The Goose Creek men engineer the Bloodless Revolution of 1719
By Peg Eastman
The original Lords Proprietors of Carolina had promoted good government, religious harmony and protection of the civil rights of Dissenters (non-Church of England), Huguenots and Jews. However, over time the makeup of the Proprietors changed, and by 1719, only three shares were still owned by heirs of the first Proprietors — Craven, Carteret and Colleton.
The later Proprietors were less idealistic — they did not respect the Dissenters, raised the quit rents (a tax on land), tried to limit the power of the Assembly and seized the Yemassee lands for themselves. They provided no military protection and even turned down a Crown offer for funding during the Yemassee War. Consequently, by 1715 the colonists began to petition the Crown to take over the province.
Robert Daniell was appointed deputy governor when Charles Craven retired in 1716. Daniell, the acknowledged leader of the powerful political faction known as the Goose Creek Men, was removed from office within a year because of his anti-proprietary policies. The Proprietors asked Robert Johnson to replace Daniell in 1717. The new governor had excellent credentials. He was the son of Sir Nathaniel Johnson and Joanna Overton Johnson.
Sir Nathaniel was from Kibblesworth County, Durham, England. He was the grandson of a Scottish blacksmith. His father served as mayor of Newcastle and acquired a small estate in Durham; he recorded his pedigree at the heralds’ visitation of the county in 1666.
Johnson went to the West Indies as a young man, serving as deputy treasurer to William Willoughby, governor of Barbados. He returned to Newcastle about 1668 and became a merchant in the Baltic trade. He served as captain of the Newcastle militia and as a member of the artillery company and held other offices before becoming mayor of Newcastle. In 1680, he was elected to represent Newcastle in Parliament and was rewarded with knighthood because of his father’s sacrifices in the royal cause and for his personal services in Barbados.
Political connections helped Sir Nathaniel be appointed governor of the Leeward Islands in 1686. One of the merchant adventurers, he became a cassique of Carolina that same year. After the 1688 “Glorious Revolution” ousted James II, Johnson proclaimed William and Mary regents and requested permission to return to private life as he did not support the new monarchs.
Sir Nathaniel arrived in Carolina in 1689. As a cassique, Johnson had acquired 12,000 acres and was a member of council. Maurice Mathews recruited him for the Goose Creek faction, and Johnson used his position in the Assembly to support attacks against Governor James Colleton and his overthrow by Seth Sothell in 1690.
Instead of accompanying her husband to Carolina, Johnson’s wife and their children left Nevis to visit her family in England. En route, their ship was captured by a French privateer who imprisoned her for almost a year. Mrs. Johnson died of the privations. It is uncertain where she is buried. Sir Nathaniel never remarried.
According to historian Edward McCrady, Johnson was considered an intelligent, and able citizen. He is credited with introducing silk culture, and his country seat near Goose Creek was fittingly called Silk Hope. By 1707, Johnson made £300 to £400 annually from silk production alone. This success encouraged others to experiment in silk production. Johnson was also one of the first planters to successfully cultivate rice, and he experimented in vineyards and salt making.
In 1702, Johnson received a commission from John Carteret, Lord Granville, new leader of the Lords Proprietors, investing him with the government of Carolina with an annual salary of £200. The new appointee was suspected of being no friend to the “Glorious Revolution,” and the Proprietors could not obtain Queen Anne’s consent until assurances were made that he would observe all laws and obey instructions sent out by the queen.
Upon the death of James II, Johnson took the oath. His son Robert and Thomas Cary, merchants of Carolina and London, signed a bond to guarantee Sir Nathaniel’s performance as governor at the Board of Trade. This was backed up with an estate at Kibblesworth with £200 per year that had been turned over to Robert Johnson. Sir Nathaniel assumed office when his commission arrived the following year.
Granville belonged to the “High Tory” party that advocated limiting the political rights of Dissenters. As a High Churchman, the new governor looked upon Dissenters of every denomination as enemies to the constitutions of both church and state. Almost immediately, Johnson dissolved the Sixth Assembly and called for a new election. Somehow notice of a special session reached only the Berkeley and Craven County delegations, who were predominantly Church of England. They met in May 1704 and passed the Exclusion Act, prohibiting those who did not conform to the Anglican worship from participating in the Assembly. In the lower house the act passed by a one-vote margin and in the upper house Landgrave Joseph Morton (a Dissenter) was refused liberty to enter his protest. In November, the General Assembly passed the Establishment Act, making the Church of England the state church.
Leading Dissenters were ousted from office, most notably the public receiver, Landgrave Thomas Smith. These acts were so disagreeable that the next Assembly voted to repeal the law, but Governor Johnson refused to sign the act. The Dissenters tried to send John Ash, one of the most vigorous opponents, to London to plead their case. When his opponents learned of Ashe’s plans, they prevented him from obtaining passage on any ship leaving Carolina. Ash was forced to go to Virginia to book passage for England, where he died before completing his mission.
After Ash’s death, Joseph Boone was sent to London and presented his case to the House of Lords. Boone presented a petition to the Lords Proprietors charging the governor with crimes against the foundations of the province and engaged Daniel Defoe, author of The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, to highlight the plight of the Dissenters in several widely circulated pamphlets.
