Friday, June 15, 2018 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Today I’m going to continue a thread that I started a few weeks ago (see the episode published on May 18th, 2018), concerning the early history of Charleston’s police department, which was known simply as “the watch” in the city’s first century of existence. This nocturnal force, composed of unpaid citizens who guarded the streets from sunset to sunrise, played an extremely important role in the everyday life of early Charleston, but you won’t find much written about it in the thousands of books and articles written about the history of this city. Today we’ll turn our time machines back to the twilight years of the seventeenth century, when the threat of a French invasion loomed over the Lowcountry.

Following the outbreak of King William’s War in 1689, the government of South Carolina descended into a brief period of political confusion. Stability returned in the autumn of 1692 with the establishment of a bi-cameral legislature that provided greater representation for the people of South Carolina. Soon afterwards, however, a bitter rivalry erupted between those who supported the authority and privileges reserved to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, and those who favored more liberal political and economic policies. Bickering between the two parties only served to prolong the stagnation of the infant colony, however, and ultimately to weaken its ability to repel either a foreign invasion or a domestic uprising. In an effort to resolve this factional crisis, the Lords Proprietors of Carolina sent one of their own, a Quaker proprietor named John Archdale, to help settle the political climate. During his brief but robust administration (August 1695 through October 1696), Governor Archdale quieted the political divisions and coaxed the legislature into adopting several important measures to strengthen the colony’s defenses.[1]

The timing of Governor Archdale’s arrival proved fortuitous, as the ongoing war with France was then heating up in the Caribbean. In the early months of 1696, the inhabitants of South Carolina felt themselves “always in danger” from the incursions of “pirates and privateers, and more especially at this time, the warr still continuing, and the late reports of the greate power the French King is designing for these parts.”[2] The strict observance of the night watch and vigilance in general suddenly seemed very important, on the coastal islands as well as in urban Charleston. Accordingly, in March 1696, the South Carolina general assembly ratified several new laws designed to place the colony in a better posture of defense. Besides passing a revision of the watch act and an act to provide public funds for the construction of defensive fortifications in Charleston, the legislature also ratified a major overhaul of the colony’s militia law, which had expired and was of no force. The militia act of March 1696, the earliest surviving law of its kind among the records of South Carolina, represents a major step in defining the duties and responsibilities of our colonial-era citizen-soldiers.[3] Following English tradition, it required all able-bodied white men, aged sixteen to sixty, to possess arms and to participate in regular military exercises for the common defense of the colony. Although this matter was not, at that moment, directly related to Charleston’s urban night watch, the robust codification of the South Carolina militia in the spring of 1696 established a sort of defensive backstop that would have a profound and long-lasting influence on character of the town’s night watch.

The text of the latest watch act, ratified on 16 March 1695/6, represents a major shift in practice at a moment of perceived crisis. The preamble laments that “the constables who hitherto have had the care and charge of the watch in Charles Towne have been very remiss and negligent therein,” despite the fact that their duty was vital “for the better preservation of the said towne” during “this time of ware and eminent danger.” In place of the inattentive constables and volunteer watchmen, this law appointed a group of commissioners to raise the sum of £150 per year by assessing a tax on the inhabitants of urban Charleston (householders as well as every male “above the age of sixteen years that lives in the said towne”), and to use that money to hire and supervise a paid paramilitary watch. The new force was commanded by one captain, Richard Bellinger, who each night would personally (or by his deputy) lead a group of “nine able men from the tenth day of March to the tenth day of October and of five able men from the tenth day of October to the tenth day of March.” For this service, Captain Bellinger was to receive £20 per year, but the text of the law did not specify the salary of the “hired” watchmen.

Referring to the new militia act ratified two weeks earlier, the watch act of March 1696 required the town’s nocturnal watchmen to report for duty as “well and compleatly armed and fixed with amunition as any souldier is ordered and directed to be by the Millitia Act.” That is, each watchman was obliged to carry “a good and sufficient gun, well fixed,” a waterproof cartridge box loaded with pre-made cartridges of “good powder and ball,” several spare gun flints, and a sword, bayonet or hatchet. This parity between the equipage of the town watch and the militia was to remain in force for many generations to come. The watch law of March 1696 also provides some of the earliest insight into the watchmen’s nightly routine, requiring the captain (or his deputy) and some or all of the watchmen to “walke the rounds in Charles Town” at 10 p.m., 1 a.m., and at dawn, “and ring a small bell as they goe along that the inhabitants may know they are in motion.”[4] From this quaint description, we learn for the first time that the watchmen spent only a portion of their nightshift perambulating the town. Where they stood or sat or slept during the remainder of the night is unclear at this time, as the provincial legislature had not yet made provisions for either sentry boxes or a watch house for their shelter.

