in the City paper that the New Burial Ground at Tower Hill will be used as a place of interment on Monday, the 22d instant, and that the Burial Ground in Cannonborough will be discontinued after that date, the road leading to the same is a few squares higher up than the present one, and will be designated by the sign ‘Public Cemetery,’ at the north east corner thereof.”[16] The new cemetery encompassed almost all of the land on the west side of modern President Street stretching to the marshes of the Ashley River, bounded on the north by modern Congress Street and on the south by the westward continuation of Line Street.

From November 22nd, 1841, to the spring of 1927, the public cemetery at Tower Hill received the bodies of many thousands of individuals. Time doesn’t permit a full narrative of that eighty-five years of activity, but I’ll mention several topics of particular importance. In January 1848, for example, the pastor of the local Mariner’s Church (operated by the Charleston Port Society) asked City Council for permission to enclose “a small portion” of the public cemetery as a space reserved “for the interment of seamen.” Council immediately consented to the request and directed the Committee on City Lands to determine the location and dimensions of the proposed enclosure. During the early stages of the Civil War, the Port Society used this ground to inter the bodies of Confederate mariners, including men who perished while operating the submarine CSS Hunley.[17]

The City of Charleston annexed all the land between Calhoun Street and Mount Pleasant Street, commonly called “The Neck,” in 1850. Shortly thereafter, the municipal government launched a campaign to eradicate the sites of animal butchering that had clustered on the Neck during the previous century. In the summer of 1857, City Council reserved part of the public cemetery at the northwest corner of President and Line Streets for the creation of a municipal abattoir or slaughter pen. This rude facility, which included several sheds and animal pens rented to local butchers, continued to operate until the turn of the twentieth century. Because this topic forms part of a much larger narrative about the messy history of butchering and waste disposal in urban Charleston, we’ll save those details for a later conversation.[18]

In December 1871, Charleston’s municipal government abolished the old office of superintendent of the public cemetery and created a new “Board of Commissioners to Supervise and Control the Public Lands, Now Known as Potter’s Field.” The impetus behind this administrative change was the rise of new social welfare issues in the aftermath of the Civil War. The new board of commissioners managed a new institution called the Ashley River Asylum, but which soon became known as the Old Folks Home. Here the city provided spartan but free accommodations for elderly citizens of African descent within a campus of wooden buildings erected at the west end of Mount (now Sumter) Street. That site was surrounded by ten acres of used burial ground, on which the “inmates” of the Old Folks Home raised vegetables for themselves and the “inmates” of the city’s Orphan House and Poor House. The municipal Old Folks Home moved to Reynolds Avenue in modern North Charleston in January 1931 and closed in January 1950, but we’ll explore the rest of its history in a future program.[19]

On several occasions during the last twenty years of the nineteenth century, the Commissioners of Public Lands warned City Council that the large public cemetery opened in November 1841 was filling rapidly with the bodies of its poorest citizens.[20] Despite their advice to seek a new location beyond the city limits, the municipal government continued to sanction burials at the old Tower Hill Cemetery for several more decades. The impetus to close this potter’s field finally arrived in the spring of 1927, when the William E. Harmon Foundation of New York offered to give the City of Charleston the funds necessary to purchase land for an urban playground for the use of African-American citizens. City Council was then in the planning stages for the construction of an athletic stadium for White citizens to be built on the northern part of the public cemetery, so they decided to secure the Harmon funds to convert the southern portion of the old burial ground into a “Negro playground.” The White facility, which opened in October 1927, was named the Johnson Hagood Memorial Stadium (in honor of a Confederate General), while the Black facility that opened around the same time was named Harmon Field.[21]

In order to determine the number of burials within the extensive Tower Hill Cemetery between mid-November 1841 and the spring of 1927, I consulted two useful sources. A quick tabulation of the public burials enumerated in the weekly “Returns of Deaths within the City of Charleston” yielded a total of at least 8,700 burials at this site between mid-November 1841 and the end of 1879. The weekly death ledgers continue onward through 1926, but from 1880 to early 1927 I turned to the published Charleston Year Books, which provide convenient annual summaries during the period in question. In those volumes I learned that the city buried more than 17,500 people in its public cemetery during the forty-six years prior to the creation of the Johnson Hagood Memorial Stadium and Harmon Field in 1927. The figures derived from these sources allow us to estimate that more than 26,000 people were buried within the Tower Hill Cemetery over a period more than eighty-five years.