At first the Proprietors ignored the Dissenters’ plight, but the House of Lords condemned the election of 1703 as fraudulent and the Exclusion and Church Acts as repugnant to the laws of England. Queen Anne referred the acts to the Lords of Trade which recommended that the Carolina Assembly had abused its powers and that the Charter of the colony should be forfeited. The queen ordered the Proprietors to declare both laws void.
In 1705, the Assembly repealed the Exclusion Act, and Governor Johnson dissolved the legislative body. The following year, a new Assembly was elected with Anglicans and their Huguenot allies in a clear majority. They met in November and repealed the Exclusion and Church acts and passed a new Church Act. This act limited the boundaries of the urban parish, St. Philip’s, and established nine new parishes, most of which were named after parishes in Barbados: Christ Church; St. Thomas’; St. John’s, Berkeley; St. James, Goose Creek; St. Andrew’s; St. Dennis’; St. Paul’s, Stono; St. Bartholomew’s; and St. James, Santee. Parish churches were to be financed by income from taxes on skins and furs. Parochial officials were responsible for both ecclesiastic and civil duties. Treasury funds were appropriated for building churches, parsonages, purchase of glebe lands, and minister’s salaries. No support was given the Dissenters’ meeting houses.
Johnson’s enemies said his handling of the Indian trade was outrageous, perhaps because his brother-in-law Thomas Broughton was trying to get a monopoly in the lucrative deerskin exports. In 1707, over Johnson’s objections, the Assembly passed the first act regulating the Indian trade. When Thomas Nairne, the newly appointed Indian agent and vocal opponent of Johnson, attempted to enforce the new regulations, Johnson had him arrested and charged with treason. Nairne eventually gained his liberty, but meaningful regulation of the Indian trade failed, and continued abuses led to the Yamassee War. Johnson and Nairne also were on opposing sides politically. Nairne was an Anglican but opposed establishment of the Church of England and favored preserving the rights of Dissenters.
On the plus side, Sir Nathaniel is credited with saving the fledgling colony from a Franco-Spanish invasion. He was an experienced soldier and anticipated trouble from the French and their Spanish allies. In December 1703, Johnson called an emergency session with the General Assembly to decide the best way to fortify the town. The government adopted a plan by Samuel DuBourdieu, a French immigrant, and engaged Jacques LeGrand, Sieur de Lomboy to build a wall with bastions, redans and a ravelin. Colonel William Rhett was commissioned to manage the project. They also built a fort at “Windmill Point” on James Island (now Fort Johnson), reorganized the militia and stationed a guard on Sullivan’s Island.
In 1706, Johnson outfitted a privateer to cruise near Havana. He ordered the captain to bring word of any gathering of ships. On August 24, the ship rushed back with news that it was being chased by five French vessels carrying French and Spanish soldiers. The captain of the fleet had learned that Charles Town was suffering from a yellow fever epidemic. Supposing the town vulnerable, he collected a large force and headed for Carolina.
The alarm was sent to Sir Nathaniel at Silk Hope, some 60 miles away. Colonel William Rhett, commanding officer of the militia, took command in his absence. The governor and troops from outlying areas began arriving the following day. To avoid exposing the country troops to the epidemic, Johnson encamped beyond the city walls.
The enemy ships sailed across the bar but turned back when they saw armed fortifications. The fleet anchored off Sullivan’s Island and sent an envoy to Charles Town under a flag of truce. He was received by the commander of Granville Bastion, who led him blindfold into the fort to wait until the governor could receive him. The wily Johnson tricked him into believing the town was heavily fortified by having the emissary taken blindfolded from bastion to bastion to see assembled men at arms who had been rushed through the alleys to reappear in the next bastion.
The French emissary demanded the city surrender. Johnson refused. Believing that the city was well prepared for a frontal assault, the French sent marauding parties into the outlying areas.
William Rhett, appointed temporary vice admiral, sailed out with six hastily armed vessels. The enemy chose not to fight and went out to sea. When no intruders were found on land, the governor disbanded the country companies and ceased martial law.
Then word came that a French ship with 200 armed men aboard was moored in Sewee Bay just north of town. Admiral Rhett sailed forth the following day while Captain John Fenwick took militia forces by land and captured 50 prisoners and killed 14.
Meanwhile, Rhett surprised the ship in Sewee Bay. The Frenchmen never fired a shot and offered a ransom of 10 thousand pieces of eight and sailed away, leaving behind 230 prisoners, mostly Indians. Their departure temporarily ended the Spanish threat. Johnson’s foresight was a smashing success, and the Proprietors rewarded him with accolades and a large tract of land.
Despite saving the colony, Sir Nathaniel’s high-handed religious intolerance caused such a riotous condition that powerful Dissenters were able to have him removed from office in 1709. He retired to Silk Hope and died there in 1712. He was buried in a small walled-in enclosure in a grave that is unmarked today.
Ironically, Sir Nathaniel’s son Robert was arguably the best-loved governor of colonial Carolina. To be continued …
My appreciation to Bob 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. She has also published in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society. For many years, she was a professional guide at Winterthur Museum in Delaware and was a partner in an international consulting business that specialized in safety documentation in highly hazardous industries. In Charleston, she has lectured on various topics related to the Holy City’s architectural history.