After some 226 years, the document that led to the creation of one of Charleston’s iconic public spaces is back in the city.
The South Carolina Historical Society’s library is open for research Tuesday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on the first and third Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. For more information, visit www.southcarolinahistoricalsociety.org
Isabella Breckinridge, of Washington, D.C., a direct descendant of Charles and Eliza Lucas Pinckney, recently came across dozens of old family papers underneath her mother’s old debutante dress, and she donated them to the S.C. Historical Society last month.
Once the package arrived, Mary Jo Fairchild, the society’s director of archives and research, carefully unfolded one of the larger documents, “and I couldn’t believe my eyes.”
She was handling a large, detailed 1788 survey showing a gift of land parcels from seven individuals to the city for the creation of a public market.
The three-page document is slightly larger than this newspaper and bears the red wax seals of six of the donors, including Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who had just returned from the Constitutional Convention. It also bears what appears to be an early version of Charleston’s seal next to the signature of City Intendant (Mayor) John F. Grimke.
While a handmade copy is just across Meeting Street at the Charleston County RMC Office, society Director Faye Jensen said this document – produced with fine ink on paper probably made from cotton or hemp – is unique.
“The aesthetic value, the intrinsic value of the piece is what we’re excited about,” she said.
The survey plan for the market shows significant similarities and differences to what the city eventually developed on the property in the 19th century.
For instance, the plan shows a beef market and a “country market” in narrow sheds just west of Meeting Street – sheds shaped very much like what’s there today.
However, west of Church Street, the plan doesn’t show more sheds but rather a canal between North and South Market streets. That canal underscores how this area once was a creek – and why it continues to experience some of the city’s worst street flooding. Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said the city is spending $20 million-plus on a new underground drainage system to address that.
The survey, done by Revolutionary War Col. Barnard Beekman, also shows Cravens Bastion, the northeastern trip of the city’s original walled defenses, approximately where the U.S. Custom House now stands.
Other documents relating to the market mention plans to build “good substantial brick drains” and to use palmetto or pine logs to build wider streets. The collection also includes other family papers dating between 1765 and 1915.
But the market survey and deed is the star, one that Fairchild said “is definitely in the top 10″ of the society’s historic documents.
The society eventually plans to display the document, but first plans to undertake some conservation work on it. It’s in generally good condition, but it was folded for years, and experts will try to figure out the best way to get the paper to relax so those folds are less noticeable.
“Frequently, it’s better to do nothing than do overdo it,” Jensen said of the conservation work.
The document also includes a reversion clause that stipulates that this property must be returned to the original donors should the city fail to establish the market within two years. Pinckney and other donors showed some flexibility with that deadline, Fairchild said.
Riley said the city is aware that the City Market sits on land donated for that purpose, but the donor descendents shouldn’t anticipate a day when they might get the land back. “The Market is a very iconic, historic institution … one that is also very contributory to the city’s economy and to the spirit of the city,” he said. “I can’t imagine there would ever be a desire for anything else.”