The surviving records of this burial activity between 1819 and 1927 reveal that the population interred within Charleston’s successive potter’s fields of that era was overwhelmingly Black, and composed mostly of infants and young children. This topic and the available data merit much closer analysis than my quick tabulations, of course, but my goal has been to provide an overview of an important chapter in the story of Charleston that has not yet received the attention it deserves. By combining my estimates from the city’s successive public cemeteries mentioned in this program, as well as the colonial-era estimate from the previous episode, we can state that approximately 54,000 men, women, and children were buried in pauper’s graves on the Charleston peninsula between 1672 and 1927, in locations comprising a total of approximately forty-five acres of the city’s urban landscape. This number represents a conservative estimate based on surviving historical data. Considering the anomalies in those records, and the poor regard given to the burial of enslaved people during the city’s first two centuries, however, I suspect the actual figure is much higher.

To accommodate the burials of its poorest citizens and transient visitors after the close of the Tower Hill Cemetery in 1927, the City of Charleston reached across the Ashley River. Several months of negotiations concluded that July with the purchase of two acres then described as being “at Seven Mile, on the [Ashley] River Road, in St. Andrew’s Parish.” The site in question became known as the “St. Andrew’s Public Burial Ground,” and was used as a potter’s field for thirty-four years. It is now a wooded lot surrounded by suburban residences near the eastern end of Savage Road.[22]

Charleston County created its own Health Department in 1920, and it formally absorbed the City of Charleston’s older Board of Health in the spring of 1936. When the St. Andrew’s Public Burial Ground became filled to capacity in the summer of 1961, the county government purchased a rural tract of 2.66 acres on John’s Island. That site, officially known as the “Mary Ann Point Indigent Cemetery” on Mary Ann Point Road, remains active to this day and represents the continuation of a charitable tradition dating back to the founding of Charleston.[23]

Thanks to improvements in health care and expanding economic prosperity over the past century, combined with the mass migration from urban to suburban neighborhoods after World War II, the memory of burial grounds set aside for the less fortunate faded from the public consciousness. On several occasions, however, various constructions projects on the Charleston peninsula catapulted the topic into the headlines. In 1948, for example, the construction of a new and improved version of Johnson Hagood Stadium displaced hundreds of graves, including some within the Mariner’s cemetery created a century earlier. The expansion of the campus of the Medical University in the spring of 1968 uncovered hundreds of “unexpected” graves within the old Cannonborough cemetery that had to be exhumed and reburied elsewhere. The construction of aquatic facilities within Harmon Field in the 1970s and again just a few years ago encountered volumes of unidentified human remains, while renovations at Johnson Hagood Stadium in 1999 revealed that workers had failed to exhume the paupers and mariners they had encountered in 1948. To address and mitigate such encounters, the city has repeatedly engaged firms like Brockington and Associates that specialize in the excavation and management of historic cultural resources, and will continue to partner with such agencies in the coming years.[24]

There have always been other burial grounds on the Charleston peninsula besides the public cemeteries, of course, belonging to a large number of churches and private societies from the beginning of the town in the late seventeenth century to the present. Most of those churchyards and graveyards are well marked and remembered, however, while the legacy of the city’s successive potter’s fields has faded from our collective memory. In this era of heightened awareness about the cultural value of burial sites belonging to all citizens, regardless of race, creed, or net worth, I believe it’s important to acknowledge the breadth of the burial traditions across our community. The forgotten dead of Charleston’s public cemeteries no longer have a voice, but they all deserve to be acknowledged.



[1] See Act No. 1191, “An Act to incorporate Charleston,” ratified on 13 August 1783, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 97–101; see item No. 7 in the report of the Committee on City Lands to City Council, published in [Charleston, S.C.] City Gazette, 28 August 1799, page 4.

[2] See John Poaug to the City Council of Charleston, lease and release, 1–2 January 1793, in Charleston County Register of Deeds (hereafter RoD), F6: 519–22. Poaug acquired this land through his wife, Charlotte Wragg, who inherited the property in question from the estate of Joseph Wragg. See Joseph Purcell’s plat of the partition of the lands of Joseph Wragg, certified on 7 October 1786, in RoD, McCrady Plat No. 538. Poaug had earlier advertised to lease this property as a number of smaller building lots; see Charleston Morning Post, 2 December 1786, page 1. This land is also briefly described in Michael Trinkley, et al., The Silence of the Dead: Giving Charleston Cemeteries A Voice (Columbia, S.C.: Chicora Foundation, 2010), 220–21.

[3] City Gazette, 23 August 1794, page 3, “City Council, 20th of Aug. 1794.”

[4] The earliest surviving records of the Commissioners of the Charleston Poor House date from December 1800 and are held within the Charleston Archive at the Charleston County Public Library.

