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The Story of Gadsden’s Wharf
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I’d like to invite you to join me for a trip down to Gadsden’s Wharf. Perhaps you’ve heard about this site in the news recently. There’s a movement afoot in our community to raise millions of dollars for a new museum soon to be built at a place called Gadsden’s Wharf. The new International African American Museum (IAAM) will be an important addition to the city’s physical and cultural landscape, providing an opportunity for Charleston to interpret and narrate our community’s historical role in the local, national, and international trafficking of enslaved Africans.
I believe this is a very important project, and the IAAM will provide an unprecedented opportunity to tell Charleston’s story to the world. As we collectively work toward the achievement of that goal, I also believe it’s important that we strive to tell our story as accurately and honestly as possible. The “true” history of Gadsden’s Wharf, or any element of the past, for that matter, is an amalgamation and interpretation of the facts found in surviving documents and objects. As a historian immersed in the surviving historical documents of our community, I know only too well that our ability to tell the “truth” about a specific person, place, or event, is often frustrated by the paucity of surviving documents. Some details about the history of Gadsden’s Wharf are lost forever, for example, because of a lack of extant evidence, but a sufficient body of material survives to tell a compelling story. Time does not permit me to present here an exhaustive, detailed account of the history of Gadsden’s Wharf, but I can offer a summary of the most salient facts I’ve found in relation the mission of the IAAM. The bottom line is this: Gadsden’s Wharf played a very significant role in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to North America, and represents the ideal location for a museum dedicated to telling the story of the victims and survivors of the “Middle Passage” from Africa to the United States. So let’s take a brief trip back to the early days of Charleston, and I’ll walk you through the evidence.
Let’s begin with the obvious questions. What and where is this wharf, and how did it get its name? Gadsden’s Wharf is a site on the east side of the Charleston peninsula, along the Cooper River waterfront. More specifically, the historic boundaries of Gadsden’s Wharf included all of the waterfront property between Calhoun Street (on the north) and Laurens Street (on the south). If you’ve ever visited the South Carolina Aquarium, for example, that building is located a few feet north of Gadsden’s Wharf. The Fort Sumter Visitor Education Center at Liberty Square, next door to the aquarium, stands on the northeastern corner of Gadsden’s Wharf. Three hundred years ago, this entire area was a brackish marsh that was washed by the daily tides.
In 1696, Isaac Mazyck received a grant for 90 acres of land on the Cooper River, including the site in question. In 1720, Mazyck sold approximately 63 of these acres to Thomas Gadsden, who in turn sold it to Captain George Anson in 1727. Nearly thirty years later, in 1758, Anson’s attorney sold a large swath of this property to an enterprising young merchant named Christopher Gadsden (son of Thomas). At that time, Christopher Gadsden’s property included fifteen acres of high land and approximately twenty-nine acres of marsh. The high land encompassed all the property between what is now Calhoun and Laurens Streets, from the lobby of the present Gaillard Center eastward to modern Washington Street. Gadsden’s purchase may have also included a house, perhaps built by George Anson, located at what is now the northeast corner of East Bay Street and Vernon Street. Whether it was built before 1758 or after, a house at this location served as the principal residence for Christopher Gadsden’s family well into the early nineteenth century. The real estate to the east, between the house and the Cooper River, was low, marshy land that wasn’t good for much of anything. I’m sure the family had a stunning view of the harbor at sunrise, though.
As a merchant, Christopher Gadsden dealt mostly in the import-export trade, and assisting planters with the task of shipping their rice, indigo, and other commodities to markets abroad. Like most of his contemporaries in that business, he rented space on one of Charleston’s several wharves. Staring in the 1680s with just one wharf on the Cooper River waterfront, Charleston’s maritime trade slowly expanded over the years. By the mid-1760s, there were a dozen wharves projecting from East Bay Street into the river, located to the south and to the north of Broad Street. Merchants like Christopher Gadsden sacrificed a portion of their profits to rental fees paid for wharfage, as it was called. By the end of 1766, Gadsden was determined to maximize his profits by building his own wharf, on his own property, just beyond the northern boundary of the town. To transform this vacant landscape into something more valuable and useful, Captain Gadsden (as he was known in the 1760s) would have to invest a lot of time, money, and resources. And that’s exactly what he began doing in early 1767.
