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Sir John Yeamans, the rogue governor

By Peg Eastman


Sir John Yeamans, 1610-1674, head and shoulders. From Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-41676.



Part I of the Barbadian Adventurers series describes why prominent citizens of Barbados wanted to cash in on the enormous land grant Charles II gave eight powerful supporters after he was restored to the throne. The fact that the king’s father, Charles I, had already gifted the land to his attorney general, Sir Robert Heath, was ignored under the pretext that the grant had not been settled. (This double gifting would cause problems for the Crown later as the Heath family wanted to be compensated for their lost land.)


As noted in Part I, Charles II, always cash strapped, also gave empty titles to 13 Barbadian supporters as a reward for their loyalty and suffering during the Cromwellian era. Two of these men had enormous influence in the settlement of the Carolina province. Sir John Colleton, mentioned in Part I, was related to several of the other Lords Proprietors (Albemarle and the Berkeley brothers) and lost no time sailing back to England to help plan colonization of the newly acquired lands.


Equally noteworthy was John Yeamans. Son of a Bristol brewer, Yeamans was born in 1611 and fought for the king during the English Civil War, rising to the rank of colonel. There are conflicting dates of when he emigrated to Barbados, but what is a matter of public record is that by 1641 he and Benjamin Berringer were joint owners of land in St. Peter and St. Andrew, and by 1643, they were living on adjacent plantations. Both men were councilors and Royalists. When Barbados capitulated to the Commonwealth expedition, Yeamans managed to work with the new regime. Berringer retired from public life and is thought to have returned to England, leaving his wife, Margaret, behind.


Berringer returned in 1656 and brought back plans for what is considered a pure Jacobean mansion complete with large chimneys at each corner and mullioned windows. (Later owners added embellishments now seen today.) Berringer and his wife lived there until his death in 1661. The house, now known as St. Nicholas Abbey, is a famous Barbadian landmark.


Margaret Berringer was the daughter of the Rev. John Forester. During her husband’s absence, she got involved in a torrid affair with her husband’s business partner, John Yeamans, a comely man judging from his portraits. Although Margaret bore Berringer three children after his return, according to public records she treated him so badly that Berringer would leave home and stay with friends. In 1661, Berringer died at a house in Speightstown, and it seems that his death was by poisoning by Yeamans “for no other reason but he had a mind to the other gentleman’s wife,” according to a 1668 report by Governor William Lord Willoughby. Governor Willoughby’s account contradicts the traditional tale that Yeamans killed Berringer in a duel.


Ten weeks after Berringer’s death, Yeamans married Margaret Berringer and promptly moved into the Berringer manor house with his new bride. The Barbados court rather quickly ruled that Berringer’s property could not be merged with Yeamans’s holdings and returned it to his children.


Despite the scandal, Yeamans had the favor of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina, including Sir John Colleton, who had become a member of the Council of Foreign Plantations that was trying to attract settlers for the newly created Carolina colony.


The first attempt to settle was in the Lower Cape Fear region, which the Proprietors named the County of Clarendon. They appointed Yeamans “Governor of our Country of Clarendon” and all the land as far south as Florida. For added stature, the Proprietors prevailed upon the king to confer upon Yeamans the honor of knight baronet in January 1665. The newly minted Sir John Yeamans, Bart., received a grant of 6,000 acres and was given the power to appoint a governing council. Barbadians who invested in the colonizing venture included wealthy and influential men who were to receive 500 acres of land for every 1,000 pounds of muscovado sugar, and a further grant of 150 acres was made to every person who would sail with Yeamans on the first Carolina venture. The Cape Fear settlement was called Charles Town, one of several named for Charles II, others being Charles Town on Nevis and Charlestown in Massachusetts, and in the near future, Charles Town in South Carolina.


By October 1665, Yeamans was heading to Cape Fear with three ships: his own frigate, a sloop purchased by a common purse for general use and a flat-bottomed flyboat. But the venture was doomed from the start. First a storm separated the small fleet, which got back together at the mouth of the Cape Fear River in early November. They were unfamiliar with the treacherous currents and sandbars, and when the ships attempted to enter the river, the flyboat carrying most of the supplies and 12 pieces of artillery wrecked, causing the contents to be swept into the sea.


