Remembering Colonel William Rhett
The Rhett name goes back to the early days of the Carolina colony. I was privileged to discuss this legacy with the Rev. Dr. William Rhett, who can trace his roots back to the very first Rhett, one of our most colorful and controversial colonists. We are catching up with the family about 15 years after David Farrow interviewed Cheshire Rhett about his family; it is a rich story that few really know in depth.
The Lowcountry’s first Rhett was also named William Rhett; the son of Sir Walter Rhett, he was born in 1666 just after the great fire of London. His parents were staunch Anglicans and he was baptized on the grounds of St. Albans Church, because the parish church building had just burned. Perhaps this fiery beginning foreshadowed what was to come.
Rhett was a friend of Richard Shelton, secretary to the Lords Proprietors and through his influence he soon became one of the most powerful men in the Proprietary period. Rhett immigrated to Carolina in 1694, accompanied by his wife and a young child. As captain of the ship Providence, he acquired the reputation of not being particular with whom he traded or how he obtained the merchandise, including pirate loot, that was sold by his wife through the retail end of their business. Providence sailed between the Carolinas and the Bahamas and this had inherent dangers. In April 1699, the ship was captured by the Dutch pirate Hendrick van Hoven (alias Captain Hyne or Hind).
Rhett was also a capable military man who played a key role in Governor Nathaniel Johnson’s brilliant defense of Charles Town during “Queen Anne’s War.” Fearing a French invasion, Johnson had fortified the town as soon as he became governor in 1703.
Predictably, in 1706 the French and their Spanish allies decided to capture Charles Town. When news arrived that five vessels carrying French and Spanish soldiers were heading to Charles Town, the alarm was sent to Sir Nathaniel who was at Silk Hope some 60 miles away. As head of the militia, Rhett took command in his absence and summoned the citizens to arms.
The approaching ships turned back once they saw armed fortifications. They anchored off Sullivan’s Island and sent an envoy under a flag of truce. Upon reaching town, the wily Johnson tricked him into believing the city was heavily fortified by having the emissary taken blindfolded from bastion to bastion to see assembled men at arms who had been rushed from the previous position.
The French emissary demanded surrender. Johnson flatly refused. Believing that the city was well prepared for an assault, instead of a frontal attack, marauding parties went into the outlying areas.
Meanwhile, Rhett sailed out with a few hastily armed vessels to meet the French fleet. The enemy chose not to fight, weighed anchor and went out to sea. When word came that a ship was moored in Sewee Bay, Rhett sailed forth while militia forces approached by land. Surprised, the Frenchmen never fired a shot. Their commander offered a ransom of 10,000 pieces of eight, left several hundred prisoners behind and hastily sailed away.
Although this defeat marked the end of the Spanish claim to Carolina, Rhett is even better known as a pirate-hunter. In the summer of 1718, Stede Bonnet was pardoned by the governor of North Carolina and received clearance to privateer Spanish shipping. Not wanting to lose his pardon, he used the alias “Captain Thomas” and changed his ship’s name to Royal James. In August his ship was anchored on an estuary of the Cape Fear River.
News reached Charles Town that pirates were rendezvousing at Cape Fear. Desiring to destroy the pirate threat once and for all, Governor Robert Johnson, Sir Nathaniel’s son, commissioned Rhett a vice admiral. Rhett pressed two ships into service and at his own expense, manned and armed both vessels. Before they set sail, news came that the notorious pirate Charles Vane was plaguing the coast. Rhett sailed off in hot pursuit. Not finding their prey, the ships proceeded to Cape Fear, where they discovered three pirate ships: Royal James and two prizes Bonnet had taken. It was dusk so Rhett’s ships anchored at the mouth of the river. The tide was going out and the vessels soon became stranded on sandbars. Fearing a night attack from the pirates, the Carolinians lay on their arms all night.
Early the next morning, the pirates set sail, hoping to blast their way to freedom. It was low tide and as Royal James tried to avoid Rhett’s ships, she became stuck on a sandbar near her stranded adversaries. Too close for cannon fire, the crews traded small arms fire for the next five hours.
As the tide came in, the first to be freed were under Rhett’s command. Surprisingly, instead of waiting to be boarded and possibly massacred, the pirates aboard the grounded Royal James surrendered in spite of the fact their captain wanted to fight to the death. Rhett soon discovered that “Captain Thomas” was none other than the “gentleman pirate,” Stede Bonnet. The “Battle of the Sandbars,” as it is called today, cost 12 Carolina lives with 18 wounded. Rhett brought 34 pirates back to Charles Town for trial.
