Friday, December 04, 2020 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

The trees standing along the periphery of Charleston’s urban streets contribute greatly to the city’s beauty and historic atmosphere. We often take their stately presence for granted, but the street trees we see today haven’t always been there. Our streets were largely naked in the colonial era, and the urban tree canopy grew slowly. Palmettos, live oaks, magnolias and crepe myrtles line the streets of Charleston today, but they stand in place of earlier generations of less familiar species. The story of when, where, and why these trees arose is rooted deep in the city’s past.

The first Friday in December is Arbor Day across South Carolina, and once again I’m doing my bit to raise awareness about the value of trees in our community. Last year I created a program about the shady history of trees standing along rural roads in the Lowcountry of South Carolina (see Episode No. 137), and alluded to a similar story about the urban treescape. Today we’re going to delve into this urban topic and focus on the early generations of the City of Charleston. Keep in mind, however, that the concepts and themes mentioned in this program could be applied to other urban communities, such as North Charleston, Mount Pleasant, West Ashley, Camden, Columbia, Greenville, and every other town and village in the county. I’m focusing on urban Charleston because that’s the site of our community’s deepest urban roots, and therefore the source of the longest trail of evidence.


Speaking of evidence, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate the history of street trees from that of their immediate neighbors, the streets and sidewalks, because these three elements of the urban landscape evolved as a group. Because story of street trees is rooted in the streets (pun intended), we’ll begin with a brief introduction of local street history. More detailed discussions of streets, sidewalks, and paving materials will have to wait for future conversations.

The streets of urban Charleston, like those of every other municipal entity, form a public right-of-way belonging to the community as a whole. That right-of-way encompasses the entire breadth of the street, including the margin of each side reserved for a pedestrian footpath, commonly called a sidewalk. When we say that Broad Street is sixty-six feet wide, for example, that figure includes the sidewalks on both sides. Today we take it for granted that our local government maintains the streets and sidewalks and everything relating thereto, but such was not the case in earlier times. Charleston, the capital and principal town of the colony of South Carolina, was an unincorporated town for more than a century. During that long era, the provincial government passed only a handful of laws related to the administration of its urban streetscape.[1]

In the 1670s, the provincial government paid for a surveyor to lay out the town streets on the ground, but did little else with the streets for many decades. This was a frontier settlement in the late seventeenth century, and the colonial legislature expected citizens to shoulder much of the early work. In April 1685, for example, South Carolina’s provincial government ratified a law requiring properties owners in urban Charleston to clear “all bushes, stumps, young pines, and weeds” from the street in front of their respective properties, and, at their own expense, to keep such streets clear in the future.[2] Once the streets were cleared, it was time to create sidewalks. In October 1698, the provincial government ordered the owners of private property in urban Charleston to create six-foot-wide sidewalks in front of their respective houses and lots using crushed oyster shells.[3] In March 1735, the provincial government began laying the town’s first drain down the center of the east end of Broad Street, and required abutting property owners to contribute to the project.[4] Beyond these acts, and the creation of a few subsequent drains in the town’s principal streets, local government did nothing to protect, pave, maintain, repair, or beautify the streets of urban Charleston before the year 1750. If there were any trees standing along the margins of the streets at that time, they were planted and maintained by the adjacent property owners who benefitted from their shade.

In the late winter of 1750, the South Carolina Commons House of Assembly was contemplating the need for a law to regulate the streets of urban Charleston. After listening to complaints from citizens for many years, the House appointed several members to form a committee to make recommendations. Their subsequent report led to a discussion of the most necessary points, and the House resolved to appoint a board of commissioners to oversee the streets. The House then ordered the gentlemen responsible for drafting the bill to “insert a clause . . . to empower the commissioners . . . to plant trees in such of the streets in the said town as they shall think necessary.”[5] Why, you might ask, would the members of South Carolina’s elected assembly in 1750 recommend the planting of trees in the street of urban Charleston? They did not record a reason at the time, but we can extrapolate a few ideas from later public discussions of this topic.

