Friday, January 08, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The beginning of every January represents a fresh start as we begin a new year with hopes and goals for the coming months. This annual tradition is a well-established part of our modern culture, but it’s only one of a variety of other “new year” anniversaries that our forebears observed in generations past to mark the advent of a new life, monarch, institution, or entity. The various models and methods of new-year calculations in early South Carolina might seem arcane today, but a familiarity with their underlying concepts can help us better understand the past.

In our present culture, the first day of January marks the beginning of the calendar year, but this is a relatively new phenomenon that commenced in South Carolina in the year 1752. As I mentioned in an earlier podcast (see Episode No. 47), the European settlers who founded the Palmetto State in 1670 used the ancient Julian Calendar, which counted March 25th as the first day of the year. Britain and her American colonies switched to the updated Gregorian Calendar in January 1752, as most of Europe had already done long before us. For years after this switch, Americans continued to make a distinction between “old new year” and “new new year.”

Besides the familiar calendar new year, there are several other labels that we apply to various groupings of twelve months, and therefore several other ways to define the beginning of a “new year.” A movable date in late December, for example, marks the beginning of a solar new year that we call the winter solstice. Many of us work for organizations or agencies that mark the beginning of a fiscal new year on the first day of every July. Some varieties of “new year” that were common in earlier generations are, however, now less familiar to our modern society. How many Americans today can identify the regnal new year, or the civil new year of the city, state, or nation in which we live? And let’s not forget one’s personal new year, by which we each keep score of the years of our age. To better understand the time-keeping practices of our forebears, let’s explore the rationale of three important traditions.

 

The Regnal New Year

For millennia, various civilizations around the world reckoned the passage of time by counting the succession of years in which their respective supreme leaders held power. In the English language, each year of any monarch’s reign is called a “regnal year.” The regnal year did not commence on a fixed calendar date, but rather it varied from one monarch to another. Distinct from the monarch’s birthday and his/her “coronation day,” the regnal anniversary commenced on their “accession day”—the date on which the reign of one monarch ended and the reign of a new monarch commenced.

The practice of counting regnal years isn’t limited to English history, of course. Much of what we know about the chronology of the ancient world is based on the regnal calendars used by various civilizations, including the successive Egyptian pharaohs, Chinese emperors, Roman emperors, Christian popes, medieval kings and queens, and so on. The well-known phrase “Anno Domini,” or “year of our Lord,” represents an early-Christian, retrospective calculation of the birth of the historical figure called Jesus. It is, therefore, a sort of regnal year, but its chronology was based on the succession, or regnal years, of various Roman rulers who held power during the lifetime of Jesus.

Like a birthday or a wedding anniversary, many cultures marked the annual occurrence of a monarch’s accession day with festivities and slogans like “long live the king” or queen. In England, the custom of marking the monarch’s accession day with a mandatory public celebration commenced during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and has continued to the present. This tradition of counting and celebrating regnal years came to South Carolina in mid-April of the year 1670, when a small group of English settlers landed at Albemarle Point (now Charles Towne Landing State Historic Site). From that moment, which occurred during the twenty-second year of the reign of King Charles II (which officially commenced on January 30th, 1648/9, immediately after the death of his father, Charles I), Carolina colonists routinely used the English regnal year to mark the chronology of important events. Whenever the members of the South Carolina General Assembly commenced a new session or ratified a new law, for example, they recorded both the calendar date and the regnal year of the sitting monarch. Official proclamations made by the early governors of South Carolina always included an expression of the regnal year. The British warships that were stationed in Charleston harbor during the colonial era (see Episode No. 148) routinely fired their cannon in observation of His Majesty’s accession day, which was sometime called “proclamation day,” and toasted the beginning of another regnal year.

The practice of counting and observing the regnal years of the various monarchs who reigned over early South Carolina is more than a curious footnote to our history. Knowledge of this custom can also provide a useful tool for solving chronological ambiguities. If you’re trying to reconstruct your own family tree, or tracing the history of a specific house or property in the area, you’re bound to encounter a situation where the precise chronology gets a bit fuzzy. In such circumstances, one’s familiarity with the regnal succession might provide the solution. I’ll give you two examples to demonstrate this point.

In the early 1730s, a group of men calling themselves the “trustees of the Presbyterian Meeting” in Charleston purchased a small lot of land on the west side of Meeting Street. This purchase represented the beginning of the first Presbyterian church in South Carolina, which was formed by a group of people who split from the Congregational Meeting House a bit further north on the opposite side of Meeting Street. If you look at various books and articles about the history of the Presbyterian church in this area, you’ll find some discrepancy about the date of the founding of the first meeting house. Some sources say the trustees or elders purchased the lot in Charleston in the year 1733, while others assert that the transaction took place in 1734. To determine which is correct, you might visit the office of the Charleston County Register of Deeds to view the official, recorded manuscript, which is now nearly three hundred years old.