The cowardly Stede Bonnet was not treated as a common pirate. He and one crew member were lodged in the home of the town marshal. Bonnet disguised himself in a dress and escaped with his crewman. Rhett volunteered to track him down in the overgrown sandhills of Sullivan’s Island. Bonnet was recaptured and returned to Charles Town.
Immediately after Bonnet was apprehended, another pirate named Moody threatened Charles Town with a flotilla of three ships carrying 50 guns and 200 men. The pirates were moored beyond the bar where they preyed on outbound ships that could not see their sails from the town’s wharves.
Governor Robert Johnson informed the civic leaders that there would be no outside assistance. Rhett was expected to take command, but he refused over some alleged affront with the governor. The governor then appointed himself admiral, vanquished the pirate ships and returned to town with pirate prizes in tow.
The pirate trials were presided over by Chief Justice Nicholas Trott. Bonnet’s crew was tried and hanged on November 8, 1718. They were buried on the waterfront at White Point shoal, just above the highwater mark near the marker in White Point Garden. Two days later Bonnet was brought to trial and charged with two acts of piracy. Judge Trott sentenced him to death. Bonnet wrote Governor Johnson asking for clemency, but the governor endorsed the judge’s decision. Bonnet was hanged on December 10. Afterwards, his body was thrown into Vander Horst Creek (now Water Street). Later, A General History of the Pyrates, allegedly written by Daniel Defoe, popularized stories about the pirate scourge to a European audience.
Because of his political connections, Rhett also enjoyed a colorful public career. In 1703, he was appointed commissioner of the watch in Charles Town. He was elected to multiple Assemblies and was speaker of all but the 12th. He was appointed Receiver General of the Quit Rents in 1712 and served as justice of the peace and numerous other capacities including commissioner to build a seawall at Charles Town, fire commissioner of Charles Town, commissioner of fortifications, commissioner to build a state house and commissioner to build a governor’s house.
A loyal churchman, Rhett helped in the design of the second St. Philip’s church. He and his wife contributed generously to the Anglican clergy, the needy and to St. Philip’s Church including a silver tankard, chalice, paten and alms plate.
He acquired The Point plantation in 1712 and renamed it Rhettsbury. It consisted of 20 acres adjoining the north line of the Grand Modell and was where he built his home at present-day 54 Hassell Street. (It should be noted that this land was not without controversy. Mrs. Rhett was guardian of the minor children of Jonathan Amory, a prominent merchant, politician and land owner, who had died in the yellow fever epidemic of 1699. Part of the Amory estate was the 20 acres adjoining the north line of the Grand Modell and one of the Amory heirs accused her of misappropriating their inheritance. He also claimed that Mrs. Rhett cheated an elderly woman out of her money.)
On the negative side, Rhett was known to be a man of violent and domineering disposition, but according historian Edward McCrady, “the people forgave his overbearing manner when recollecting his gallantry in their defense against invaders and pirates and recognized his earnest zeal for the public welfare, despite the imperiousness of his conduct.”
In 1716, Governor Craven’s friends in the Assembly passed the Election Law that made parishes the election districts and prohibited anyone holding an “office of profit” from sitting in the Commons House. This confined Rhett’s political base to Charles Town and made him ineligible for election to the Assembly, diminishing his political power considerably.
While surveyor general of customs after the “Revolution of 1719,” in which the proprietors were given the boot, Rhett tried to seize goods from a captured pirate vessel. In 1721 Royal Governor Sir Francis Nicholson and Rhett accused each other of smuggling. Nicholson called him a “haughty, proud, insolent fellow and a cheating scoundrel.” A jury found Rhett guilty of defaming the governor and fined him £400. In the midst of these intrigues, in 1723 Rhett died of apoplexy (stroke). He was buried in an underground vault in the western churchyard of St. Philip’s facing the front door of the church.
Two interesting post scripts: William Rhett was the only person injured in the 1719 “bloodless” revolution and in 1730, his widow married Rhett’s political ally, Chief Justice Nicholas Trott.
My appreciation goes out to Bill Rhett and Bob Stockton for contributing to this article. The next article will be about William Rhett’s descendant, the “Fire Eater,” Robert Barnwell Rhett.