By Peg Eastman
Othneil Beale was a celebrity long before he settled in Charles Town. He was the son of ship captain John Beale of Marblehead, Massachusetts. Following in his father’s footsteps, he commanded a ship in the Carolina trade. Tradition says while he was on a voyage from Charles Town to London, his ship was captured by an Algerine Rover, who intended to take him into Barbary. The Rover took the English sailors on board his vessel and manned Beale’s ship with Algerines ordered to follow him to the Mediterranean Sea. During the night, a storm separated the two vessels, and Captain Beale was the only person onboard his ship that understood navigation.
So, instead of sailing to Africa, he headed straight for England and sailed safely up the Thames. For his boldness Beale had an audience with the king who rewarded him with a handsome present. According to historian Edward McCrady, “it marked him a man of address and courage in Carolina,” where Beale settled in 1721. (His brother William, also a sea captain, settled in Charles Town and was buried in the Congregational Churchyard.)
The firm of Othniel Beale & Son had its stores on the ground floor of his residence opposite a wharf on the low-water land. In time it became one of the most important wharfs in the town. To his credit, Beale amassed a considerable fortune without engaging in the slave trade. By the 1730s he was one of the leading merchants in the Indian trade, and in 1736 he was sent to Georgia to settle the dispute between the South Carolina and Georgia fur traders.
In keeping with his wealth, Beale built 99-101 East Bay just after the great fire of 1740. At the same time, he purchased an adjacent property (97 East Bay St.) and a low water lot across the street and another lot to the rear extending to Beadon’s Alley. By 1748, the property consisted of a double house with a central passageway dividing two ground story shop spaces that led to outbuildings behind the main residence. The two structures have a common steep gable roof covered with early pantiles, an egg and dart molded cornice and a continuous stuccoed brick façade. Two giant order pilasters are at either end of the complex. His five-bay residence was and is the grandest house in the row of merchant houses facing the wharfs. The rooms paneled with Lowcountry cypress show how wealthy merchants lived.
Beale was equally successful as a public servant who was elected to multiple terms in the Commons House of Assembly, between 1730 and 1751. A dedicated public servant, he also held the office of tax inquirer for Charles Town (1725); commissioner, for calling in bills of credit (1731); commissioner, to inspect a rice machine (1733); commissioner, to prevent counterfeiting (1735); commissioner, for emitting paper bills of credit (1736); commissioner, for the building of St. Michael’s Church (1751); commissioner, to prevent the spreading of smallpox (1760); justice of the peace for Berkeley County; and firemaster of Charles Town (1742-1755). He sat on the Royal Council for 17 years and was appointed its president after five years, the highest of the many positions that he occupied as a public servant.
A highly competent engineer, Beale was named superintendent in charge of rebuilding Charles Town’s defense line between Broughton’s Battery and Granville’s Bastion after a hurricane in 1752. The marshy terrain would not support the weight of fortifications, but Beale designed a complex of mud sills, and the walls were raised. He was appointed commissioner of fortifications (1755-1773).
Beale rose to the rank of colonel in the militia and commanded the Charles Town Regiment (1746-1773). When Lieutenant Governor William Bull became ill while negotiating a treaty with the Cherokee Chieftain Little Carpenter, he asked Beale to complete the negotiations, which he did successfully.
Raised a Congregationalist, in 1770, Beale objected to an education bill with provisions for religious instruction of the precepts of the Church of England, preferring that schools teach only secular subjects. He supported Alexander Garden’s school for blacks and manumitted two of his slaves in 1763.
Beale married Katherine Gale of Charles Town in 1722. They had a son, John and a daughter named Hannah. His children were baptized in St. Philip’s. Hannah later married Lieutenant Governor William Bull. Beale owned pews in the Congregational meeting house and in St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s churches. When he died in 1773, he was buried in St. Philip’s churchyard. He left his widow the houses and buildings built on the land she inherited from her parents and one half of the profits from the rental of the “house and Store adjoining to the South” at 97 East Bay St.
After Mrs. Beal’s death the property descended to her son John Beale, who had been in business with his father and served in the Assembly and as a Patriot in the Revolutionary War. After John Beale died in 1807, his heirs filed suit in the Court of Equity stating that the buildings and wharf were “in a state of dilapidation and decay and daily decreasing in value, for want of repairs, & and for which they were unable from insufficient funds to bestow, to render them productive.” The Court accepted their plea, and the property was sold at auction on April 5, 1810.
By the early 20th century the row of once-proud merchant homes had deteriorated into a run-down slum. In 1932, Judge and Mrs. Lionel Legge renovated Colonel Beale’s home and became the first pioneers in the rejuvenation of Rainbow Row. They restored an 18th century nine-over-nine configuration to the windows and replaced 19th century storefronts with cargo doors. The second floor wrought-iron balcony inscribed with a “CP” came from a demolished house at 7 Elizabeth St. that had once been owned by C. F. Prigge. The rear courtyard is bordered by an early kitchen dependency. The celebrated landscape architect Loutrel Briggs assisted the Legges in designing a period garden. The garden was used for many preservation events, including the first of the city’s garden tours.
When other pioneers joined in reclaiming the derelict row of homes on East Bay Street, they copied Dorothy Legge’s innovative tropical colors, and in time the row of homes became known as “Rainbow Row,” one of Charleston’s iconic tourist attractions.
Although the early merchants who helped colonial Charles Town become the richest city in the British American colonies are all but forgotten, the influence of Othneil Beale lingers on through his celebrated home and the fortifications he helped engineer on what is today known as the Battery.
My appreciation to Bob Stockton for contributing to this article.
A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman 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, The History Press, Evening Post Books, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.