The manuscript property conveyance from James and Elizabeth Stobo to the Presbyterian trustees consists of two documents—a “lease” and separate “release” executed the following day—dated respectively March 15th and 16th, 1733. According to the Julian Calendar, which was in use in South Carolina at that moment, this transaction took place at the end of the year 1733. According to the Gregorian Calendar, however, the dates in question fell within the early part of the year 1734. A helpful way of expressing this dual chronological perspective would be to render the year with a stroke or slash—1733/4—that acknowledges that the date in question carries two different meanings according to the two different calendars. But the men who created this document in Charleston in the third decade of the eighteenth century did not use the helpful slash; they simply wrote the dates March 15th and March 16th, 1733. Generations later, some readers who were less familiar with the old Julian Calendar looked at this colonial-era document and assumed that the transaction in question took place in the early days of the year 1733. More cautious readers, however, will look at this ambiguity and wonder—is there any way to determine conclusively whether the Presbyterians purchased this site for their church in 1733 or 1734?

The answer, of course, is yes. Just look for the expression of the regnal year. The texts of both the manuscript lease and release indicate that the conveyance occurred on March 15th and 16th “in the seventh year of the reign of our sovereign Lord George II.” The reign of King George II of Great Britain commenced on 11 June 1727; the second year of his reign commenced on 11 June 1728, the third regnal year on 11 June 1729, and so on. Thus the seventh regnal year of George II commenced on 11 June 1733 and ended on 10 June 1734. The dates March 15th and 16th “in the seventh year” of George II occurred, therefore, in the year 1733/4, or, more simply, in the spring of the year identified as 1734 on the modern Gregorian Calendar, not 1733.[1]

The documentary records of colonial-era South Carolina (and the British colonies in general) are filled with many thousands of similar examples of chronological conundrums. I’ll mention just one more example to solidify the point. Consider the document confirming George Anson’s purchase of the land that later became known as Ansonborough. The manuscript “release” of the property from Thomas Gadsden to Captain Anson is dated March 24th, 1726. Curious readers might look at this date and wonder—is that the last day of the year 1726, according to the old Julian Calendar, or the 85th day of the Gregorian Calendar for the year 1726 or perhaps 1727? Again, the description of the regnal year provides the definitive answer. Anson’s purchase took place on March 24th “in the thirteenth year of the reign of our sovereign Lord George by the Grace of God of Great Britain, France & Ireland King Defender of the Faith &ca.” The reign of King George I commenced on August 1st, 1714; the thirteenth and final year of his reign commenced on August 1st, 1726, and continued to his death on June 11th, 1727. Anson’s purchase in Charleston therefore took place on March 26th, 1726/7, or simply 1727 on the Gregorian Calendar, not 1726.[2]

 

The Personal New Year

Anyone who has traced their family tree more than a century back in time, or has perused the obituaries printed in early American newspapers, or rambled through an old cemetery, has probably encountered a curiously antique but practical manner of expressing someone’s age. Rather than the present custom of defining a person’s age by their most recent birthday, it was more common in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to express a person’s age by counting forward from their most recent birthday. When a person is born, he or she begins the first year of their age, which continues until they reach the first anniversary of their birth, or “turn” one-year-old, as we say today. At that point, the one-year-old child begins the second year of his or her age, and so on. Our respective birthdays are, therefore, our own personal new-year anniversaries.

When an old document describes a woman as being “in the fiftieth year of her age,” for example, it means that she has witnessed forty-nine anniversaries of her birth, and the fiftieth consecutive new year of her life has already commenced. In modern language, we would identify this woman as being forty-nine years old, which is sort of a retrospective way to look at age. In the past, however, the custom was to count forward from the birthdate. Our hypothetical forty-nine-year-old woman was strolling confidently through the fiftieth “year of her age.”

You might think this chronological observation is a bit pedantic, like the question of whether a glass is half-full or half-empty, but it’s an important point if you’re trying to describe someone’s age accurately. Consider the case of Mrs. Eliza Frances Rugge Carrere, a native of London who died in Charleston on March 15th, 1876. According to her tombstone, which you’ll find in the graveyard of St. John’s Lutheran Church on Archdale Street, Eliza was “in the 95th year of her age.” Note that she was wasn’t ninety-five years old, but rather in the ninety-fifth “year of her age.” According to the civil record of her death (which is recorded among the weekly “Return of Deaths within the City of Charleston”, held in the Charleston Archive of the Charleston County Public Library), Mrs. Carrere was aged ninety-four years and three months at the time of her death. Thanks to the contrasting information provided by these two sources, we can confirm that she was born in December 1781 and died before reaching the ninety-fifth anniversary of her birth.