Mature trees provided shade from the intense rays of the sun, for example. The pedestrians using Charleston’s sidewalks appreciated this cooling relief on hot summer days. Their upright trunks also helped to define the boundary between the central carriageway and the marginal footpaths or sidewalks of our unpaved streets. The placement of trees along the margins of the streets, preferably in straight lines and planted at regular intervals, also contributed to the aesthetic beauty of the town. By 1750, Charleston was no longer a frontier community, and its inhabitants were likely eager to create a visual impression of maturity and urbane sophistication. Admiring the great towns and cities of Europe, especially the newest and most fashionable neighborhoods of London, the elite citizens of South Carolina knew that barren streets in their capital town reflected poorly on their civic aspirations.[6]

Despite their desire to line the streets of Charleston with rows of elegant trees, the members of the provincial government were unwilling to tax themselves and their neighbors to pay for such civic luxuries. They would not actively commission such plantings, but they would passively encourage the citizens to do it at their own, private expense. The final draft of the street bill, ratified on the last day of May, 1750, created a board of commissioners to superintend Charleston’s urban streetscape. We’ll save a full discussion of their legacy for a future conversation, but for the moment we’ll just follow the trees. The 1750 law included the following important clause: “That it shall and may be lawful for the owner or proprietor of any lands fronting any of the streets in the said town to plant such trees with the consent of the said commissioners but not otherwise as they shall think convenient and also to enclose such trees to prevent their being destroyed.”[7]

The street law of 1750 recognized that property owners abutting the streets desired to plant trees in front of their respective properties, in the shared right-of-way. Rather than pay for such trees, the provincial government would simply facilitate and regulate such planting through the board of street commissioners. Yes, you can plant a tree in front of your house, and build a little wooden box around it so horses don’t chew the bark, but that planting and box had to approved and regulated by the commissioners, who had the power to remove said tree if they thought it necessary. This 1750 requirement might seem invasive, but remember that we’re talking about the private alteration of a public space. It isn’t very different from a modern ordinance requiring a property owner to get municipal permission to plant, trim, or remove a tree standing in the public right-of-way.

In August 1764, The South Carolina General Assembly revised and expanded the statue for keeping clean the streets of urban Charleston. The new law included the same clause encouraging citizens to plant street trees under the supervision of the Commissioners of the Streets and added two new features to the urban streetscape. The commissioners were henceforth empowered to cause “posts to be fixed in any of the said principal streets, and footways [that is, sidewalks] levelled and paved for the safety and convenience of foot passengers.”[8]

The first part of this 1764 clause initiated the planting of wooden posts in rows along the edges of Charleston’s streets. Placed at intervals like bollards, these posts were intended to help define the boundary between the carriageway and the sidewalk and therefore protect the pedestrians from the faster-moving traffic in the street. The second innovation of the revised street statute of 1764 was the paving of the sidewalks. Shortly after its ratification, in October 1764, the Commissioners of Streets advertised in the Charleston newspaper soliciting bids “for paving a regular footway (with good and well burnt bricks, laid flat in mortar) on each side of the principal streets of the said town.” The commissioners also announced their desire to procure a large number of “cedar posts, eight feet long, and six inches square.” Property owners who chose to lay such brick pavements at their own expense in front of their own homes were free to do so, as in 1698, but only “under [the] inspection of the commissioners.”[9]

In contrast to many government-funded projects in the early history of South Carolina, contemporary evidence suggests that the Commissioners of Streets acted quickly to begin paving Charleston’s sidewalks with brick. By the end of December 1764, Charleston’s street commissioners were warning citizens to keep their horses, hand-carts, and wheelbarrows off of the “the new-laid pavements” on each side of the town’s principal streets.[10] In late May 1765, Philadelphia merchant Pelatiah Webster walked the streets of Charleston and took note of the solid sidewalks. The town’s sandy streets, Webster observed, “are not paved except the footways within the posts, ab[ou]t 6 feet wide, which are paved with brick in the principal streets.”[11] Beginning in late 1764 in streets like Broad, Meeting, East Bay, Tradd, and Queen, the Commissioners of Street continued paving the sidewalks of smaller streets in subsequent years.

This slight diversion into sidewalk history might seem unrelated to our focus on street trees, but the two stories overlap—eventually. From the earliest legal mention of trees in the streets of Charleston in 1750 to the beginning of the twentieth century, the trees were planted along the edge of the carriageway, outside of the sidewalk. The sidewalks or footpaths were exclusively for pedestrian use, and no obstacles or obstructions were allowed. As Pelatiah Webster noted in 1765, the town’s paved sidewalks were along the edges of the streets, “within the posts.” Charleston’s early street trees and wooden posts were, therefore, interchangeable features intended to create a visual and physical line of demarcation between the carriageway and the footpath. The wooden posts served a useful purpose but weren’t very attractive and didn’t last long. Many were eventually replaced by iron posts, stone bollards, and even old cannon. Well-maintained trees, on the other hand, endured for many years while providing cooling shade to passing pedestrians and adding natural beauty to the streetscape.