The construction of what became known as Gadsden’s Wharf is documented in a number of newspaper advertisements published between January 1767 and the spring of 1774. In some of the advertisements, Captain Gadsden requested the delivery of construction materials to his waterfront site. Over the years, for example, he advertised to purchase a total 3,650 pine piles (twenty to forty feet long), 1,100 cords of pine logs (four feet long), and 64,000 bushels of oyster shells. Gadsden drove the long pine piles into the mud to outline the frame of his planned wharf, dumped the cords of wood on the marsh within his frame, and then used the oyster shells to build causeways so carts could roll from the high land, across the marsh, to the new wharf.
In other advertisements, Gadsden informed the maritime community that his wharf was ready to receive ships. By early December 1767, for example, he said the southern end of his wharf could accommodate one ship at a time. A week later, it was ready to receive two at a time. By February 1768, Gadsden bragged that three ships could anchor next to his unfinished wharf at the same time. In mid-October 1770, he announced that “near four hundred feet front” of his unfinished wharf was “now fit for business.” In January 1774, Gadsden stated that the framing of the entire wharf, 840 feet long, was now complete, but it would probably take until the end of the year to finish backfilling the marsh. After eight years of dirty work, Gadsden’s Wharf was completed just a few months before the beginning of the American Revolution.
As I mentioned in last week’s program about the closing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, South Carolina’s delegates to the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in October 1774 voted with their fellow patriots to adopt a set of resolutions against British oppression. Among the “Articles of Association” was a pledge to cease importing Negroes after 1 December 1774. On that date, the port of Charleston closed a long chapter of importing African captives, having received approximately 90,000 people since 1670. During the last years of this era, while Christopher Gadsden was building his wharf, 1767 through 1774, the newspapers of Charleston regularly provided information about the arrival and sale of every incoming cargo of Africans. I’ve read through all of those advertisements, and found no evidence of any slave ships docking at Gadsden’s Wharf. It’s important to remember that Gadsden’s Wharf was at that time outside of town, and not quite finished. All of the merchants who handled the sales of “new Negroes,” as they were commonly called, had offices along East Bay Street, south of what is now Cumberland Street. In fact, East Bay Street terminated at Pinckney Street, a good distance south of Gadsden’s property. The idea of landing and selling entire cargoes of newly-imported Africans at Gadsden’s Wharf was simply impractical at that time.
Charleston merchants resumed the importation of African captives in the second half of 1783. As I mentioned in last week’s program, our state legislature voted in the spring of 1787 to close this trade, in an effort to prevent a debt crisis in post-war South Carolina. During that four-year period, approximately 10,000 enslaved people arrived in Charleston for sale. (For evidence of the numbers of vessels and enslaved people arriving in Charleston and other ports, explore the database at http://slavevoyages.org). According to the newspapers of that era, dozens of sales of “new Negroes” were held at more than eight locations in the heart of urban Charleston, south of Market Street, including Bedon’s Alley, Daniel Bourdeaux’s yard on East Bay Street, Mr. Manigault’s lot at the corner of Church and Amen (now Cumberland) Streets, Eveleigh’s Wharf, Motte’s Wharf, Prioleau’s Wharf, Scott’s Wharf, and “near the Exchange” (probably on the building’s shady north side). Some advertisements from this era did not mention a specific location, indicating that some slave merchants, like Nathaniel Russell and the Penman brothers (James and Edward), assumed that customers already knew where to find their offices along East Bay Street.
Some recent historians have stated that Gadsden’s wharf received some, or most, or perhaps all of the African captives who began arriving in Charleston in 1783, but I would respectfully challenge that assertion. Having searched through the robust collection of extant Charleston newspapers from that four-year window of legal importation, mid-1783 to mid-1787, I have yet to find a single notice of a slave ship landing at Gadsden’s Wharf. In fact, Christopher Gadsden informed the public in August 1783 that he was in need of materials to repair his wharf, which had sustained damages during the British siege and occupation of Charleston, 1780–1782. Then, in September 1783, a large fire consumed one or more of the valuable store houses on Gadsden’s Wharf, and in the summer of 1784, he admitted he had difficulty in securing a loan to repair the damages. In short, the preponderance of the evidence seems to indicate that Gadsden’s Wharf was not involved in the landing or selling of incoming Africans prior to or immediately after the American Revolution.