Similarly, the newspaper obituary of Jacob Eckhard, a well-known Charleston musician of his day, stated that he had been born in Germany on November 24th, 1757, and died on November 10th, 1833. A bit of quick arithmetic shows that Mr. Eckhard had witnessed seventy-five birthdays, and was just two weeks short of turning seventy-six. His tombstone, also at St. John’s Lutheran Church, correctly expresses this chronology in the antique manner: “He died . . . in the 76th year of his age.”[3]

I’ll give you one final example that demonstrates the importance of recognizing this alternative manner of expressing age. Robert Tradd of Charleston, whose family name is applied to Tradd Street, died on March 30th, 1731. His tombstone, which once stood in the graveyard of the Circular Congregational Church, on the east side of Meeting Street, carried an inscription that identified Robert Tradd as “the first male child, born in this town.” The inscription did not provide a birthdate, however, but merely stated that he died “in the 52d year of his age.”[4] So, in what year was Robert Tradd born?

At the time of his death on March 30th, 1731, Mr. Tradd had completed fifty-one years of life and was progressing towards the fifty-second anniversary of his birth. We don’t know the exact date of his birthday, so there will always be some margin of error in our conclusion. If he was born sometime between January 1st and March 29th, and had just turned fifty-one shortly before his death on March 30th, 1731, then he was definitely born early in the year 1680. If he was born sometime between March 30th and December 31st, however, then he would have completed the fifty-second year of his age, or “turned” fifty-two, as we say today, at some point later in the year 1731. In that case, he would have been born in the year 1679. Again, we don’t know the date of Robert Tradd’s birth, but, from a statistical perspective, it’s more likely that he was born in 1679 than in 1680. That is to say, Mr. Tradd might well have been born on the peninsula of Oyster Point some months before it was renamed Charles Town in the spring of 1680.

 

The Civil New Year

The final variety of new year that I’ll address is what we might call the “civil” new year, which is as sort of mashup between the aforementioned regnal and personal varieties. Mortal monarchs come and go like the leaves of a tree, but cities, states, and nations endure for much longer periods. Such civil entities have “birthdates,” if you will, and thus have anniversaries that their citizens commemorate in various ways. The Continental Congress first declared the sovereignty of the United States of America on July 4th, 1776, and that date marked the beginning of the first year of the independence of the new nation. Americans of that era, who were used to the regular expression of British regnal years, immediately began describing events in chronological relation to the birth of the nation. On March 26th, 1778, for example, in the second year of the independence of the United States of America, South Carolina adopted a new constitution and declared itself a sovereign, independent state.

Similarly, a convention of the South Carolina representatives meeting in Charleston ratified the United States Constitution on May 23rd, 1788. The document recording this historic event noted that it occurred “in the 12th year of the independence of the United States of America,” which, to be clear, it just before the country had completed its twelfth year of existence. If you browse through the manuscript journals of our state legislature, the texts of our state laws, city ordinances, and even local property conveyances, you’ll find thousands of references to the chronology of the independence of the United States, from 1776 through the year 1860. Following South Carolina’s secession from the Federal Union in December of that year, this long-lived civic custom immediately vanished. Although South Carolina was restored to the Union in July 1868 (see Episode No. 55), the tradition of marking the year of our nation’s age in the antique manner fell out of favor as we moved into the Reconstruction Era and beyond.

At some point in the early twentieth century, most Charlestonians and most Americans switched from the old manner of expressing the years of one’s age to a fixation on one’s most recent birthday. This modern practice of saying that someone or something is X number of years old is simple and convenient, but it can lead to misunderstandings. For example, the recent civic commemoration of Charleston’s 350th anniversary in the year 2020, which was effectively scuttled by the Corona virus pandemic, was based on the modern form of chronological reckoning that focuses on the anniversary of an event that took place in mid-April 1670. Consider, on the other hand, if we were to calculate the city’s age using the old-fashioned method. On an unknown date in mid-April 1670, Charleston commenced the first year of its age. The same date in mid-April 1671 marked the beginning of the town’s second year, and so on. According to this manner of counting, the 350th year of Charleston’s existence commenced in mid-April 2019 and continued to mid-April 2020, at which time the Palmetto City completed the 350th year of its age. The recently-planned commemoration was to take place, therefore, during the 351st year of the city’s age.

This diversion into the weeds of human chronology might seem pedantic to some, but these are issues and questions that I encounter every day in my work as a historian. If you’re studying your own family, or reading about the lives of other people living in Charleston or anywhere else in the world, a familiarity with many types of “new years” can help you interpret and understand the past. Regardless of how we humans calculate or express our own chronology, time marches on. At the beginning of this new calendar year, I hope the years of your age are both plentiful and peaceful.

 

 

[1] James Stobo and Elizabeth, his wife, to James Abercromby, John Allen, Daniel Crawford, John Bee, John Fraser, George Ducatt, and James Paine, trustees of the Presbyterian Meeting in Charleston, lease and release, 15–16 March 1733/4, Charleston County Register of Deeds, book CC: 102–16.

[2] Thomas Gadsden to George Anson, lease and release, 23–24 March 1726/7, Charleston County Register of Deeds, book F: 89–99.

[3] See Eckhard’s obituary in Charleston Courier, 15 November 1833.

[4] Mabel L. Webber, ed., “Inscriptions from the Independent or Congregational (Circular) Church Yard, Charleston, S.C.,” South Carolina Genealogical and Historical Magazine 29 (January 1928): 57.

 

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