Friday, March 25, 2022 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The forgotten story of Eliza Pinckney (ca. 1787–1839) was an open secret during her lifetime. Born into bondage on a plantation near the Ashepoo River, she was perhaps distantly related to a famous South Carolinian with the same name. Her owner, Thomas Pinckney (1760–1815), moved her to Charleston at the dawn of a new century and endowed her with property, jewelry, servants, and children. Documents relating to Eliza’s remarkable journey from rural slavery to urban freedom reveal signs of a turbulent and conditional relationship that shaped the trajectory of her family’s existence.

I stumbled into Eliza’s story while searching for information about an unrelated project. As soon as I found her name and a few details about her relationship with a White man more than twice her age, I immediately made a detour to search for more documents that might illuminate the shadows of her distant life. The details that I’ve found in recent months contain all the dramatic elements of a soap opera or television miniseries—affluence, poverty, power, oppression, romance, family squabbling, infidelity, secrecy, threats, compromises, death, and survival. Although one might describe some of this material as scandalous, I did not pursue Eliza’s story in order to sensationalize or exploit the hardship and trauma she must have endured some two centuries ago. Rather, my purpose in this exercise is to use the details of Eliza’s biography to illuminate the similar stories of untold numbers of forgotten women who endured similar lives between freedom and slavery in early South Carolina.

Eliza was, in a manner of speaking, a “kept woman,” plucked from the injustice of slavery by an older man whose affection and protection was always conditional. Eliza's experience was not unique, of course. Thousands of similar stories of unequal relationships between enslavers and enslaved people can be found among the records of different cultures around the world that permitted one person to own another in centuries past. Most of their collective stories are either lost to time or survive in fragmented, one-sided narratives created by the men who treated these women as objects to be controlled and discarded at their pleasure. Although Eliza’s story is not unique, it is unusual in one respect.


The man whose personal attention dominated Eliza’s life, Thomas Pinckney, took the time to create a number of documents that outline the contours of their evolving relationship over a period of a decade. In these records, now held in archives in both Charleston and Columbia, Thomas repeatedly articulated his “affection” for Eliza and the “love” he felt for his mulatto children, whom he readily acknowledged to be his progeny. While Thomas hid these documents from public view until after his death in 1815, his friends, neighbors, and White relatives could not have been ignorant of Pinckney’s curious exploits. He fathered two unconventional families with different mothers within a half-mile of each other in the City of Charleston, all of whom shared ties to a rural plantation on the Ashepoo River. The obscurity of the story of Thomas and Eliza Pinckney probably has less to do with their clandestine vigilance than the desire of Thomas’s family and friends to let his secrets follow him to the silent grave.

My attempt to reconstruct the life of Eliza Pinckney, therefore, is based largely on documents created by her owner and guardian, Thomas Pinckney. These materials include many useful details, but they do not represent a complete portrait of Eliza. Only two known documents articulate Eliza’s point of view, and they provide only a rather narrow peek into her experiences. In short, the historical record reveals little about her personal agency, and is silent regarding Eliza’s consent or resistance to the attentions of Thomas Pinckney. With these shortcomings in mind, let’s dive into her curious story, which is nestled within an obscure branch of the Pinckney family of South Carolina.

The name Thomas Pinckney was applied to a number of men in the Charleston area during the early generations of the colony and state of South Carolina. The man at the heart of this story frequently used the suffix “junior,” but that term was used in a looser sense in the eighteenth century than it is today. His father’s name was Charles, so he called himself “junior” to distinguish himself from an older first cousin (once removed) who is now remembered as General Thomas Pinckney. (1750–1828). That man, who was the son of the famous Eliza Lucas Pinckney (ca. 1722–1793), also had a son also named Thomas who became known as Colonel Thomas Pinckney Jr. (1780–1842). On a few occasions, the principal character in today’s story identified himself as Thomas H. Pinckney, but a more distinctive handle appears in a few records in which he styled himself Thomas Pinckney of St. Bartholomew’s Parish.[1]

This Thomas Pinckney is a rather obscure individual today, but he belonged to a prominent family that left an enduring mark on the history of this state and nation. He was the second surviving son of Colonel Charles Pinckney (1732–1782), who served as president of South Carolina’s rebellious Provincial Congress in 1775. Thomas’s older brother was also a prominent politician named Charles Pinckney (1757–1824), a man sometimes called “Constitution Charlie” for his active role in the United States Constitutional Convention of 1787, and sometimes identified as Governor Charles Pinckney because he served three non-consecutive terms as the chief executive of South Carolina.[2]

Thomas Pinckney was born in the spring of 1760, baptized at St. Philip’s Church in Charleston ten months later, and attained the age of majority in 1781. He reached adulthood during the American Revolution, but I can find no record of any military service, and it’s unclear whether or not he resided in South Carolina during the war years.[3] Thomas’s father died in 1782, after reluctantly abandoning the American cause during the darkest days of the Revolution. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the State of South Carolina lodged claims against the estate of Colonel Charles Pinckney and clouded Thomas’s inheritance for several years. The parties reached a settlement in the early weeks of 1787, shortly before the birth of enslaved girl named Eliza on one of the Pinckney family’s rural plantations.[4]

Eliza was born in either 1787 or 1788 on a rice plantation near the west bank of the Ashepoo River in the parish of St. Bartholomew in Colleton County, South Carolina. The property in question was once known as Fee Farm, which Colonel Charles Pinckney had purchased in the early 1760s. Colonel Pinckney later acquired neighboring tracts called Drainfield and Greenfield, all of which now form part of a larger tract presently called Lavington Plantation. When the colonel’s large estate was finally divided among his children, his eldest son Charles inherited Fee Farm and the people enslaved thereon, while younger son, Thomas, inherited Greenfield.[5] To quantify the value of these properties, five White men paid a visit the Pinckney plantations on the Ashepoo River in early 1787. The detailed appraisal they recorded on January 2nd provides our first clues to the early life of Eliza Pinckney.