South Carolina’s legislative prohibition on the importation of African captives, enacted in March 1787, was extended by a series of legislative actions through December 1803. During this period of fifteen years, no ships carrying “new Negroes” arrived at any of the wharves of Charleston. As I discussed in last week’s program, the political and cultural landscape of the United States changed rapidly during these years, and, for a variety of reasons, South Carolina’s legislature voted to re-open the trans-Atlantic slave trade on 17 December 1803. The merchants involved in this terrible business were keen to import as many people as possible before a Federal prohibition came into effect on 1 January 1808. During the four years between December 1803 and December 1807, the Charleston Times reported (on 2 January 1808) that 39,310 Africans had arrived in Charleston harbor. According to more robust evidence found in the database at http://slavevoyages.org, however, it seems more likely that as many as 45,000 Africans arrived during this period, in approximately 270 voyages. Considering the rate of arrivals, the crowding onboard the vessels, and the callous disregard for humanity conspicuously displayed during this four-year period, it is no exaggeration to describe this as the most horrific episode in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to North America.
In recent years, some historians have asserted that most or all of the African captives who arrived in Charleston harbor between December 1803 and January 1808 landed and were sold at Gadsden’s Wharf. The only surviving evidence relative to this issue is found in the robust collection of extant newspapers from this era. Over the past many years, I have spent a great deal of time examining these newspapers (in their original paper form, at the Charleston Library Society, on microfilm at the Charleston County Public Library, and now in digitized searchable databases). In my personal research, I haven’t found any evidence of any sales of any incoming slave ships at Gadsden’s Wharf before the 22nd day of February, 1806. In fact, I found copious newspaper evidence of sales of “new Negroes” at a dozen other sites prior to 21 February 1806, including Champneys’s Wharf, Chisolm’s Wharf, Craft’s Wharf, D’Oyley’s Wharf, Fitzsimons’s Wharf, Geyer’s Wharf, Prioleau’s Wharf, Pritchard’s Wharf, Roper’s Wharf, Scott’s Wharf, and Vanderhorst’s Wharf. Time and space do not permit a full description of this evidence here. Suffice it to say that you can peruse the Charleston Courier, the Charleston Times, and the Charleston City Gazette of 1804, 1805, and early 1806 and see hundreds of advertisements for the sales of newly-arrived Africans at a variety of sites, but not at Gadsden’s Wharf.
So what change took place in Charleston in late February 1806 to divert the location of this business? It’s actually an interesting and important anecdote, but I’ll need to back up to June 1804 for the answer. In the 80th year of his life, General Christopher Gadsden sat down to write his last will and testament. He was a man of wealth and property, and had many worldly possessions to distribute among his numerous friends and relatives. Among the items to dispose, Gadsden wrote “I give to my said wife [Ann Wragg Gadsden] during her natural life and no longer, the use of the house and land whereon we now live,” located at the northeast corner of what he called Front and Washington Streets, but now called East Bay and Vernon Streets. Immediately after Ann’s future death, however, General Gadsden stipulated that “the said house and land to return immediately to my estate and to the care and charge of my executors.” Christopher Gadsden died on 28 August 1805, and his widow dutifully occupied their old family home until her death six months later, on 10 February 1806. In mid-February, 1806, therefore, control of Gadsden’s’ house and his wharf passed into the hands of the General’s executors: his son, Philip Gadsden, his son-in-law, Thomas Morris, and William Drayton.
On 17 February 1806, seven days after the death of Mrs. Ann Wragg Gadsden, the City Council of Charleston passed an ordinance mandating that henceforth “no vessel, importing negroes from abroad . . . shall, under any pretense whatever, be hauled into any dock, or to any wharf but Gadsden’s wharf.” The preamble to his law, “An Ordinance to establish certain regulations for the Port of Charleston, and to define the Harbour Master’s powers and duties,” tells that the increase in ship traffic along the wharves of Charleston was causing congestion and danger. In order to reduce the risk of damages to the wharves, vessels, and cargos, more stringent rules were needed. Why did City Council decide that Gadsden’s Wharf should henceforth be the one and only site for receiving incoming Africans? Unfortunately, I know of no surviving evidence to answer that specific question. Surely the members of City Council discussed this matter before drafting, debating, and ratifying this ordinance on 17 February 1806, but the manuscript journals recording the minutes of these City Council meetings disappeared in the spring of 1865, when Union Army forces and then Northern civilian tourists looted the city of Charleston.
