1865 image of St. Michael's Church in Charleston (Library of Congress)
Friday, July 06, 2018

You’ve probably heard by now that on June 19th, 2018, Charleston’s City Council adopted a resolution “recognizing, denouncing, and apologizing on behalf of the City of Charleston for the city’s role in regulating, supporting, and fostering” the institution of slavery. In the course of the debate in Council Chambers on that date, Mayor John Tecklenberg made reference to the enslaved laborers who built our present City Hall. To be sure, the surviving documentary record demonstrates that building contractors active in Charleston before the abolition of slavery in 1865 regularly used enslaved laborers. Finding documentation that identifies the labor force used in specific building projects is a more difficult matter, however. Charleston’s early building contractors were business men, and most of their business records were thrown away at the ends of their respective careers. (The surviving records of the Horlbeck Brothers at the South Carolina Historical Society is a notable exception). Personally, I’m not aware of any documents relative to the laborers who built the ca. 1804 bank building that became City Hall in 1818, but I haven’t conducted an exhaustive search for such records. To demonstrate the mayor’s point about the use of enslaved builders, however, one has only to look across Broad Street, at the colonial edifice of St. Michael’s Church. Back in the autumn of 2007, I published a short essay in the South Carolina Historical Society’s quarterly magazine, Carologue, about the labor force that raised the brick walls, columns, and steeple of that historic church in the early 1750s. In an effort to help the public understand this important topic, I’d like to offer here a longer version of that article, which documents a remarkable story about some long-forgotten men.

In his 1951 publication, St. Michael’s, Charleston, George W. Williams presented a detailed bicentennial history of the venerable church that stands at the southeast corner of Meeting and Broad Streets in Charleston. The remarkable depth and breadth of this narrative, which was reprinted in 2001, is due in large part to the bounty of historical records that have survived from the church’s earliest days. The author’s ability to present a detailed timeline of its construction between 1751 and 1762, for example, was facilitated by the survival of a small but important group of records of the men who oversaw the construction of the church. The receipts, accounts, and correspondence kept by these “Commissioners to Build a New Church in Charles-Town” include such information as the prices of construction materials, the wages paid for laborers and overseers, and even the quantities of beverages consumed at the commissioners’ meetings. This material, Dr. Williams tells us, represents the most complete construction record of any church built in colonial America.

In May 2003, St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Charleston donated to the South Carolina Historical Society (SCHS) a large collection of its records spanning from the creation of the parish in 1751 to the late twentieth century. Included in this gift were the construction records of the “Commissioners to Build a New Church in Charles-Town” that Dr. Williams narrated in 1951, as well as a small bundle of old papers of unknown origin. As the Society’s archivist at the time of this donation, I was immediately intrigued by this mysterious bundle. The texture and appearance of the paper suggested that the material dated from the eighteenth century, but no text was visible because the individual sheets had been rolled together with the content facing inward. Over the years this roll of papers had become flattened, and my cautious attempts to open it for closer inspection threatened to shatter the brittle paper along the creases. Armed with training in paper conservation and repair, however, I set forth to unlock the secrets of the mysterious bundle.

In the course of two and a half centuries, the creases in the paper, caused by being rolled and then compressed, had evolved into fissures, and I soon realized that no amount of care or preparation could prevent their splitting into multiple fragments when pried opened. Like a surgeon preparing for an operation, I began to plan the series of steps necessary to make whole again that which I was about to disassemble.  The first step was humidification—introducing moisture into the brittle paper parched by the centuries. The paper itself is of high quality, being handmade and most likely imported from England, but the years of storage in an unstable climate had rendered it unnaturally dry and brittle. The still-rolled bundle was placed on a small platform above a tray of water and then covered with another tray to create a small, moist environment. After several days in this microclimate, the paper began to rehydrate and to relax. As it gradually unfurled, the contents of the roll became visible for the first time in many generations.