The South Carolina legislature intended the watch act of March 1695/6 to be in force for seven years, but changes in the local and international political climate greatly shortened its life. At the end of October of that year, Governor John Archdale set sail for England and appointed his nephew, Joseph Blake, to be governor in his stead. Immediately after Archdale’s departure, the legislature began dismantling some of the progressive, expensive laws enacted during the brief administration of the Quaker proprietor. A new militia act, ratified on 5 December 1696, for example, completely repealed the innovative watch act adopted just nine months earlier. Vigilance remained the government’s paramount concern, as the members of South Carolina’s general assembly had been “credibly informed our enemy the French have a designe to attack plunder and destroy this towne.” In place of the salaried night watch, however, the legislature created an unsalaried hybrid of a traditional constable’s watch combined with an urban militia patrol. The surviving records of this era do not articulate the reasons for this sudden reversal of policy, but it’s likely that the unprecedented tax levied on all militia-aged men to hire a force of salaried watchmen proved unpopular.

The watch act of December 1696 directed the constables of Charleston to deliver to the governor within ten days a list of all the men in town “which are above sixteen years old and under sixty.” From this list, each constable was required to “summon six able men to keepe watch with him or them or their deputys in s[ai]d town from the houre of eight at night to the houre of six in the morning.” This constable’s watch was to begin immediately after the ratification of the law and to continue nightly until March 25th of the new year. From that day until the first day of October next, a period representing the longer, warmer days of the year, the inhabitants apparently perceived a heightened risk of an enemy invasion. “For the better defence and security” of the town, therefore, the legislature placed the watch under the command of Charles Basden and William Smith, the captains of the town’s two militia companies, during the warmer half of the year. Each night of their six-month tour of duty, the urban militia captains, “or their inferior officers,” were required to summon “twenty men compleatly armed of their companys, and with them to keep watch in the said towne, from the houre of nine at night till sunn rising in the morning, and soe every night for the terme of time aforesaid each person in his turne.” As always, every man was allowed to send a substitute in his place, but apparently this traditional right has been abused by absent men sending unfit alternates. Starting with the watch act of December 1696, however, all future substitutes had to be approved by the commander of the watch before the beginning of their respective shifts, at the risk of a fine imposed on the absent watchman.[5]

After nearly nine years of restless vigilance, the inhabitants of South Carolina welcomed the news of the conclusion of King William’s War in the autumn of 1697. The likelihood of a French invasion now seemed remote, at least for the moment, and so the denizens of urban Charleston relaxed their collective anxieties. In this atmosphere of relative peace, the town’s night watch, composed of two asymmetrical, seasonal bodies supervised by different agents but drawn from a single pool of able-bodied white men, must have seemed like an unnecessarily complicated structure. Irregularities in the nightly performance of the watch likely occurred as the town’s collective vigilance declined in the winter of 1697. That relaxing trend was checked in February 1698, however, when a disastrous fire consumed approximately one third of the urban settlement and shocked the inhabitants back into a defensive posture.[6] In October of that year, the South Carolina legislature authorized another significant refinement of the watch law, alleging again that “the constables have been very remiss and negligent in keeping the watch in Charlestowne, which at all times ought to be duly and strictly observed and performed, more especially since the late fatal and dismal conflagration.”

Like the earlier watch statutes, the 1698 law required the town constables to make a list of inhabitants, aged sixteen to sixty, and nightly to summon six men, “well equipped with arms and ammunition as the act of militia directs,” in the order they appeared on the list. The new law retained the seasonal alteration of the watch calendar, but it dispensed with the seasonal division of duty between the town’s constables and militia captains that had been enacted in December 1696. Starting in October 1698, the constable’s watch served year-round, “from the hour of eight at night to the hour of six in the morning, from the tenth day after the ratification of this Act to the tenth day of March following; and from the hour of nine at night, to the hour of four in the morning, from the tenth day of March to the tenth day of September following.” After all of the men enrolled on the said list had watched “one round,” or had sent an approved, “able man” in his place, the law directed the nightly draft of the watch to begin again at the head of the list. Although the 1698 watch act reduced the aggregate number of men patrolling the streets of Charleston each night throughout the year, it authorized the governor or his appointed deputy, in times of “imminent danger,” to double the number of watchmen “when they shall see occasion” for a larger force.[7]