The 1787 inventory of Fee Farm Plantation included seventy-seven enslaved people, among whom was a “field slave” named Sambo, valued at £70 sterling, his wife, Jenny, also described as a “field slave,” valued at £65, and their young daughter, Hannah, valued at just £30.[6] Eliza Pinckney does not appear among the enslaved people at Fee Farm in January 1787, but later documents state that this Hannah, the daughter of “Jenny of Ashepoo,” was the sister of Eliza Pinckney. But while Hannah and, later, her own daughter, Jane, were identified as “Negroes” born to parents of African descent, Hannah’s younger sister Eliza was consistently described as a “mulatto.” This distinction suggests that Eliza’s father was not Jenny’s husband, Sambo, but a White man.[7]

The identity of Eliza’s father is unknown. He might have been the owner of a neighboring plantation near the Ashepoo River, or a White man employed as a plantation overseer, or perhaps a member of the Pinckney family. The fact that Thomas Pinckney later extracted Eliza from the plantation and showered her with attention suggests that she might have been part of his extended family. It is possible, however, that he was simply smitten with her appearance or her personality. The fact that Eliza used the surname Pinckney might simply reflect her origins on a Pinckney family plantation, or it might indicate that she shared some genetic material with the man who later fathered her children.

We know nothing of Eliza’s early life, but it seems reasonable to conclude that she spent at least part of her childhood on one or two of the Pinckney family rice plantations on the west side of the Ashepoo River. Although her mother and sister lived on a plantation owned by Charles Pinckney in 1787, Eliza and her sister Hannah later became the property of Charles’s younger brother, Thomas Pinckney, and they apparently moved from Fee Farm to the adjacent Greenfield Plantation.[8] We’ll leave Eliza on the plantation for a moment while we follow the exploits of Thomas Pinckney back in Charleston.

Shortly after the conclusion of the American Revolution, Thomas Pinckney began a long-term relationship with an enigmatic woman named Margaret Price Robinson. Her name appears in just a handful of surviving documents, and I haven’t been able to discover anything about her background or her family. Margaret appears to have been a few years younger than Thomas Pinckney, perhaps born in the mid-1760s. She was apparently White or at least passing for White, and I suspect she came from a family that was far less affluent than the prominent Pinckney clan. For reasons unknown, Thomas carried on some sort of relationship with Margaret for approximately ten years before they became man and wife. During that decade, Margaret bore at least three children, two of whom survived to adulthood.[9] A daughter born around 1784 became known as Eliza Ann Pinckney and died unmarried in Charleston in the spring of 1817 at the age of 32.[10] A son, also born in the mid-1780s, became an officer in the United States Marine Corp and returned to Charleston in 1808 as Lieutenant Thomas H[enry]. Pinckney.[11]

Thomas Pinckney was either the father or surrogate father of the children Margaret Robinson bore in the 1780s. In either case, he did not consider them to be his legal heirs and did not mention them in his last will and testament. That document, however, identifies three legitimate heirs born in final decade of the eighteenth century. Thomas Pinckney and Margaret Price Robinson apparently married at some point in the early 1790s, although no record of their legal union can now be found. Henry Francis Pinckney, born in 1793, was followed two years later by Caroline Lavington Pinckney, and at the turn of the nineteenth century by Laura Alvina Pinckney. While this unconventional family dynamic might have generated tension and perhaps scandal within the broader Pinckney clan of the South Carolina Lowcountry, documents recorded in the early years of the nineteenth century demonstrate that the five surviving children born to Margaret Price Robinson Pinckney in the 1780s and the 1790s referred to each other amicably as brothers and sisters.

To accommodate his growing family in the latter years of the eighteenth century, Thomas Pinckney provided homes in both town and country. Greenfield Plantation near the Ashepoo River apparently included a furnished residence that sheltered the family for at least a portion of each calendar year. Like most planter families of the Lowcountry in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Pinckneys probably moved between their rural plantation and an urban townhouse to avoid summer fevers and to socialize in the local metropolis. The property in the parish of St. Bartholomew generated income from rice production and afforded Thomas with opportunities to engage in business with neighboring planters in the Ashepoo district.[12]

Within the urban confines of the City of Charleston, forty-odd miles east of Greenfield, Thomas chose an unconventional site to house his unconventional family. In a series of transactions executed after the American Revolution, Pinckney purchased several lots on the south side of Price’s Alley, where he apparently built a family residence and one or more rental tenements.[13] This narrow alleyway, which stretches nearly five hundred feet between Meeting and King Streets in urban Charleston, was created in 1749 as a causeway along the northern edge of what was once a large tannery owned by a merchant named Hopkin Price. After the death of Mr. Price in 1781, the State of South Carolina seized his estate, divided the soggy tannery grounds into thirteen lots, and sold them at auction in June 1783.[14] Several prominent business men of that era purchased building lots in Price’s Alley for investment purposes and erected cramped rental tenements that were leased to working-class tradesmen and free people of color. In short, Price’s Alley was not the sort of place one might expect to find the brother of the Governor of South Carolina at the end of the eighteenth century.

