‘Good Governor’ Johnson
By Peg Eastman
Robert Johnson (1677-1735) was the Province of Carolina’s last Proprietary governor and the second appointed by the Crown. He was the son of Sir Nathaniel Johnson. (See September Mercury column.)
Born in England, young Robert Johnson spent two years in the Leeward Islands while his father served as governor (1686-1688). Afterwards his father emigrated to Carolina to develop land he acquired, while his mother tried to take her family back to England. Unfortunately, en route the family was held captive by pirates for a year and his mother died during the ordeal.
The first known record of Robert Johnson was in 1701 when he was accepted by the Board of Trade as surety for his father, who was to become governor of the Carolina province. Mr. Thomas Carey, former governor John Archdale’s son-in-law and a South Carolina merchant was the other surety. A mercer (dealer of luxury textiles) by trade, Robert took oath as freeman of Newcastle upon Tyne, January 19, 1702. He appeared before the Board of Trade again on July 13, 1715, requesting protection during the Yamasee uprising.
Because of his father’s prominence, the Lords Proprietors recommended him to be governor following Charles Craven’s voluntary resignation in 1713. Craven appointed Robert Daniell to serve as deputy governor while Johnson’s commission was being approved. Johnson was awarded £400 per annum and became governor in 1717.
It was an unenviable post for Johnson because his obligations to the Proprietors were offset by the political aspirations of the Goose Creek Men, arguably the most powerful faction in the Commons House of Assembly. The new governor got off to a poor start. In his first speech to the Assembly, he chastised their “disrespectable bahaviour” in appealing to the King for protection against the Lords Proprietors and recommended a series of unpopular new regulations. In his first year in office, Johnson asked the Commons House of Assembly to raise land prices. When they refused, Johnson blocked the appointment of the powder receiver. Although he eventually acquiesced, Johnson later admonished the assemblymen for not submitting to the Lords Proprietors as their “masters.”
Despite his getting off to a poor start, it did not take long for the new governor to sympathize with local concerns about Proprietary neglect, especially with barbarous pirates lurking outside the port. In June 1717, Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard, attacked ships in Charles Town harbor, taking among his hostages the wealthy member of the Council Samuel Wragg and his young son. Teach threatened to kill them and demanded a chest of medical supplies. Although Johnson satisfied the ransom demands, the pirates soon reappeared and plundered ships again.
Then in the summer of 1718, Barbadian “gentleman” pirate 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 the Cape Fear River. When the news reached Charles Town, Governor Johnson commissioned William Rhett, a vice admiral. Rhettpressed 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. It was dusk and the tide was going out. Rhett anchored at the mouth of the river and became stranded on sandbars. Fearing a night attack, 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 Jamestried to avoid Rhett’s ships, she became stuck on a sandbar near her adversaries. The crews traded small arm fire. As the tide came in, the first ships to be freed were under Rhett’s command. Instead of waiting to be boarded, the pirates surrendered notwithstanding the fact that Bonnet wanted to fight to the death. Rhett brought 34 pirates back to Charles Town for trial.
A “gentleman,” Bonnet was not treated as a common pirate and was lodged with a crew member in the town marshal’s home, located at the southeast corner of Tradd and Church streets. Bonnet disguised himself in a dress and escaped with his crewman. Rhett volunteered to track them down in the sandhills of Sullivan’s Island. Bonnet was recaptured and returned to Charles Town.
The pirate trials were presided over by Chief Justice Nicholas Trott. Bonnet’s crew was tried and hung 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, written by Daniel Defoe, popularized stories about the pirate scourge for a European audience.
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 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. Johnson then appointed himself admiral, vanquished the pirate ships and returned to town with his prizes in tow. This was the highlight of his first term as governor.
Meanwhile, the Goose Creek Men were secretly plotting to get rid of the Proprietary government. In November 1719, members of the South Carolina Assembly informed Governor Johnson that they “would have no Proprietors’ Government” and asked him to govern in the name of King George I. Having been appointed by the Lords Proprietors, Johnson felt obligated by his oath and refused.
In December 1719, the Assembly declared itself to be a “Convention of the People,” and began to govern the province in the name of the king. Colonel James Moore II, son of former Governor James Moore and a hero of the Yemasee War, was appointed by the Convention as governor, and served until 1721. Governor Johnson tried to rally the Militia but found that Charleston’s fortifications had been taken over by militiamen loyal to the Convention.
The Crown, which had been dissatisfied with the Lords Proprietors, readily agreed to the transition. But the Proprietors resisted, and a protracted court battle ensued. Finally, in 1729 seven of the eight Proprietors sold their shares to the Crown. The Revolution was practically bloodless. Colonel William Rhett, whom the Lords Proprietors had appointed to the lucrative posts of receiver general and comptroller of customs, did not oppose the Revolution probably because he did not want to lose his sinecures.
Johnson returned to England and lobbied to become the royal governor and was appointed by the Privy Council in 1729. His administration is noted for several acts granting land to new settlers, aiding James Oglethorp in the settlement of Georgia, and the Swiss Huguenot settlement of Purrysburg. He is considered one of the best governors the colony ever had. On his death in Charles Town on May 3, 1735, the South-Carolina Gazette noted:
His excellency Robert Johnson Esq: Captain General, Governor and Commander in Chief in and over His Majesty’s Province…was decently interred in a vault near the altar in Charles Town Church. [Second St. Philip’s Church] His Pall was supported by the gentlemen of his Council, and his corpse was attended to the grave by the Lower House of Assembly preceded by the Speaker and a numerous body of Gentlemen and Ladies who came from all parts of the Province … to pay the last respects to one whom they might justly look upon as their common father. The troop and two companies of the Charles Town Foot appeared … to add to the solemnity of the procession … The principal mourners were His Excellency’s two sons and two daughters, his brother in law Thomas Broughton Esq … His Excellency died in the 59th year of his age and the 5th of his government.”
He was known simply as “good Governor Robert Johnson.” So high was the esteem of his peers that a memorial was erected on the wall of St. Philips Church (lost in the fire of 1835). Part of it read: “The General Assembly gave this marble to be erected as a mark of peculiar esteem and gratitude for his mild, just and generous administration.”
Thus ends the Proprietary Government of South Carolina. My appreciation to Robert Stockton for contributing to this article.
Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman: A Charlestonian by birth, Peg is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill and The History Press. In Charleston, she has lectured on various topics related to the Holy City’s architectural history.