In the end, the unrolled fragments yielded six full sheets of paper, each measuring approximately 9.75 inches wide and 15 inches tall. In addition, there was also one half-sheet of this legal-sized paper and one small scrap of a contrasting paper. Each of the large sheets contains several horizontal tables, the cells of which are largely filled with small vertical strokes. Each table represents a different month, but otherwise the content of the sheets appeared remarkably similar. The horizontal rows on the left side of each table contains the name of a slave owner and the name of an enslaved man, while the vertical columns represent the days of a given month. The vertical strokes in each column record the number of days in a given month each man labored at the construction site. Beginning with October 1752 and concluding in November 1754, these tables show not only the names of the men who toiled to erect St. Michael’s brick walls, columns, and steeple, but also the total number of days each worked and how many men were present each day and each month. Furthermore, several small annotations made within a few of the columns record various milestones in the construction process. In short, these labor “tally sheets” form a unique and historically significant addition to our knowledge of slavery and of construction practices in colonial South Carolina.[1]

These tally sheets were created by Samuel Prioleau Jr. (1717–1792), who in early 1751 was elected clerk or secretary of the church commissioners and was responsible for administering the funds allocated to the project by the provincial government. Many other documents in Prioleau’s hand survive among the early records of St. Michael’s Church, including receipts for payments for labor and supplies that correlate with the data included in the tally sheets. In this respect, the information provided by these newly restored sheets reinforces our existing knowledge of the church’s construction and offers a closer view of the day-to-day operations of the labor force.

As Dr. Williams has shown in his history of St. Michael’s, the latter half of 1751 and the first half of 1752 saw a flurry of activity at the construction site as materials were delivered and the foundations of the church walls begun. According to the daybook of the secretary of the commissioners, also included in the St. Michael’s collection, Governor James Glen laid the cornerstone at the southeast corner of the church on 17 February 1752. From the notations of the delivery of lime, sand, and bricks in the secretary’s daybook, it appears that the brickwork of St. Michael’s commenced in early 1752 and continued through August of that year. Owing to the destructive hurricane that arrived in mid-September 1752, however, construction ceased for several weeks. The hurricane brought waist-high water around the church walls and carried away the wooden fences, timber, and lime.[2] The surviving tally sheets commence on 10 October 1752, presumably the day on which construction began anew.

Only five workers labored during the first weeks of activity, but soon those enslaved men were joined and/or replaced by new hands. The number of laborers and of workdays continued to grow steadily through the end of 1752 and into the early months of 1753, but this ambitious trend was not to last long. Starting in May of 1753, the construction energies of St. Michael’s were sapped by two other large projects: the erection of a new State House on the opposite corner of Broad and Meeting Streets, and the rebuilding of the sea wall along the southeastern portion of the peninsula that had been destroyed by the hurricane of the previous September. Like the construction of St. Michael’s, these projects were funded by the public treasury, and occasionally they drew liberally from the materials and laborers initially assigned to the church. After a steady increase in activity from October 1752 through April 1753, the forces employed at St. Michael’s were thus significantly diminished in May and June of that year. This setback can be explained in part by noting that the cornerstone of the new State House was laid on 22 June, an event that must have required substantial preparation in the weeks preceding.

Despite the distraction of simultaneous building projects, the remaining laborers at St. Michaels began assembling the four brick Tuscan columns in Meeting Street in May, and the work of raising the church’s walls continued. In the weeks immediately following the laying of the State House cornerstone, however, the tide of construction again swept back to St. Michael’s. During the intense summer heat of July 1753, when the brickwork of the church’s steeple commenced, the forces employed at St. Michael’s were nearly triple those of June, and the labor statistics for that month actually represent the peak of construction activity during the two-year period in question. The momentum of activity remained strong into early August, and on the ninth day of that month the workers reached a significant milestone by completing the top course of the church’s walls. On that day, Samuel Prioleau’s receipts show that the commissioners sponsored a small celebration for the workers, expending £1 South Carolina currency on “the Negroes for Liquor on Leveling the Brick Work.”[3] In the labor tally sheet columns corresponding to 9 and 10 August 1753, the secretary noted that the “Bricklayers left work to move the Scaffolding.”