After nearly twenty years residence in Price’s Alley, the Pinckney-Robinson family suffered a significant disruption in the spring of 1803. On the afternoon of April 11th, a mysterious fire sparked within the garret of Thomas Pinckney’s “dwelling house” and quickly spread to the adjacent “nest of wooden houses, which,” said the local newspaper, “seemed to invite the flames.” To stop the spread of the conflagration, the Charleston Company of Axmen pulled down six wooden houses standing close by Pinckney’s residence, some of which were probably his own rental tenements.[15] In the aftermath of that tragedy, it’s unclear whether Thomas immediately rebuilt a residence on Price’s Alley or moved his family into rented quarters elsewhere in town. Two years after the fire, however, Pinckney acquired a piece of land in another unusual location for a man of his social status.

In the autumn of 1805, Thomas Pinckney bargained with a free woman of color named Margaret Daniel, a widowed pastry cook, to purchase a very small lot on the north side of Beresford Street (now 16–18 Fulton Street), near its intersection with Archdale Street. The property in question measured approximately forty-five feet along the street and just thirty feet deep, on which stood a small wooden single house wherein Mrs. Daniel formerly resided. The lot was surrounded by a picket fence and included a detached kitchen and outbuildings made necessary by the lack of running water.[16] This property formed part of a neighborhood once known as “Dutch Town,” which was settled predominantly by poor German immigrants and a handful of free people of color during the second half of the eighteenth century.

While the property Thomas purchased from Margaret Daniel might seem ill-suited to the needs of his large family, a later document clarifies his motivations. The Beresford Street residence was never intended to house his wife or any number of their five surviving children. Rather, it marked a bold step towards a new lifestyle that had commenced sometime before the autumn of 1805. Margaret Maria Pinckney, formerly Margaret Price Robinson, suffered from a debilitating illness that apparently confined her to the family’s country plantation. When she died on the 8th of March, 1810, an obituary in a Charleston newspaper stated that Margaret had long suffered from “a cruel and protracted disease, which baffled the efforts of all her physicians.”[17] While his young daughters attended their invalid mother at Greenfield, Thomas Pinckney stepped outside their home and marriage to commence an affair with a teenage mulatto girl named Eliza.

The steps in young Eliza’s journey into the arms of Thomas Pinckney around the turn of the nineteenth century are now obscure. Because South Carolina’s legal code concerning slavery dictated that the condition of the child followed the condition of the mother, was can reasonably assume that Eliza and her sister Hannah, daughters of the field hand known as “Jenny of Ashepoo,” were born into slavery.[18] As I described in Episode No. 146, owners of human chattel in South Carolina could emancipate their property with relative ease until a law ratified in 1820 rendered manumission nearly impossible. How and when Eliza became free and moved from Greenfield Plantation to Charleston are questions not answered by surviving documents, however, so we must use our imaginations to visualize the circumstances and negotiations preceding that significant change.[19]

The earliest known document concerning the young mulatto woman named Eliza Pinckney dates from December 1807, at which time I believe she was approximately eighteen or nineteen years of age. The document in question, a deed created by Thomas Pinckney, identifies her as a “free girl of colour” who was significantly younger than the forty-seven-year-old planter. On Christmas Day, Thomas presented the furnished residence on Beresford Street to Eliza Pinckney as a gift and “as an additional compensation to her for all her faithful services to me.” He stated that the premises in question, including the land and the buildings, “were purchased for the express purpose of bestoing [sic] them on Eliza Pinckney.” Henceforth, he empowered her to regard the property “as her own unquestionable and undoubtful property and right” for the rest of her life. After her death, Thomas ordered that the property should be shared equally by “such children, or children as she may have survive her, to be by me begotten” (emphasis original).

Thomas’s significant gift to Eliza, like his affections in general, came with stipulations. First, he reserved to himself “the full and unquestionable right to keep, retain and dispose of the above property during my own life, and, also at any time during my life, to annul and make void this deed and every thing contained therein, and to alter its destination should circumstances induce me to do so.” If he lost interest in Eliza, or if she rejected his future advances, we might imagine, Thomas reserved the right to eject her from the premises and install a new tenant in her place. Furthermore, as a postscript, Thomas made this and all of his future gifts to Eliza conditional on secrecy: “It is also particularly declared and understood that this deed shall not be recorded without my written permission thereon, during my life on the penalty of having the property herein conveyed immediately revert to me in consequence thereof and the deed to become void and of none effect.”[20]