[5] “An Ordinance for the better regulating of the Public City Burial Ground,” ratified on 2 July 1801, in Alexander Edwards, comp., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, In the State of South Carolina, Passed since the Incorporation of the City, Collected and Revised Pursuant to A Resolution of the Council (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1802), 211–14.

[6] “An Ordinance to amend an ordinance, entitled ‘An Ordinance for the better regulating of the Public City Burial Ground,’” ratified on 18 August 1802, in Alexander Edwards, comp., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, Passed since the 28th of October, 1801 (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1804), 242–43.

[7] The Federal census of the City of Charleston counted 16,359 people in 1790; 18,824 in 1800; and 24,711 in 1810.

[8] The city had purchased the land in question nearly a year earlier. See Charleston District Sheriff Jacint Laval to the City Council of Charleston, conveyance of title and plat of lands bounded by Doughty, President, and Bee Streets, 7 October 1806, in RoD T7: 296. This site is briefly described in Trinkley, Silence of the Dead, 164–65.

[9] “An Ordinance to regulate interments on the City Burial Ground, and to define the duties of the superintendant [sic] thereof,” ratified on 20 June 1807, in Alexander Edwards, comp., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, Passed between the 24th of September 1804, and the 1st Day of September 1807 (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1807), 454–60. City Council records of construction projects undertaken during this era do not survive, but small references to the superintendent’s residence can be found among the contemporary newspapers. See, for example, the annual report of city finances in City Gazette, 1 September 1809, which includes “City Burial Ground, paid for building a kitchen[,] chimneys, and for repairs to fence . . . [$]62.32.” The city adopted minor but noteworthy revisions of this ordinance in 1809 and 1833. See “An Ordinance to amend so much of ‘An Ordinance to regulate interments on the City Burial Ground, and to define the duties of the superintendant [sic] thereof,’ as relates to the fees demanded for the interments of negroes or persons of color, whether bond or free, and for regulating the same,” ratified on 20 January 1809, in City Council of Charleston, The Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, South Carolina, Passed Since the First of September, 1807, and to the 12th of November, 1815 (Charleston, S.C.: G. M. Bounetheau and Lewis Bryer, [1815]), 505; and “An Ordinance to alter and amend the ordinances regulating interments within the City Burial Ground,” ratified on 14 November 1833, in City Council of Charleston, Ordinances of the City of Charleston: from the 5th Feb., 1833, to the 9th May, 1837 (Charleston, S.C.: A. E. Miller, 1837), 15.

[10] Act No. 1941, “An Act to authorize the City Council of Charleston to erect and build, within the inclosure [sic] of the City Burial Ground, lying without the City, on the borders of Ashley river, a substantial Brick Magazine, for the storing of Gun Powder,” ratified on 19 December 1809, in McCord, Statutes at Large, 7: 127. A description of the prospective magazine appeared in City Gazette, 14 December 1810, page 3: “Contract Wanted.”; City Gazette, 8 May 1815, page 2, “Contracts.”

[11] Charleston Courier, 28 October 1837, page 2, proceedings of City Council meeting of 24 October; Courier, 11 January 1838, page 2, proceedings of City Council meeting of 8 January. The city’s long negotiations with the U.S. Government for the conveyance of the public burial ground bounded by Ashley, Bee, President, and Doughty Streets is beyond the scope of the present discussion.

[12] “An Ordinance to preserve the health of the City of Charleston and to appoint Commissioners of Health,” ratified on 21 March 1808. The text of this 1808 law does not appear in any published digest of city laws because the ordinance was repeatedly revised in subsequent years, but it appears in contemporary newspapers such as Charleston Courier, 24 March 1808, page 2. The City of Charleston gave the extant “Returns of Death” to the Charleston County Public Library in 1948. These materials have been microfilmed and are available in the library’s South Carolina History Room. Digital images of part of this collection are also available through the subscription website

[13] My “quick tabulation” of burials within the public cemeteries, as recorded in the extant “Returns of Deaths,” needs to be corroborated by a more careful calculation, of course, but I am confident that these preliminary estimates are sufficient for the present general discussion of the topic.

[14] Courier, 18 March 1839, page 2, proceedings of City Council meeting of 15 March; John Horlbeck, Charles M. Furman, and Henry Horlbeck, conveyance to City Council of Charleston, 13 May 1839, RoD Z10: 582–86. The recorded deed of conveyance, which was officially recorded on 27 May 1839, includes a copy of a plat of the property drawn by City Surveyor John Wilson on 1 June 1822. This property is briefly described in Trinkley, Silence of the Dead, 149–50. Note that Horlbeck’s conveyance to the city did not include a small parcel of 0.75 acres adjacent to the marshes of the Ashley River on which the Martello tower formerly stood, which was held by the state until the late 1850s; see Courier, 22 November 1855, proceedings of City Council meeting of 20 November.