I know of no eighteenth-century sources that mention the number and varieties of trees planted in the streets of colonial-era Charleston. We might imagine that early citizens planted native trees that were readily available and well-adapted to the climate and soil, like the evergreen palmetto, live oak, and magnolia. The earliest documentary evidence related to this topic suggests, however, that Charleston’s early population of street trees was dominated by non-native species imported from Asia. The first tree (that I have found) positively identified as a common street tree in urban Charleston is the so-called “Pride of India” tree, also known as the “chinaberry” tree (Melia azedarach). This tree is a medium-sized deciduous member of the mahogany family that produces berries commonly eaten by birds and horses. In many respects, it’s similar to the Asian crepe myrtle tree that dominates the urban streetscape of modern Charleston.

Physician and historian David Ramsay, who settled in Charleston in 1773, later stated that Thomas Lamboll (1694–1774) was the first person in South Carolina to plant the “Pride of India” tree in his famous garden at the southwest end of King Street.[12] If that story is true—and we have no reason to doubt Dr. Ramsay—then Mr. Lamboll was cultivating Pride of India trees in Charleston during the third quarter of the eighteenth century, at the same time the Commissioners of Streets began supervising the urban streetscape. Thomas Lamboll might also have been responsible for introducing the second most common street tree of early Charleston, the so-called “male mulberry” or “paper mulberry” tree (Broussonetia papyrifera). This species is also a medium-sized deciduous tree imported from Asia, and, like the Pride of India, might have been introduced into the Charleston streetscape in the second half of the eighteenth century.[13]

Records documenting the activities of Charleston’s early Commissioners of Streets have long since disappeared, but a handful of other sources contain useful information about the city’s first street trees. The Pride of India tree, for example, was sufficiently common in Charleston by 1793 that specimens were offered for sale at the local garden center called Watson’s Garden (now under the Post and Courier building at the northeast corner of King and Columbus Streets). It was also available across the rural Lowcountry, as demonstrated by a 1793 newspaper story containing a country recipe for making a cathartic tea from Pride of India bark.[14] In 1826, local architect Robert Mills stated that the sidewalks of urban Charleston were “well paved with brick, and many of them ornamented with melia azedaracha, or pride of India.”[15] A municipal report published in 1848 stated that the street trees of Charleston, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, were dominated by just two species, the Pride of India and the paper mulberry.[16]

The street trees planted in Charleston before the American Revolution—whatever their number and variety—probably did not survive the war. There was no municipal government to protect or care for the trees, and wartime shortages of money and fuel probably compelled citizens to chop down street trees for firewood. When the unincorporated town of Charles Town was incorporated as the City of Charleston in August 1783, the South Carolina General Assembly specified that the new city council “shall also be vested with all the powers and authorities which, by law, are vested in the commissioners of the streets” and other quasi-government agencies.[17] From August 1783 onward, therefore, the street trees of the incorporated City of Charleston became the responsibility of our municipal government.

In the early years of post-war recovery, Charleston’s new City Council did little to encourage the planting of street trees. The local economy struggled for several years as war debts and broken infrastructure hampered the recovery. Some home owners apparently planted trees in front of their houses, however, just as the Commissioners of Streets had encouraged in the 1750s. In October 1788, the city ratified an ordinance to protect such trees planted by private citizens in the public right-of-way. That law, which was repeated and continued by various ordinances up to the present, made it a crime to “break down, destroy, injure or remove any of the trees planted and growing, or which shall hereafter be planted and growing on the edge of the pavement of the streets of this city, or any of the boxes encompassing the same.”[18]

Although there is no surviving evidence that Charleston’s municipal government actively planted any trees in the years after the city’s incorporation, a new spirt of passive encouragement commenced in the mid-1790s. The aesthetic value of trees and their contribution of cooling shade were well-known and accepted by that time, but the newest reason for cultivating urban trees was rooted in cutting-edge science. Starting in 1792 and continuing for many years, urban Charleston experienced a number of annual epidemics of yellow fever.[19] We now know that this often-fatal sickness is spread by mosquitos, but the leading scientific minds of the eighteenth century believed that yellow fever and other illnesses arose from breathing bad air; more specifically, air corrupted by the effluvia or miasma arising from rotting vegetative and animal matter and “excited” by the solar energy of the sun.[20] With citizens dying in large numbers every autumn, the City Council of Charleston turned to the Medical Society of South Carolina for advice.