In the parlance of our times, we might say that Thomas Pinckney created a “love nest” for his illicit relationship with young Eliza. The deed of gift he created in December 1807 alluded to the prospect of future children, but a document created nine months later suggests that the couple’s first child probably arrived before that memorable Christmas. On the last day of September 1808, Thomas conveyed to his infant daughter, Ellen or Mary Ellen, a lot of land on the south side of Price’s Alley that he had purchased many years earlier. This transaction was made, he declared in a formal deed of gift, “in consideration of the love and affection I have for my daughter Ellen Pinckney[,] daughter of Eliza Pinckney.” The girl was just an infant, but her father was already thinking about her future and that of her future siblings. If Ellen happened to die before reaching adulthood, said Thomas, the lot in question “shall become the property of the infant with which her mother Eliza is now at this time pregnant,” and remain “under the care and direction of her mother” until the day of her future marriage. As with the property on Beresford street given to Eliza in 1807, Thomas reserved the right to alter or annul the gift to Ellen at his discretion, and ordered the deed should not be recorded until after his death.[21]

Thomas Pinckney apparently owned or rented maintained another residence in urban Charleston during the final years of his life, but details of his domestic situation are now lacking.[22] In addition, he retained a house at Greenfield that he probably still visited periodically. Sometime after the death of his wife, Thomas conveyed to his White daughter Caroline a large variety of household furniture that he described in considerable detail. He identified this material as being “only a selection in her favor from the general furnitures [sic] of my house,” although he did not specify the location of the “residence” in question.[23]

At the same time that Thomas seemed to be liquidating assets belonging to the White sphere of his domestic life, he was also enlarging the resources allocated to his mulatto family. Eliza’s second child, foreshadowed in the deed of September 1808, made her appearance some months later as Harriett Pinckney. Shortly after her birth, Thomas purchased part of a neighboring lot on Beresford Street and extended his family’s property a further twenty-seven feet to the north. In August 1810, Thomas conveyed this additional land to Eliza “and her children by me begotten” with the same conditions prescribed in his previous gifts to them.[24]

“In consideration of the affection & regard I have for my children & their mother,” Thomas made another significant gift to Eliza Pinckney and her two daughters on the same day in 1810. He gave them fourteen enslaved men, women, and children who were to be transferred from Greenfield Plantation to serve Eliza and her daughters in urban Charleston. These were not simply anonymous servants, but people with whom Eliza had once lived on that rural landscape. In particular, Pinckney noted that the group included “Hannah, the sister of the said Eliza.” Besides the usual reservations and stipulations attached to his earlier gifts, Thomas reserved the right to exchange and replace any of these “Country Negroes” if they should perish from “the diseases and contagions of Charleston.” The recorded copy of this deed, transcribed shortly after Thomas’s death, includes several amendments that indicate that several substitutions were made in the months after the people moved from the country to the city.[25]

Eliza Pinckney gave birth to a third daughter, Mary, in the summer of 1813. One year later, Thomas Pinckney assigned to Mary a piece of property on the south side of Price’s Alley, next door to a lot he had given to the mother of his White children nearly thirty years earlier.[26] On the same day in 1814 that Thomas conveyed real estate to his youngest mulatto daughter, he also made another significant gift “in consideration of the regard & affection I have for Eliza Pinckney and the three children I have by her[,] Ellen, Harriett & Mary Pinckney.” His gift was to confirm their ownership of “all the furniture of every description which I have bought and at any time sent to them for their use and as their property and now contained in their house in Beresford Street,” which materials Thomas said had “long been in her & their actual possession.”

The furniture in question included “all the usual articles of furniture in a family such as beds mattrasses and beddings, curtains for beds, and windows[,] mahogany bed steads, cornices, sheets, quilts[,] counterpanes[,] bolsters, pillows & their cases &c. &c. mahogany celleretts [sic,] side boards[,] card tea dining work & other tables[,] tea china[,] tea trays, fancy & other chairs, easy chairs[,] glass & china ware[,] looking & chamber glasses, chests of drawers, carpets[,] trunks[,] brass chimney fire dogs, fenders[,] tongs[,] shovells [sic,] chimney ornaments, pictures, and[,] in fine[,] every thing of the kind inclusively on the premises in [the] house & kitchen.” Furthermore, Thomas specified that his gift included “also all their jewells [sic], ornaments, plate of silver & plated wares, clothings [sic], and whatever there may be in their possession, inclusively now & at the time of my death also, without any or any manner of reserve.”[27]

Thomas Pinckney must have been in declining health at the time he made these large gifts to his mulatto family in the summer of 1814. Three weeks later, in fact, he made his last will and testament. That document devised legacies to his “dear children,” Caroline, Laura, and Francis Henry Pinckney, but included no mention of Margaret Robinson’s eldest children, Thomas Henry and Eliza Ann, nor the mulatto family he created with Eliza Pinckney.[28] The senior Thomas had already bestowed property on those unconventional heirs, but the full scope of his benefaction was not clear to all members of the family. His efforts to cloak Eliza’s family in secrecy generated heartburn in the final year of his life.

Francis Henry Pinckney reached his twenty-first birthday shortly before his father drafted his will in August 1814. In an effort to generate some cash, Francis mortgaged part of his father’s property on the south side of Price’s Alley, apparently assuming the land would be part of his future inheritance. He did not know, or perhaps did not care, that his father had given the lot in question to his mulatto daughter, Ellen, several years earlier. The deed of gift to her, after all, was to be held in secret until after Thomas’s death. The father was furious when he learned that Francis had mortgaged the property without his knowledge, and immediately drafted a codicil to Ellen’s deed confirming “that the property is mine and mine alone, and he [Francis] had no right whatsoever in the said land.” Thomas declared his son’s mortgage “null and void” and left Francis to repay his debts with his own money.[29]

Thomas Pinckney died of dysentery in Charleston, perhaps at the home he had purchased for Eliza, on the second of September, 1815. A funeral service was held at St. Philip’s Church the following day, but he was interred nearby in the French Huguenot churchyard.[30] In the weeks after his death, a neighbor, Lewis Ogier, carried the several deeds relating to Eliza Pinckney’s various properties to the appropriate offices in Charleston to have them properly recorded.[31] If anyone in his family did not already know of Thomas’s double life, the details were now a matter of public record.