In the late summer of 1701, just four years after the conclusion of King William’s War, the members of South Carolina’s Commons House of Assembly met in Charleston to discuss recent political developments in Europe and in the Caribbean. After reviewing the latest intelligence and advice acquired from neighboring colonies, the elected men cautiously agreed that there was “just cause” to believe that a war has already broken out or may soon break out between England and France and Spain.[8] Tensions between these nations was percolating both at home and abroad, so authorities in South Carolina moved quickly to enact measures for the better protection of the colony. In late August 1701, the legislature ratified another revision of the watch act that again accused the town constables of being “very remiss and negligent in keeping the watch in Charlestown.” The text of the new law repeated most of the traditional practices outlined in previous acts, however, adding little that might be described as innovative. Rather than adopting radically new measures to address specific failures, as the legislature had done in 1696, the new statute enacted several subtle changes designed to augment the constable’s power, and thus to make the performance of the watch more efficient and more effective.

As in the earlier statutes of this nature, the watch act of 1701 directed the “constables of Charles Town” to make a list of “all the inhabitants” of the town and to “confirm” the validity of the names on the said list quarterly before the governor or a Justice of the Quorum. Beginning with the “first names” on the list, each of the constables in turn shall each night summon “five men both equipt with arms and amunition as the Act of Militia directs to keep watch with him or them or their deputys in said town from the hour of eight at night to the hour of five in the morning from the twentieth day after the ratification of this act to the tenth day of March following,” and for a similar (but now lost) nocturnal duration for the warmer months of the year. The new law authorized the town’s constables to file suit against the negligent watchmen and heads of households (including women) who did not supply an acceptable substitute or hire a man to fulfill their obligation. If a constable neglected to prosecute such defaulters, the law directed his fellow constables to bring suit against him. Substitute watchmen, mentioned in all of the earlier statutes, were now required to be approved by a justice of the peace before appearing for duty. Freeholders who sent an unacceptable substitute would be fined and prosecuted by the constables in the same manner “as if he had not watched, or not provided any man in his room.” Although earlier watch acts provide modern readers little insight into the duties or activities of watchmen during the hours when they were not walking their rounds, the watch act of 1701 informs us that sleeping was a popular way of passing the time. The new law imposed a fine of forty shillings—not an insignificant sum—on any man “found sleeping upon watch.” If, after being convicted of such an offense by a justice of the peace, any watchmen refused or neglected to pay that fine, the law directed the magistrate to have the watchman “tyed neck and heels, two hours next morning, after such conviction.”[9]

Conspicuously absent from the early watch acts ratified by the South Carolina legislature is any reference to the location of a house or building that served as a headquarters for the nocturnal watchmen and a repository for the suspects they apprehended during the night. It is significant, therefore, that the act of August 1701 contains the earliest known reference to a “watch house” in urban Charleston. This law directed several commissioners to draw money out of the public treasury “to build a brick watch house, capable of containing thirty men, with arms, and so many centry [sentry] boxes as they shall think necessary for the better security of the watch.” Further documentary evidence concerning the completion of these building projects is lacking, but surviving legislative records confirm that Charleston’s first watch house, what we might call a police station, was in use by 1703. Built at the east end of Broad Street, within a piece of waterfront fortification known as the Half-Moon Battery, that watch house was also the first permanent public building in South Carolina, and it played a central role in the life of the town until the late 1760s.

In fact, the Charleston watch house is such an important and interesting subject that I’d like to put a bookmark here in our ongoing conversation about the town’s early night watch and pick up the thread at a later date. A few weeks from now, we’ll return to the story of the watch house, and also investigate a related, mysterious structure from the late 1690s, known only as “the cage.” In the meantime, don’t let the watchman catch you on the streets at night!



[1] Gov. Archdale’s administration improved South Carolina’s militia, night watch, and fortifications, but he was not solely or directly responsible for these advances. During his tenure as governor, Archdale, pacifist Quaker, commissioned his nephew, Joseph Blake, to be Deputy Governor, Lieutenant General, and Vice Admiral of South Carolina. See A. S. Salley, Jr., ed., Commissions and Instructions from the Lords Proprietors of Carolina to Public Officials of South Carolina, 1685–1715 (Columbia, S.C.: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1916), 89–90.