In late April 1795, the intendant of Charleston asked the Medical Society of South Carolina to advise City Council on “the best modes of preventing the introduction of contagious diseases into the city during the ensuing summer, & autumn months.” The Medical Society immediately appointed a committee to make a list of recommendations, which they read and adopted on May 1st and forwarded to the intendant. Second among the society’s recommendations was this simple statement: “that trees should be planted before the houses of the citizens.”[21] City Council accepted and adopted the Medical Society’s advice on May 5th, 1795, but the loss of city records from this era precludes us from learning exactly what was done to improve the health of urban Charleston in the ensuing months and years.[22]

Lacking direct evidence from the 1790s, we are left to wonder why the Medical Society of South Carolina recommended the planting of trees to improve the health of the city. Fortunately for us, however, a number of Charlestonians living in 1795 posed the same question.[23] In the summer of 1795, and in many subsequent years, local physicians and arboreal advocates sent essays to the local newspapers to explain the role of trees in promoting health. Several individuals working independently in the 1770s, including Joseph Priestly and Antoine Lavoisier, had identified the chemical elements that form the air that we breathe. Oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements in various proportions were necessary for life, and further scientific experiments had demonstrated that trees played an important role in producing clean air. Through the process of photosynthesis, tree leaves absorb “bad air” or carbon dioxide and produce healthful oxygen. An anonymous correspondent to the Charleston City Gazette explained these principals in June 1795 and offered the following advice:

“The citizens are advised, with a view to prevent or lessen the influence of contagion, to have trees planted about their houses. . . . With a sufficient number of trees, we need not dread the calmest seasons; they will gladly receive at the hands of the scavengers the most offensive vapours, and quickly repay the citizens with a plentiful supply of pure salubrious air. Nor are their advantages confined to sickly seasons: they are the great fountains which nature has appointed to supply the air with a due proportion of that part on which animal life depends. Every advantage, therefore, which can result from a ready supply of this in the preservation and enjoyment of health, must be promoted by them. . . . The elm, the tallow tree, the pride of India, and the Lombardy poplar, claim attention for beauty, shade, quickness of growth and efficacy in producing the desirable end: for while they excel the willow in most respects, it is perhaps in no very great degree that they fall short [of the willow] in absorbing noxious [gases], and emitting air of wholesome qualities.”[24]

Although there is no surviving evidence that the City of Charleston actively planted or cultivated street trees in the late 1790s or into the early years of the nineteenth century, the local population certainly made efforts to increase the number of urban trees. The city continued to enforce the law protecting street trees, and local physicians continued to sing their praises. Peer pressure from other American cities also spurred this mode of civic improvement. Citizens in larger cities like New York and Philadelphia, for example, were advising their respective municipal governments to reserve public space for trees in their urban streetscape. “It is just as easy to plant ranges of trees in [the] streets so as to enable man and beast to walk the whole day in the shade,” said a New York correspondent in 1796, “as to neglect that provision, and to hire hospitals and men to take care of the sick.”[25] The streets in the nearby city of Savannah were well-shaded by rows of trees, said a correspondent in 1800, and Charleston should emulate her example. “The effects of trees are to keep the ground beneath them cool, and the air in motion in the stillest time; to diminish the violence of the solar heat, and to purify the atmosphere (which we breathe) by drawing from it all putrid and noxious vapours, which are food to them but death to us.”[26]

By the 1820s, as Robert Mills observed in his Statistics of South Carolina, many of the streets of urban Charleston were ornamented with rows of shade-giving deciduous trees like the Pride of India and the paper mulberry. Neither of those trees can be found on the city’s streets today, however, due to a dramatic Antebellum episode in the history of Charleston’s urban streetscape. In a swift and purposeful campaign launched in the autumn of 1837, the City of Charleston cut down all of the street trees and passed a law prohibiting citizens from replanting the two most popular species. What reasons prompted such mass destruction, and what species appeared in the aftermath? Tune in next week, when we’ll follow the renewal of Charleston’s urban street trees from the 1830s to the present.



[1] For more information about the early government of Charleston, see Episode No. 56.

[2] Act No. 25, “An Act for the clearing the lotts and streetes of Charles-town, and for the settlement and regulation of a night-watch in the said towne,” ratified on 11 April 1685, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 7 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 1.

[3] Act No. 162, “An Act for settling a Watch in Charles Town, and for preventing of Fires,” ratified on 8 October 1698, in McCord, Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 7: 12.

[4] The text of Act No. 588, “An Act for sinking a Drain in Broad-street, in Charles Town, and for cleansing and regulating the said street,” ratified on 29 March 1735, was not included in the published Statutes at Large of South Carolina, but is found among the engrossed acts of the General Assembly at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia.