Progress on St. Michael’s continued apace in the ensuing seasons, but the labor force dedicated to the project fluctuated from month to month. The church’s roof was completed by the end of 1753, and the beginning of 1754 was met with renewed energies. In May the labor force reached another high point of activity, making this the second busiest month of the entire project. The summer of 1754 proved to be just as busy as that of the previous year, which no doubt caused a great hardship for those laboring in the intense sub-tropical heat. For reasons unknown, though perhaps related to the pace of the work, temperature, and tempers, the tally sheets note that the project’s overseer was “discharged” on 6 July 1754. Accordingly, the young German immigrant Michael Kalteisen (1729–1807), who would later make a name for himself as a founder of the German Friendly Society and the German Fusiliers, was issued a voucher for £20 “for overseeing the Negroes Imployed in Building the new Church.”[4] On 7 July, the tally sheets tersely note the presence of “a new overseer.” Vouchers for payments from the commissioners dated 7 September and 18 October 1754 identify this new overseer as George Tucker, a “white man” whose name appears on the labor tally sheets as having worked alongside the slaves at St. Michael’s for eleven and a half days in June of that year.[5]

The brickwork of St. Michael’s Church concluded on 9 October 1754, on which date the tally sheet column includes the miniscule notation “This day the Brickwork of the Steeple finished.” It had been two years and a day since work resumed after the destructive hurricane of 1752. Six days later, on 15 October, the secretary recorded the “Overseer discharged.” A handful of workers remained on the construction site for a few more weeks, probably to clear away tools, scaffolding, and materials, and the last day of work recorded on these sheets is 9 November 1754.

In the months following the completion of the brickwork, the St. Michael’s construction project entered a long period of general inactivity. Small jobs were completed sporadically and routine maintenance continued over the next several years, but the financial momentum to complete the church had largely evaporated. By April 1755 the commissioners complained to the provincial government that they were out of money and desperately needed additional funds to complete the project. Assistance from the public treasury was apparently not forthcoming, however, for as late as October 1757 the salary of the commissioner’s secretary, Samuel Prioleau, was reduced on account of “there being not much Business done in the three last years.”[6] After many delays, the church opened for public worship on 1 February 1761, though work on the finishing details continued into the following year.

Beyond providing details about the construction timeline, these tally sheets also shed interesting light on the identity and endurance of the men who labored to build St. Michael’s. After all, these sheets represent part of the financial records of the commissioners to build the church, and were created to calculate payments for services rendered. When compared to other contemporary materials among the old records of St. Michael’s, their original usefulness is revealed. Scipio, Joe, and Cudgeo, the property of Charles Pinckney, for example, worked a combined total of 334 days, and on 7 August 1755 Pinckney received from the commissioners a certificate for £125 (South Carolina currency) to cover this exact number of days at the rate of seven shillings and six pence a day. Some other owners received what appear to be inflated payments, however, perhaps reflecting work performed before or after the tally sheets were created. For example, the sheets record that Simon and King, the property of Thomas Doughty, worked a combined total of 996.5 days between October 1752 and October 1754. According to the final computation among the other records of the commissioners, however, Doughty received a certificate dated 4 August 1755 for £412.6.3 to cover 1099.5 days of work performed by his slaves. Although records to clarify this overage are not extant, this computation appears to indicate that Simon and King worked a combined total of 103 days beyond their time indicated on the tally sheets.[7]

Besides the above mentioned George Tucker, the tally sheets also include the names of several other “white men” who labored at St. Michael’s between April and October of 1754. A notation made on the labor tally for October 1754, for example, notes that one G. Pawley (perhaps a relative of George Pawley, 1699–1774, of Prince George Winyah Parish) received a “Certificate for 80 Days,” although he was credited with having worked only 13 days during that month. It appears that Pawley’s remaining 67 days of labor were included under the anonymous group of three or four “white men” who worked in April and May, or perhaps were mistakenly credited on the tally sheets to a white colleague named John Pawley who was present between June and September 1754. One John Miller and a white man identified only as Jacob worked briefly that June as well, but unfortunately the tally sheets do not shed any further light on the role of these free laborers.