Despite the loss of these invaluable records, I have a theory about this change of policy. Surviving documents amply demonstrate that the Gadsden family owned slaves and, in general, appear to have sanctioned the institution of slavery. I would not dare suggest, therefore, that Christopher Gadsden harbored a distaste for slavery that might have induced him to refuse to permit the landing and sale of enslaved people on his wharf. In fact, Gadsden permitted several estate sales of gangs of plantation slaves (people already working in South Carolina) at his wharf on several occasions (see, for example, advertisements of the Beresford and Simons estates in South Carolina Gazette, 7 and 21 January 1773). Rather, I think it’s possible, or even likely, that Christopher Gadsden, or perhaps his wife, Ann, objected to landing cargoes of newly-arrived Africans at their wharf, which was quite literally in their backyard.
I find it hard to accept as mere coincidence that no ships carrying African cargos landed at Gadsden’s Wharf until days after the death of the widow Gadsden. I believe it’s entirely plausible that the various wharf owners and merchants of Charleston were already clamoring for a solution to the city’s crowded and dangerous wharves in early 1806, and they appealed to General Gadsden’s executors, who were prominent businessmen of Charleston at that time. With the old General gone, and his widow now buried as well, couldn’t Gadsden’s executors help relieve the wharf congestion? Perhaps some monetary inducement was offered to them. Regardless of the precise details of such hypothetical conversations, it is certain that City Council did not have the power to mandate the use of private property such as Gadsden’s Wharf as the sole, legally-sanctioned landing place for slave ships without the consent of Gadsden’s legal executors. We can deduce, therefore, that some serious conversations took place in the seven days between the death of Ann Gadsden and the ratification of the new law. The speed with which the entire traffic of African slave ships was re-routed to Gadsden’s Wharf in February 1806 is an indication of how horrible the trade really was. Mrs. Gadsden didn’t want it in her backyard, and the white citizens of urban Charleston wanted to push it to the northern fringes of the city.
The first slave ship to arrive in Charleston harbor after the change-of-venue law was the British brig, Duddon, which officially arrived on 20 February 1806 with a cargo of 173 people consigned to the merchant partnership of Gibson and Broadfoot. The following day, that merchant firm published notices in the local newspapers stating that the sale of the Duddon cargo would begin immediately at Vanderhorst’s Wharf. Apparently, someone forgot that slave sales at that venue was now contrary to the law. Accordingly, the following day, 22 February 1806, Gibson and Broadfoot published a revised notice that the sale of the Duddon cargo was taking place at Gadsden’s Wharf. Based on all of the abovementioned evidence, I believe that this vessel, carrying 173 West African souls, was the first slave ship to land its cargo at Gadsden’s Wharf. From that moment onward, until the end of December 1807, all subsequent slave ships arriving in Charleston harbor docked and sold their human cargo at Gadsden’s Wharf, and only at Gadsden’s Wharf.
The final twenty-two months of the legal importation of African captives into the United States, between late February 1806 and late December 1807, proved to be the most intense and horrific episode in the sad history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to North America. The Charleston Times, 2 January 1808, reported that approximately 26,000 people had arrived during this brief period, but more recent data at http://slavevoyages.org suggest the number was more like 30,000 people in nearly 200 voyages. During this era, mortality rates soared as greed and exploitation won the day. In a final demonstration of this fact, several slave merchants held their newly-imported human cargo off the market in warehouses at Gadsden’s Wharf well into the spring of 1808, in an effort to drive prices higher as the last legally-imported supply of fresh human chattel dwindled. In the interest of profit, humans packed into warehouses died of fevers, exposure, and frostbite. (See eyewitness John Lambert’s Travels through Lower Canada, and the United States of North America, in the Years 1806, 1807, and 1808, volume 2, page 406).
Much of the evidence I’ve presented here you’ll not find in history books yet. One day I’ll publish a more robust version of this narrative, complete with additional evidence, citations, and illustrations. In the meantime, however, I’d like to close by offering a few conclusions that I hope might prove useful in the ongoing conversation about interpreting and narrating the complicated history of Charleston at the new International African American Museum.
The evidence I’ve found suggests that the site known as Gadsden’s Wharf was not used to receive or to sell incoming cargos of African captives before late February 1806. Some evidence to the contrary might exist, but I haven’t found any, and, as a historian immersed in local archival records, I have a strong hunch that none will be found. Nevertheless, the evidence regarding the volume of slave traffic at Gadsden’s Wharf in the months between late February 1806 and early 1808 represents the busiest and most tragic episode in the long history of the transportation of Africans into the United States. During that brief period, it might be reasonable to say that more Africans were sold into slavery at Gadsden’s Wharf than at any other site in North America. That fact alone makes Gadsden’s Wharf a special place, worthy of commemoration and reflection. I can imagine no better site for a bold new museum dedicated to that noble purpose.