[15] Shortly after the purchase of Horlbeck’s farm, the city also ratified a revised ordinance relating the public cemetery that increased the various burial fees due to the superintendent 100% beyond the schedule adopted in 1807; see “An Ordinance to amend the ordinance entitled an Ordinance to regulate interments in the City Burial Ground, and to define the duties and powers of the superintendent thereof,” ratified on 12 August 1839, in George B. Eckhard, comp., A Digest of the Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, from the Year 1783 to October 1844 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker & Burke, 1844), 130.

[16] [Charleston, S.C.] Southern Patriot, 17 November 1841, page 2, proceedings of City Council meeting of 15 November. The “city paper” at that moment was the newspaper holding the annual contract for printing city business, which was then held by the Southern Patriot. That paper began publishing the required notice of the new public cemetery in Southern Patriot, 19 November 1841: “City Burial Ground.”

[17] Charleston Mercury, 20 January 1848, page 2, proceedings of City Council meeting of 18 January. For more information on this society, see the “Charleston Port Society Records, 1822–1900,” South Carolina Historical Society, manuscript collection No. 1301, and C. E. Chichester, Historical Sketch of the Charleston Port Society for Promoting the Gospel Among Seamen (Charleston, S.C.: News and Courier Book Presses, 1885).

[18] “An Ordinance to establish Public Slaughter Houses, Public Weighing of Stock, and a Public Market for the sale of neat cattle, hogs, sheep, calves, &c.,” ratified on 23 June 1857, in John Horsey, comp., Ordinances of the City of Charleston from the 14th September, 1854, to the 1st December, 1859 (Charleston, S.C.: Walker, Evans & Co., 1859), 49–51.

[19] The draft text of “An Ordinance to Create a Board of Commissioners to Supervise and Control the Public Lands, Now Known as Potter’s Field,” ratified on 12 December 1871, was printed with the proceedings of City Council in Courier, 29 November 1871. The 1880 annual report of the commissioners described the “Old Folks Home” and “farm” as comprising fifteen acres, of which ten and five-eighth acres was cultivated land. See Charleston Year Book, 1880, pages 58, 217.

[20] See, for example, Captain Redding’s report of 26 April 1880 in Charleston Year Book, 1880, page 179; City Council proceedings of 10 July 1888 printed in Charleston News and Courier, 11 July 1888, page 3; City Council proceedings of 10 April 1974 printed in News and Courier, 12 April 1894, page 3.

[21] For a brief summary of these projects, see Charleston Year Book, 1927, xx, 173, 187. The city closed the “Tower Hill” public cemetery sometime around the beginning of April 1927; see Charleston Evening Post, 7 April 1927, page 10A, “No ‘Potter’s Field’”; Evening Post, 4 May 1927, page 2, “New Public Burial Ground.”

[22] City Council confirmed the purchase of two acres from Mrs. Emily Ravenel “at Seven Mile, on the River Road, in St. Andrew’s Parish, for a new public burial ground,” at their meeting of 12 July 1927. See the proceedings of that meeting in Evening Post, 16 July 1927, page 10A. The City of Charleston still holds the title to this land, which is identified as Parcel ID 3510700091 in the office of the Charleston County Register of Deeds. This site is briefly described in Trinkley, Silence of the Dead, 190–91.

[23] News and Courier, 4 April 1936, page 3, “County To Rule Health Affairs”; Evening Post, 9 May 1936, page 2, “Local Bills Are Ratified.” County Council ratified the purchase of this land in September 1961; see News and Courier, 6 September 1961, page 11, “New Potters Field Bought by County.” The Mary Ann Point Indigent Cemetery at 3778 Mary Ann Point Road, John’s Island is described as Parcel ID 2810000079 in the office of the Charleston County Register of Deeds.

[24] Details of the aforementioned events are beyond the scope of this essay, but can be found in contemporary city records, local newspapers, and reports produced by local CRM firms. See, for example, Kristina Shuler, Eric C. Poplin, Ralph Bailey, Cemetery Relocation at Site 38CH1648: Johnson Hagood Stadium, The Citadel, Charleston County, South Carolina (Brockington and Associates, Inc., 2005). The athletic facility known as Stoney Field, which was completed in 1964, apparently lies beyond the western boundary of the public cemetery at Tower Hill. This site was tidal marsh land until the second quarter of the twentieth century. For more information on landfill in this area, see Christina Rae Butler, Lowcountry at High Tide: A History of Flooding, Drainage, and Reclamation in Charleston, South Carolina (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 2020).


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