The catastrophe forced Yeamans to change his plans. Instead of exploring the Cape Fear countryside, he sent the sloop to Virginia for food and other supplies. Sir John sailed back to Barbados in his frigate shortly after Christmas and never returned. Because of the second Dutch War (1665-1667) no other settlers or supplies arrived at the fledgling colony, and it was abandoned in 1667.


Yeamans had not abandoned the original plans for a settlement further south and instructed Robert Sanford, the colony’s secretary, to either undertake the voyage using the sloop that had been sent to Virginia or to hire the vessel of Captain Stanyon then in the harbor bound for Barbados. Upon its return, the sloop was found to be unfit for service. Worse, Captain Stanyon had become demented en route from Barbados and jumped overboard and drowned. Happily, his vessel somehow made it to the settlement and provided Sanford with a ship to undertake the expedition. Sanford published an account of the explorations in A Relation of a Voyage on the Coast of the Province of Carolina in 1666. (But that is another story.)


In spite of his scandalous behavior, Yeamans was not finished with colonizing. Once Anthony Ashley Cooper persuaded the other Proprietors to send settlers from England to Carolina, Yeamans again got involved.


Yeamans Hall by an unknown artist. From Collection of the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina. Photograph by Richard P. Donohoe.


In 1669, the Proprietors financed outfitting three ships (Albermarle, Carolina and Port Royal) and directed them to settle further south in Port Royal. The fleet stopped in Ireland to recruit servants and proceeded on to Barbados in hope of attracting more settlers. Instructed to name a governor, Yeamans named himself and joined the expedition. When a gale blew the Albermarle aground and sank it in Barbados, Yeamans leased the sloop Three Brothers as a replacement.


The Carolina, Port Royal and Three Brothers set sail during hurricane season and were scattered by storms near the island of Nevis. The Port Royal wrecked near Abaco in the Bahamas, but the Carolina and the Three Brothers eventually landed in Bermuda, where some of survivors of the Port Royal managed to rejoin them. In January 1670, while still in Bermuda, Yeamans once again decided to return to Barbados. Before leaving, he filled in the name of William Sayle, the 80-year-old former governor of that island, on the blank warrant, making him the first governor of the new Carolina settlement.


In April 1670, the English settlers finally landed at Albemarle Point on the west bank of the Ashley River and founded Charles Town, named in honor of Charles II.


Sir John had been created a Landgrave under terms of the Fundamental Constitutions, reputedly written by John Locke. As he was the only settler with a title of nobility, Landgrave Yeamans arrived at the new Carolina colony in 1671 fully expecting to become governor. However, after Governor Sayle succumbed to age, fatigue and exposure, Joseph West had been appointed interim governor. Due to his rank, Yeamans became the third governor despite the strong objections of the Grand Council, who decried his desertion of both Carolina settlements.


Governor Yeamans had brought his African slaves with him and set about developing his vast holdings. Although lumber was needed locally, Yeamans exported it to Barbados, where its scarcity commanded a high profit. He angered Shaftesbury when he profited by selling to Barbados provisions that were desperately needed in Carolina. Although he was removed from office and replaced by Joseph West, Yeamans died in Charles Town before news of his replacement arrived. Yeamans’s one memorable achievement was to order for the “laying out of a town” at Oyster Point, which Governor Sayle in 1670 had directed to be reserved for the port and capital of the province. The settlement at Albemarle Point was meant to be temporary, for security, and was found to be inconvenient and unhealthy.


Lady Margaret remained in Carolina for several years and secured additional land grants that she left to her daughter Margaret, who later became the wife of Colonel James Moore, governor of Carolina, 1700-1703. Lady Margaret eventually married Captain William Walley and returned to Barbados, where she died.


Tales of the Barbadian Adventurers will be continued in the next issue of the Mercury.



My appreciation to Bob Stockton and Katherine Pemberton for contributing to this story, which is the 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 pegeastman@comcast.net


Sources

The Barbados-Carolina Connection by Warren Alleyne and Henry Fraser

The History of South Carolina Under the Proprietary Government 1670-1719 by Edward McCrady

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