During the ten years preceding his death, Thomas had given Eliza Pinckney property, furniture, jewels, children, and freedom, but she held no claim to the residue of his worldly possessions. An inventory of Thomas’s estate, appraised in the spring of 1816, included twelve enslaved people at an unspecified location in urban Charleston and 108 enslaved people residing at Greenfield Plantation in Colleton County.[32] This property remained in the hands of Thomas’s five White heirs, most of whom did not long survive their father.

Francis Henry Pinckney died a few months after his father in December 1815.[33] The fate of his older brother, Lieutenant Thomas H. Pinckney, has not yet been found. Eliza Ann Pinckney, the eldest daughter of Thomas and Margaret, died unmarried in 1817.[34] Their middle daughter, Caroline Lavington Pinckney, married Alexander Talley of Fairfield District in the spring of 1818 and died three months later.[35] Their youngest daughter, Laura Alvina Pinckney, married Adam James Brown in Charleston in November 1818 and survived until the last days of 1851.[36]

Eliza Pinckney lived the remainder of her life at the house on Beresford Street that Thomas gave to her on Christmas Day, 1807. She appears in the annual capitation tax books that applied to free people of color in the City of Charleston, but those ledgers do not identify her occupation. In fact, Eliza did not follow any occupation because the gifts she received from Thomas Pinckney were intended to sustain her in some comfort for the rest of her days. The fourteen enslaved people he assigned to her in 1810 were not merely domestic servants to be housed within her small residence on Beresford Street. The deed gift allocated one personal servant to Eliza and to each of her children, while the remaining ten people were supposed to work and live beyond Eliza’s home and deliver their wages to her periodically. This practice of “hiring out,” once common in urban Charleston, broke down within the Pinkney household after Thomas’s death, however, and forced Eliza to seek legal help to sustain her income.

In January 1826, Eliza hired a White lawyer to petition the local Equity Court for permission to alter the deed of gift concerning her enslaved servants. Identifying herself as a “Free Mulatto” woman, Eliza complained that “she is totally unable to manage the said negroes in any way to make them productive to herself & children.” One man in particular, whom Eliza identified as Harry, was “always runaway and pays no wages.” She wanted to be rid of Harry, but the 1810 deed of gift from Thomas Pinckney made Eliza the administrator of fourteen enslaved people to be held trust for the benefit of her children. In other words, she lacked the legal authority to sell, emancipate, or otherwise dispose of the enslaved people she owned. Eliza therefore sought the court’s permission to sell Harry and to invest the proceeds arising from his sale “in property that will be more productive.”[37]

The learned chancellors approved Eliza’s request and ordered Harry to be disposed by public auction. His sale generated “about four hundred and twenty dollars,” which was paid into the hands of a commissioner appointed by the court to invest the funds on Eliza’s behalf. A year later, however, nothing had been done with the money. Eliza hired another lawyer in May 1827 to ask the court to prod the unidentified commissioner into action. The funds were desperately needed, said Eliza’s petition, because her “dwelling house” on the north side of Beresford Street was “at present in the most ruinous condition and is actually falling down for want of the necessary repairs thereto.” The enslaved servants given to her by Thomas Pinckney were supposed to generate income to sustain the family, but Eliza complained that they were uncooperative and “so very unprofitable it is impossible for her to make the necessary repairs to the said premises.”[38]

Unfortunately, no record of the court’s decision on this matter survives. Nevertheless, we know that Eliza and her daughters persevered and their home on Beresford Street survived for another half-century at least. Eldest daughter Ellen or Mary Ellen Pinckney married before 1830 one Thomas M. Holmes (1809–1906). A few years later, Mary Pinckney, Eliza’s youngest daughter, married William Mushington Jr. (died ca. 1845–49). Both of these husbands were the sons of free men of color in urban Charleston, and both were members of the city’s Brown Fellowship Society.[39] Harriett fate is yet unknown, but she appears to have died before her mother.[40]

Eliza Pinckney died of consumption on the seventh day of August 1839 at the age of about 52. The following day, a minister from St. Philip’s Episcopal Church read prayers at her funeral within the private cemetery of the Brown Fellowship Society. If there was once a marker over her grave, it disappeared long ago, and the cemetery now forms part of Rivers Green on the campus of the College of Charleston.[41]

Eliza’s daughters sold their interest in the property on Price’s Alley before the Civil War.[42] Mary Ellen Pinckney Holmes conveyed her interest in the Beresford Street property to her younger sister in 1852, and died in December 1858.[43] Mary Pinckney Mushington died in June 1879, and her children later sold the family homestead on Beresford Street.[44]  

Today’s program, although long-winded, represents just an outline of the life and times of Eliza Pinckney. My effort to reconstruct her biography is incomplete, of course, but I hope it inspires audiences to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks and gain a better understanding of her moment in history. How many other women of color in early South Carolina found themselves in circumstances just like Eliza, and how does her story compare to those of other enslaved women beyond the Palmetto State? By following the trajectory of Eliza’s journey over five decades, we gain unique insight into the experiences of an enslaved girl who transitioned to a life of relative freedom in Antebellum Charleston. Her story stands in contrast to that of her mother and sister, who remained enslaved, and of her daughters, who were born free. Ask any South Carolinian to identify Eliza Pinckney, and they’ll probably repeat the standard mythology surrounding Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s cultivation of indigo in colonial times. Perhaps now we can ask our neighbors if they’ve heard the more stimulating story of the other Eliza Pinckney.



