Chief Justice and Governor Robert Gibbes: The Barbadian Adventurers Part VI
By Peg Eastman
“A compleat description of the province of Carolina in 3 parts,” map by Edward Crisp, Thomas Nairne, John Harris, Maurice Mathews, and John Love. Image from the Library of Congress.
Part V of the Barbadian Adventurers series was about Col. John Godfrey. Like Godfrey, Robert Gibbes was a Barbadian Adventurer who, with his brother Thomas, was a member of the governing assembly of the failed Cape Fear settlement in 1667.
The Gibbes family traces its origins to fifth-century France. The name has been spelled in many different ways. In England, the first records were of two brothers, John and Thomas Gibbe, at the time of Richard II. They married well and by the 17th century, Stephen Gibbes had married an heiress and was living in Edmonstone Court in Kent. Stephen Gibbes’ fourth son, Robert, was born in 1644 and emigrated to Barbados, where members of the Gibbes family had settled as early as 1635. The family became prominent, as is evidenced by Gibbes family wall tablets and gravestones in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Bridgetown. Thomas Gibbes was a member of the first council in Barbados, and John Gibbes was head of the council board in 1679.
The genealogy of Robert Gibbes, the progenitor of the South Carolina branch of the family, was written in a family Bible that recorded their genealogy, starting with Robert Gibbes, born in Kent in 1594 and tracing the family’s residency in Barbados and Carolina, with the last entry being in St. James, Goose Creek Parish, in 1721.
Thanks to an article published in the South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, the fate of the Gibbes family Bible has been preserved. The Bible was rescued from a retaliatory bonfire set by occupying British soldiers in Charles Town. The Bible’s savior was the religious housekeeper of a Colonel Bomford who confronted the soldiers and snatched it from the flames, declaring, “It is a sacrilege to destroy the Gospel of Christ.” She left Charles Town when the British evacuated the city in 1782, married and returned some years later. Unable to find a Gibbes family member, she left it to a friend, who in turn entrusted it to Roger B. Ironside, who tried to locate a lineal descendant of Robert Gibbes. Once successful, he passed it on to D. Gibbes I. Elliott. (The “D.” may stand for doctor.) The Bible was formally presented with a letter written on the anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown, which was also the day the citizens of New York laid the foundation stone of a memorial to George Washington, October 19, 1847.
According to a speech made by Governor Gibbes in 1717, he assisted in the early planning of the Carolina colony within a year of Charles II’s granting the charter, for he claimed that he had served the province for 48 years.
Gibbes arrived in Carolina in August 1672 accompanied by “several persons and slaves” and received warrants for 690 acres. Within the next 37 years he received warrants for an additional 3,658 acres in Colleton and Berkeley Counties plus three lots in Charles Town (1,866 acres was based on arrival rights for importing persons to the colony).
His connection with the Lords Proprietors explains his rise to power. He was commissioned sheriff of Berkeley County in 1683 and held that post into the early 18th century. He was elected by Colleton County to the first assembly, serving 1692-1694. By 1699, he was a proprietor’s deputy and as such a member of the Grand Council, which was appointed by the Lords Proprietors. He was appointed as chief justice by the proprietors in 1708. He served in several local offices and advanced from a militia captain in 1685 to a lieutenant colonel in 1698 and served in that capacity until his death.
Robert Gibbes’ elevation to the position of governor, in a disputed election, was his most notorious role in provincial politics. Events leading up to his appointment were these: Governor Edward Tynte had died in office in November 1709. In the event of a governor’s death, only a duly-appointed proprietor’s deputy could assume the governorship until the Lords Proprietors named a successor. When Tynte died, three proprietors’ deputies were living in the province: Robert Gibbes, deputy of Sir John Colleton, Baronet; Thomas Broughton, deputy to John, Baron Carteret; and Fortesque Turbeville, the recently arrived deputy of Henry, Duke of Beaufort, the Craven heir. Before dying, Tynte instructed them to choose one of their number as governor. The three deputies met, voted for a governor and recessed. They reconvened in the afternoon, and Gibbes was proclaimed governor. It was later learned that Broughton had received a two-to-one vote in the morning, and Gibbes was accused of bribing Turbeville to change his vote during the recess. In the midst of the controversy, Turbeville died suddenly, and some claimed he had been poisoned.
Closeup of Crisp map.
Broughton tried and failed to instigate an insurrection. Broughton then agreed to a compromise that permitted Gibbes to remain acting governor until the proprietors selected a replacement. During the early months of Gibbes’ administration, the assembly refused to form a quorum in protest to the irregularity of his election. In spite of the irregularity, his administration was “marked by wise enactment and the undisturbed prosperity of the people.”
While governor, in a 1711 speech to the Commons House of Assembly, Gibbes expressed alarm at the colony’s growing slave majority and cited his accomplishments, such as encouragement of white immigration to counteract the growing slave population, quarantining smallpox victims and the Free School Act that provided governmental assistance for parish education. During the Tuscarora Indian uprising in North Carolina in 1711, Gibbes sent Col. John Barnwell and the Yamasee Indian allies to help save the northern colony.
Ultimately, the proprietors declared Gibbes’ election illegal because of bribery and refused to pay his salary. They chose neither contender, appointing as governor Charles Craven, younger brother of Proprietor William, Baron Craven.
Robert Gibbes died on June 24, 1715, in S.C. He had many prominent descendants including James Shoolbred Gibbes, one of Charleston’s foremost benefactors who left the funds to build the Gibbes Memorial Art Gallery.
The only tangible reminder of Governor Robert Gibbes is a bronze marker on the brick wall in Washington Park. The inscription reads: “Early Barbadian supporter of the settlement of South Carolina Colonial Governor 1710-1712, Proprietor’s Deputy Chief Justice of South Carolina, Member of 1st Assembly, Colonel South Carolina Militia, Sent South Carolina Militia to aid North Carolinians against the Tuscarora Indians.” The marker was erected by the Governor Robert Gibbes Chapter of the South Carolina Society Colonial Dames. Unfortunately, the marker is in a flower bed and is almost completely concealed by the plantings in front of it.
My appreciation to Bob Stockton for contributing to this story, which is a prequel to Evening Post Press’s upcoming book, Broad Street, Charleston’s Historic Nexus of Power. Anyone with a good Broad Street story is invited to contact email@example.com
Edgar, Walter B. and N. Louise Bailey. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives, Volume II: The Commons House of Assembly 1692-1775. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1977).
McCrady, Edward. History of South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government 1670-1719. New York: The McMillan Company, 1897).
Holmes, Henry S. “Governor Robert Gibbes and Some of his Descendants.” The South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, vol. 12, no. 2 (April, 191l), pp. 78-105. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27575298
The Shaftesbury Papers and Other Records Relating to Carolina and the First Settlement on the Ashley River Prior to the Year 1676. South Carolina Historical Society. Prepared for Publication by Langdon Cheves, Charleston, South Carolina, 1897.