[2] This quotation appears in the preamble of Act No. 129, “An Act for laying an Imposition upon Skinns and Furrs, for the defence and publick use of this Country,” ratified on 16 March 1695/6, in Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1837), 110–12.

[3] On 16 March 1695/6, the legislature ratified Act No. 133, “An Act to Appropriate the Moneys Raised and to be Raised by an Imposition on Liquors, &c. Imported into, and Skinns and ffurrs Exported out of this Part of this Province to a ffortification in Charles Town.” David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 6–7, provides a partial transcription of this act, but the full text is found at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History (hereafter SCDAH), Acts of the General Assembly, “Gov. Archdale’s Laws,” pp. 84–87. The title of South Carolina’s earliest surviving militia law, Act No. 138, “An Act for the Better Settling and Regulating of the Militia,” ratified on 2 March 1695/6, is mentioned in Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 2: 121, but its text is omitted. The engrossed manuscript of this act can be found at SCDAH, Acts of the General Assembly, “Archdale’s Laws,” pp. 1–8. For more information about the militia system of early South Carolina, see Theodore Harry Jabbs, “The South Carolina Colonial Militia, 1663–1733,” Ph.D. diss., University of North Carolina, 1973.

[4] The title of Act No. 139, “An Act for the keeping and maintaining a Watch and good Orders in Charlestowne,” ratified on 16 March 1695/6, is mentioned in Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 2: 121, but its text was not included in that publication. The full text can be found, however, on pp. 36–40 of “Governor Archdale’s Laws” at SCDAH. The tax prescribed by this law was to be levied on individuals according to an unspecified percentage of their assessed value, and no able-bodied man was to be assessed less than five shillings per year. If every able-bodied white male above the age of sixteen paid the minimum assessment of five shillings (one quarter of a pound), then the payments of six hundred men would be necessary to form the sum of £150. Since some men undoubtedly paid a sum greater than five shillings, we might estimate the total number of able-bodied adult white men in urban Charleston in 1696 at between 300 and 400 individuals.

[5] The title of Act No. 144, “An Act to Revive an Act for the Better Settling and Regulating the Militia” ratified on 5 December 1696, is mentioned in Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 2: 124, but the text is not included anywhere in that series. The full text survives among the engrossed manuscripts of the Acts of the General Assembly at SCDAH. The text of this act actually says very little about the militia beyond its participation in the nightly watching of urban Charleston. This law was also the first watch act to specify the inclusion of all militia-aged men (aged sixteen to sixty) in the pool of volunteer watchmen. Men from this age bracket probably participated in the nightly watch from the town’s inception, but this fact was not articulated until 1696. This law was intended to remain in force until 25 March 1699.

[6] In a memorandum dated 8 October 1698, the fire is mentioned as having occurred on “the 24th Feb. last.” See Caroline T. Moore, ed., Records of the Secretary of the Province of South Carolina, 1692–1721 (by the author, 1978; reprinted, Columbia, S.C.: SCMAR, 2003), 412.

[7] See Act No. 162: “An Act for settling a Watch in Charles Town, and for preventing of Fires,” ratified on 8 October 1698, in Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 7: 7–12. The bulk of the text of this law concerns the prevention of fire and public nuisances in urban Charleston.

[8] A. S. Salley, Jr., ed., Journal of the Commons House of Assembly of South Carolina For the Session Beginning August 13, 1701 and Ending August 28, 1701 (Columbia: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1926), 32.

[9] The bulk of the text of Act No. 190, “An Act for Settling a Watch in Charlestown, and for preventing of Fires and Nusances in the same, and for the securing twenty foot on each side the Halfe-moon, for publick landing places,” ratified on 28 August 1701, appears in Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 7: 17–22, but that source omits the first several paragraphs of the law because the editor found them “too much mutilated.” That phrase is also inscribed in the margin of the first page of the engrossed manuscript of this law, found at SCDAH, although the bulk of the first several paragraphs are reasonably legible. The penultimate paragraph of Act No. 190 repealed a watch-related section of an earlier highway act (No. 178, “An additional Act for making and mending highways,” ratified on 1 March 1700/1). The text of this highway act was not included in the nineteenth-century compilation of the Statutes at Large of South Carolina, but it is found among the engrossed manuscript acts of the South Carolina General Assembly at SCDAH. That manuscript is missing at least one page, however, and the surviving text contains no references to the watch or to Charles Town.


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