[1] Charleston Courier, 13 April 1803, page 3, and in [Charleston, S.C.] City Gazette, 13 May 1805, page 3, identified him as Thomas H. Pinckney. He described himself as being “of St. Bartholomew’s” parish in a 1794 testimonial for schoolteacher William Nixon in City Gazette, 23 December 1794, page 2, a notice published in City Gazette, 25 May 1805, his 1807 and 1810 conveyances to Eliza Pinckney, and his 1814 will (see below).

[2] For more information about this branch of the Pinckney family tree, see Mabel L. Webber, “The Thomas Pinckney Family of South Carolina,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 39 (January 1938): 30; and Walker Edgar and N. Louise Bailey, eds., Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives, volume 2 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977), 522–24; and Marty D. Matthews, Forgotten Founder: The Life and Times of Charles Pinckney (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004).

[3] D. E. Huger Smith and A. S. Salley, Jr., eds., Register of St. Philip’s Parish, Charles Town or Charleston, S.C., 1754–1810 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971), 9, 11, 78.

[4] Matthews, Forgotten Founder, 24–26.

[5] Suzanne Cameron Linder, Historical Atlas of the Rice Plantations of the ACE River Basin (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press for the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995), 177, 188–92, 301–4, 545–47.

[6] See the inventory of the estate of Charles Pinckney (1732–1782) in South Carolina Department of Archives and History (hereafter SCDAH), Inventories and Appraisements Books, A (1783–1787), 506–10. The text related to the three Ashepoo plantations, made on 2 January 1787, appears on pages 507–9. The appraisers were William Webb, Edmund Bellinger Junior, John Godfrey, William Godfrey, and Thomas Pinckney (perhaps the son of the decedent). Note that the inventory of Greenfield also included two women named Jenny: one was “Old Cain & Jenny his wife,” valued at just £10 for the pair, and their two grown sons; the other was a single “field hand” named Jenny appraised at the middling value of £40.

[7] I have identified Jenny of Fee Farm Plantation as Eliza’s mother solely because of the presence of Jenny’s young daughter, Hannah, on the abovementioned 1787 inventory, which relationship conforms to a statement made by Thomas Pinckney in 1808. On 10 October of that year, Pinckney gave to his daughter, Caroline, “a negro girl slave named Jane[,] the daughter of Hannah and grand daughter of Jenny of Ashepoo.” See SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 4H: 403 (recorded on 5 December 1815). Thomas identified Hannah as the sister of Eliza Pinckney in an 1810 deed of gift described below.

[8] I have not found any record of Charles Pinckney conveying ownership of Hannah and Eliza to his brother Thomas Pinckney, but such a conveyance must have occurred before 1807.

[9] The names of the children of Margaret Price Robinson appear in several documents recorded between 1785 and 1811, but variations of nomenclature render it difficult to determine the precise number. A 1785 document mentions an “eldest son” named Thomas, while a 1786 document identifies a “second son” as Henry Thomas; see Thomas Pinckney to Margaret Robinson, deed of gift, 6 August 1785, SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 3B: 9–10; Thomas Pinckney Jr. to Margaret Price Robinson, lease and release, 19–20 March 1786, Charleston County Register of Deeds (hereafter CCRoD), F6: 93–96. On 9 May 1789, Margaret P. Robinson baptized three children at St. Philip’s Church—a girl named Eliza Ann and two boys named Thomas Francis and Robert Henry—but she did not articulate their surname or identify their father(s); see Smith and Salley, Register of St. Philip’s Parish, 1754–1810, 112. The two boys baptized in 1789 might or might not be synonymous with the two sons mentioned in the aforementioned deeds of 1785 and 1786.

[10] The will of Eliza A. Pinckney, dated 18 February 1817 was proved on 9 April 1817 and recorded in SCDAH, Will Book E (1807–1818), 630; WPA transcript volume 33 (1807–1818), pp. 1232–33. According to the manuscript burial register of St. Philip’s Church (available on microfiche at CCPL’s South Carolina History Room), this “Eliza Pinckney,” aged 32 years, died or was buried on 30 March 1817.

[11] Lt. Pinckney’s arrival from the City of Washington was announced in City Gazette, 12 April 1808, page 3. On 13 June 1809, Thomas H. Pinckney, “Lieut. in the Marine Corps of the United States,” sold to “my sister” Eliza Ann Pinckney, an enslaved woman named Rose and her children named Diana Robert, and Rosina; see SCDAH, Bills of Sale, volume 4D, page 50; recorded on 22 October 1810. Lieutenant Pinckney inherited Rose from his mother in conformity with the aforementioned 1785 deed of gift.