During the two-year period in question, the construction of St. Michael’s Church experienced a number of work stoppages due to weather, holidays, and competing building projects. The local agricultural and shipping calendars, which required extra hands during certain seasons of the year, may have also played a role in the ebb and flow of work on the site. For the laborers employed on the project, however, there were no guaranteed holidays, and many Sundays were spent toiling on this house of worship. Some slaves worked only briefly or intermittently at the site, while others poured their sweat and soul into the fabric of the church. Foremost among these steadfast men was Cain, an enslaved man belonging to Benjamin Mazyck, who was perhaps the most enduring hand on the project. He was present for an impressive 513.5 of the 731 days that transpired between 10 October 1752 and 9 October 1754, and was the only worker whose name appears in every monthly tally recorded on these sheets.

The extant records of St. Michael’s Church do not include any information about how the building commissioners, and subsequently the church’s vestries, preserved these tally sheets and other construction records. It would appear, however, that these materials were set aside amongst the woodwork of the steeple during its completion in the late 1750s. In March 1945, Henrietta P. Jervey (Mrs. Henry Jervey) of the Old Documents Committee of St. Michael’s Church wrote to the secretary of the vestry regarding an “old chest” of church papers that she understood to have been recently discovered in the church’s steeple (though Dr. Williams remembers more precisely that it was found in the space behind the pediment of the portico). The tornado that had blown through downtown Charleston on St. Michael’s Day (29 September), 1938, caused serious damage to the roof and steeple, and the subsequent repairs had apparently revealed the old chest. After consulting with Helen McCormack of the South Carolina Historical Society, Mrs. Jervey informed the vestry that she was inclined to place these old papers at the Fireproof Building on deposit. The vestry concurred, and the bulk of the historical records of St. Michael’s Church were soon transferred to the Historical Society for safekeeping. Despite the presence of the tally sheets among the church’s old records, however, their fragile condition discouraged close examination by the church’s historian, George W. Williams, and thus they were not included in published bicentennial history of St. Michael’s. The laborers who raised the church’s walls in the 1750s would have to wait another half century before their names would be revealed.


The Tables:

The tables included here represent a compilation of the statistics recorded on the St. Michael’s Labor Tally Sheets. The first two columns, containing the names of laborers and of their masters, are formatted as they appear on original. The numbers in parentheses indicate the number of unidentified persons whose daily labors were recorded as a group. Note that the labor figures presented here for August and September 1753 include data from the large tally sheet as well supplemental figures taken from a small addendum sheet that includes the number of days worked by several slaves between 29 August and 1 September 1753.



[1] These tally sheets are now among the Records of St. Michael’s Church at the South Carolina Historical Society, folder 0320.05 (T) 01, located in St. Michael’s oversized box 1.

[2] George W. Williams, St. Michael’s, Charleston (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1951), 138.

[3] Ibid., 140–41, citing commissioners’ receipt No. 53.

[4] Voucher dated 5 July 1754, recorded on commissioners’ receipt No. 78. The German immigrant Michael Kalteisen (1729-1807), whose surname is also spelled “Koltieson” and “Coldison” in the commissioners’ records, later became known for his conspicuous involvement with the German Friendly Society and the German Fusiliers, and served as commandant of Fort Johnson from 1792 until his death. This mention of him as an overseer in 1754 thus represents one of the earliest known records of Kalteisen in South Carolina, and serves to illuminate his rise from obscurity to prominence as an ardent American patriot. See South Carolina Historical Magazine 100 (1999).

[5] These vouchers are also recorded on commissioners’ receipt No. 78.

[6] Williams, St. Michael’s, 142; voucher dated 2 October 1757, recorded on commissioners’ receipt No. 53.

[7] These figures appear on an untitled worksheet, now located in the St. Michael’s collection at SCHS in folder 0320.05 (A) 01 (1755–56).


PREVIOUS: Too-la-Loo for the Fourth of July
NEXT: Demilitarizing Urban Charleston, 1783–1789
See more from Charleston Time Machine