[5] J. H. Easterby and Ruth S. Green, eds., Colonial Records of South Carolina: The Journal of the Commons House of Assembly, March 28, 1749—March 19, 1750 (Columbia: South Carolina Archives Department, 1962), 388 (2 February 1749/50).

[6] The British background of South Carolina’s man-made treescape is amply described in Mark Johnston, Trees in Towns and Cities: A History of British Urban Aboriculture (Havertown, Pa.: Windgather Press, 2015), and Mark Johnston, Street Trees in Britain: A History (Havertown, Pa.: Windgather Press, 2017).

[7] The text of Act No. 775, “An Act for keeping the Streets in Charles Town clean, and establishing such other regulations for the security Health and Convenience of the Inhabitants of the said Town as are therein mentioned, and for establishing a new Market in the said Town,” ratified on 31 May 1750, was not included in the published Statutes at Large of South Carolina, but is found among the engrossed acts of the General Assembly at the South Carolina Department of Archives and History in Columbia.

[8] Act No. 927, “An Act to Empower Certain Commissioners therein mentioned, to keep clear and in good order and repair the streets of Charlestown; and for establishing other regulations in the said town,” ratified on 10 August 1764, in David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 9 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1841), 698, 700.

[9] See the notice of the Commissioners of Streets in South Carolina Gazette, 8–15 October 1764.

[10] See the notice of the Commissioners of Streets in South Carolina Gazette, 24–31 December 1764.

[11] H. Roy Merrens, ed., The Colonial South Carolina Scene: Contemporary Views, 1697–1774 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977), 220.

[12] David Ramsay, History of South Carolina, from its First Settlement in 1670 to the year 1808, volume 2 (Charleston, S.C.: David Longworth, 1809), 346. For more information on Lamboll, see Elise Pinckney, Thomas and Elizabeth Lamboll: Early Charleston Gardeners (Charleston, S.C.: Charleston Museum, 1969).

[13] The so-called “male” or “paper mulberry” should not be confused with the native red mulberry (Morus rubra) or the so-called “white mulberry” trees (Morus alba) that were imported from Asia and planted by the thousands across the South Carolina Lowcountry as early as the 1690s, to support a nascent industry in the culture of silkworms. For more information on this topic, see Ben Marsh, “Silk Hopes in Colonial South Carolina,” Journal of Southern History 78 (November 2012): 807–54.

[14] City Gazette, 29 March 1793, page 3, “Extract of a letter from the country”; Charleston City Gazette, 18 November 1793, “For Sale, At Watson’s Garden.”

[15] Robert Mills, Statistics of South Carolina, Including a View of its Natural, Civil, and Military History, General and Particular (Charleston, S.C.: Hurlbut and Lloyd, 1826), 402.

[16] Proceedings of City Council, 12 December 1848, printed in Charleston Courier, 14 December 1848.

[17] Act No. 1191, “An Act to Incorporate the Charleston,” ratified on 13 August 1783, in McCord, Statutes at Large of South Carolina, 7: 98.

[18] “An Ordinance for the preservation of the public wells and pumps, and also of the trees in the City,” ratified on 28 October 1788, in Timothy Ford, compiler, Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, in the State of South Carolina, Passed Since the Incorporation of the City (Charleston, S.C.: A. Timothy, 1789), 67. The text of this ordinance also appears in Charleston City Gazette, 8 November 1788. This tree protection clause was repeated in street ordinances ratified in February 1794, June 1805, November 1806, August 1839, August 1844, March 1893, July 1909, and so on.

[19] Ramsay, History of South Carolina, 2: 85.

[20] For more information on yellow fever and its history in Charleston, see Peter McCandless, Slavery, Disease, and Suffering in the Southern Lowcountry (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

[21] Medical University of South Carolina, Medical Society of South Carolina Collection, Minutes, 1789–1810, page 126 (, accessed on 1 December 2020.

[22] The written proceedings of Charleston’s City Council do not survive from 1795, but Council’s adoption of the Medical Society’s report on 5 May 1795 was mentioned in a report read at a City Council meeting on 5 February 1844 and printed in Southern Patriot, 6 February 1844, page 2.

[23] See letters to the editors printed in City Gazette, 6 and 8 June 1795, page 2.

[24] City Gazette, 13 June 1795, page 2, “On the Utility of Trees in Cities.”

[25] City Gazette, 6 September 1796, “New York, August 6.”