[12] See, for example, Godfrey estate notices in City Gazette, 13 May 1805, page 3; City Gazette, 25 May 1805, page 3.

[13] Pinckney failed to record the deeds of his purchases of Lots Nos. 8 and 9 in the 1783 subdivision of Hopkin Price’s land on the south side of Price’s Alley, but references to those purchases appear in subsequent deeds described later in this essay. These documents also demonstrate that Pinckney purchased from James Zealy the easternmost part of Lot No. 213 at the southeast corner of Price’s Alley and King Street, though that transaction was not recorded at the Charleston County Register of Deeds.

[14] For details about Hopkin Price, see Edgar and Bailey, Biographical Directory, 2: 540–41. The creation of the “new road or causeway” is described in a deed of release from Humphrey Sommers and his wife, Susanna, to Hopkin Price, 23 December 1749, in CCRoD N4: 424–29. Price’s lands were included in the auction of numerous confiscated properties held on 16 June 1783, announced in South Carolina Gazette and General Advertiser, 24 May 1783.

[15] Charleston Courier, 13 April 1803, page 3. The fire occurred on Monday, 11 April 1803.

[16] Mrs. Daniel purchased in 1802 a larger lot at the northeast corner of Archdale and Beresford Street (see Michael Keckely and Elizabeth, his wife, to Margaret Daniel, release, 28 August 1802, CCRoD K7: 141–43). In 1803 Mrs. Daniel leased to Charles Frost the easternmost portion “where she now resides” with permission to erect additional structures on the lot, which Mrs. Daniel might purchase at the expiration of the lease (see Margaret Daniel to Charles Frost, lease for twelve years, 1 January 1803, CCRoD: N7: 118–19). Mr. Frost died before September 1805 and Margaret Daniel reclaimed the said property and sold it to Thomas Pinckney (see Margaret Daniel to Thomas Pinckney Jr., conveyance, 26 September 1805, CCRoD, M8: 265). The disposition of the buildings erected by Frost was not recorded, but is mentioned below.

[17] Charleston Courier, 14 March 1810, page 3.

[18] See Section 1 of Act No. 670, “An Act for the better Ordering and Governing Negroes and other Slaves in this Province, ratified on 10 May 1740, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 397–417.

[19] On 5 March 2022, I searched through the Miscellaneous Records of the Secretary of State (Main Series) at SCDAH—a collection rich in pre-1820 manumissions and affidavits of freedom—and found no references to Thomas Pinckney or anyone else manumitting Eliza.

[20] Thomas Pinckney to Eliza Pinckney, conveyance, 25 December 1807, CCRoD M8: 266–67. In this conveyance, Thomas Pinckney explained that he had purchased “a lot of land from Mrs. Margaret Daniel and the buildings thereon from the exor. of the estate of Mr. Frost to whom they belonged.” The buildings and lot boundaries are depicted in a plat made by Charles Parker, City Surveyor, on 4 June 1838; see plat No. 495 in the John McCrady Plat Collection, CCRoD.

[21] Thomas Pinckney to Ellen Pinckney, conveyance, 30 September 1808, CCRoD M8: 268–70.

[22] Between the 1803 fire on Price’s Alley and Thomas’s death in 1815, references in the published city directories indicate that he and one or both of his White sons together moved house several times.

[23] Thomas Pinckney to Caroline Lavington Pinckney, deed of gift, no date; recorded on 5 December 1815 in SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 4H: 403–4.

[24] Thomas Pinckney to Eliza Pinckney, conveyance, 1 August 1810, CCRoD M8: 267–68. Thomas stated that he had purchased the land in question from Dorothy and John Phillips, but he neglected to record that transaction at the register’s office.

[25] Thomas Pinckney of St. Bartholomew’s Parish to Eliza Pinckney, deeds of gift, 1 August 1810 and 15 October 1810, in SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 4H: 336–338, 339–40 (both recorded on 5 October 1815).

[26] Thomas Pinckney to Mary Pinckney, conveyance, 30 July 1814, CCRoD M8: 270–72. The lot in question, part of Grand Model Lot No. 213, stood to the southwest of Lot No. 9 on the south side of Price’s Alley, which Thomas Pinckney had given to Margaret Robinson in 1786 (see above), and which Thomas H. Pinckney had inherited after Margaret’s death in 1810 and sold in 1811; see Thomas H. Pinckney to Thomas Ogier, conveyance, 13 December 1811, CCRoD D8: 450–51.

[27] Thomas Pinckney to Eliza Pinckney, et al., deed of gift, 30 July 1814; recorded on 5 October 1815 in SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 4H: 338–39.

[28] Will of Thomas Pinckney Jr., planter of St. Bartholomew’s Parish, dated 20 August 1814; proved on 6 September 1815; recorded in SCDAH, Will Book E (1807–1818), 518; WPA transcript volume 33 (1807–1818), pp. 986–88.

[29] See the undated codicil annexed to the deed of gift from Thomas Pinckney to Ellen Pinckney, 30 September 1808, CCRoD M8: 270.

[30] Pinckney’s death was reported in City Gazette, 5 September 1815, page 3; the cause of death and place of interment are mentioned in Elise Pinckney, ed., Register of St. Philip’s Church, Charleston, South Carolina: 1810 through 1822 ([Charleston, S.C.]: National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, 1973), 131.

[31] Shortly after Pinckney’s death, Lewis Ogier presented to public officials the original copies of Thomas Pinckney’s 1805 purchase from Margaret Daniel and the several deeds of gift to Eliza Pinckney. The materials Ogier presented to the Secretary of State were recorded among the “Miscellaneous Records” on 5 October 1815, while those presented to the Charleston District Register of Mesne Conveyance (now the Charleston County Register of Deeds) were recorded on 26 October 1815. Ogier also testified that he recognized the handwriting of Thomas Pinckney and confirmed that each of the documents were authentic.

[32] “Inventory and appraisement of the personal property of Thomas Pinckney Junr. late of Charleston, planter, deceased,” made by Joseph Righton, W. B. Minott, and Josiah Taylor on 26 April 1816, recorded in SCDAH, Inventory book E (1802–1819), 326–28. A second inventory of Pinckney’s personal property at Greenfield plantation, made on 18 October 1818, is recorded in SCDAH, Inventory book E (1802–1819), 534–35.

[33] Pinckney, Register of St. Philip’s Church, 1810–1822, 132.

[34] The will of Eliza A. Pinckney “of the City of Charleston,” dated 18 February 1817, mentions her sister, Laura Pinckney, godson Alwyn Lawrence Prince, and sister Caroline Lavington Pinckney, who acted as executor. The will was proved on 9 April 1817 and recorded in Will Book E (1807–1818), 630; WPA transcript volume 33 (1807–1818), 1232–33. The inventory of the estate of Eliza A. Pinckney appears in SCDAH, Inventory Book E (1802–1819), 429–30.

[35] City Gazette, 5 May 1818, page 2; City Gazette, 6 August 1818, page 2. Shortly after Caroline’s death, on 28 November 1818, Alexander Talley renounced his claim to any portion of the estate of Thomas Pinckney; see SCDAH, Miscellaneous Records (Main Series), 4Q: 98–99.

[36] Pinckney, Register of St. Philip’s Church, 1810–1822, 103. Laura died of “apoplexy” on 28 December 1851 at the age of 51 and was buried at Bethel Burial Ground, according to the manuscript “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston” held at the Charleston Archive of the Charleston County Public Library.

[37] Petition of Eliza Pinckney, filed 9 January 1826, SCDAH, Court of Equity (Charleston District), Equity Petitions, 1826, No. 54. Eliza did not personally draft the petition or appear in court; the docket of this petition indicates that R. Elfe and Thomas D. Condy represented her.

[38] Petition of Eliza Pinckney, filed 12 May 1827, SCDAH, Court of Equity (Charleston District), Equity Petitions, 1827, No. 43. The docket of this petition indicates that Eliza was represented by Frederick A. Ford.

[39] Brown Fellowship Society, Rules and Regulations of the Brown Fellowship Society (Charleston, S.C.: J. B. Nixon, 1844), 23–25. A copy of this rare pamphlet is held at the Avery Research Center at the College of Charleston, and a reproduction is available in CCPL’s South Carolina History Room.

[40] Harriett appears with Eliza Pinckney on Beresford Street in the 1827 Capitation Tax book for the City of Charleston. In later years, however, her sisters disposed of their joint property without Harriett’s participation—a fact that suggests she was no longer alive. See Mary Mushington, Ellen Holmes, and Thomas Holmes to F. G. Rolando, bill of sale, 15 January 1845, recorded on 28 July 1846 in SCDAH, Bills of Sale, volume 6B, page 62; Thomas M. Holmes and Ellen, his wife, to Mary Mushington, title to real estate, 28 July 1852, CCRoD F14: 198–99.

[41] The manuscript “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston,” held at CCPL, include the burial of a White female named Eliza Pinckney, aged 52, who died of consumption on an unspecified date during the week of 4–11 August 1839 and was buried at St. Philip’s Church. That record, which was compiled by a city clerk from individual returns supplied by the clerk of the church, is not entirely accurate. The manuscript burial register of St. Philip’s Church, 1823–1940, which is available on microfiche at CCPL’s South Carolina History Room, indicates that one “Pinckney Elizath,” an “f.c.” (free colored person), was buried at the “Brown fellowship burying ground” after a funeral service conducted by Rev. A. Kaufman “at the yard” on 8 August 1839.

[42] See Thomas Holmes and his wife, Mary Ellen, to Henry A. deSaussure, conveyance, 24 June 1846, CCRoD V11: 63–64; Thomas Holmes and his wife, Mary Ellen, to William Emmerly, title to real estate, 24 June 1846, CCRoD X11: 31–32.

[43] Thomas M. Holmes and Ellen, his wife, to Mary Mushington, title to real estate, 28 July 1852, CCRoD F14: 198–99. According to the “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston” within the Charleston Archive at CCPL, a free mulatto female named Ellen Holmes, aged 52, died at her residence on Rutledge Street of “ulcer of the leg” on 19 December 1858 and was buried at the Brown Fellowship cemetery.

[44] According to the “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston” within the Charleston Archive at CCPL, a “colored” female named Mary Mushington, aged 65 years and 11 months, died of consumption on 7 June 1879 at at 18 Beresford Street and was buried at the Brown Fellowship cemetery.



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