More data seems to be emerging almost by the hour since I first learned of the existence of a forgotten family graveyard in South Carolina. I've been spending hours on the phone every evening with my new friend the local historian, and together we are like two hounds on the hunt; matching what I know of the family relationships to what he finds in the physical records and we both locate on-line. It is marvelous, thrilling stuff for a genealogist, but it is more than collecting vital statistics. It is taking me to places that put some flesh on those dry bones, and some of it is the sort that can make your skin crawl.
The senior Willimans and their offspring were of a class of merchant / planters whose acquisitiveness and business interests have left their mark across nearly fifty years of legal records in Charleston, South Carolina from at least 1777, when then 31-year-old Christopher Williman purchased 970 acres on the Ashley River north of the city. He resold it in 1780 but held the mortgage, on which he subsequently foreclosed after 1790 and added it to his growing estates in the vicinity.
In 1782 his lands were confiscated when he was condemned and expelled as a Tory, but were later restored in 1784 (subject to a 12% fine on all his real and personal property). In 1787 he acquired the first 267 1/2 acres of what was ultimately a 720 acre purchase from Col. William Scott of a neighboring plantation called "The White House" which became his primary residence. During his lifetime, all of his 2,153 contiguous holdings on the Ashley River were known as "The White House" plantation, and when he died on December 31, 1813, these passed equally to two of his widowed daughters: Mary (Williman) Peters and Margaret (Williman) Bethune, my 4th Gr-Grandmother. Mrs. Bethune received her 1,028 acres in 1814 from the southeast portion of the estate when the plantation was partitioned, retaining the original "White House" settlement, while her sister's lands became known as "Ashley Woods and Jerico" These names still appear on streets and in housing developments on the land today.
The cemetery was once part of the White House Plantation, and closer scrutiny of plantation maps which my South Carolina friend is mailing to me should help determine whether it falls on the Bethune or Peters portion. Angus Bethune, who died not a fortnight before Christopher Williman, is buried there, and I have learned a good deal more about this ancestor than was previously in our family record. For one thing, I believe he was not just part of the plantation economy, but as an importing and exporting merchant he may very well have made at least one investment in the direct importation of slaves.
In December, 1802 (a significant date, as we shall see), Angus Bethune went in with two business partners and bought the schooner "Samuel Treadwell". This vessel has an interesting history, having been named for Samuel Tredwell, the deputy port collector of Edenton, North Carolina. Tredwell was the fellow, who among other things, picked out the spot for the Cape Hatteras lighthouse, which in turn was captured and defended in 1862 by the 9th New York "Hawkins Zouaves", in whose ranks may be found my 3rd Great Uncle, Theodore Abbott!
In any case, his namesake schooner, under different ownership, was condemned in January, 1800 in that same port and on Tredwell's watch as an illicit trader in the West Indies . On September 25, 1800 ( presumably now under new ownership but with the same home port of Edenton), she was boarded and inspected by the U.S. Navy while en route from "Martinico to St. Kitts". Evidently the Samuel Treadwell was not detained on this occasion, and the next record I can find of this schooner was is in reference Angus Bethune and his partners;
"all of Charleston, merchants (who) purchased the schooner Samuel Treadwell, Barney master, and shipped on board a cargo of merchandize (sic), and sent her on a voyage to Africa; that they were equally interested in the said vessel and cargo. That the said vessel proceeded on her voyage, and arrived at her destination in safety, and traded according to the objects of the party aforesaid with great success and gain; and that she arrived in the port of Charleston returning from the coast of Africa, in July 1803, laden with a valuable cargo."
The timing of this voyage and the dry, legal wording of its details are quite significant. South Carolina voted in 1803 to repeal its earlier prohibitions on the importation of slaves from Africa, and openly resumed this practice between 1803 and 1808 until the federal constitution mandated the end of the transatlantic slave trade. A ship laden with merchandise and heading out to sea at the close of 1802 to the coast of Africa can only have had the object of trading for the most valuable cargo available.It was a short trip out and back.
Slavers with west Africa often imported additional African exports such as ivory, guinea grains (pepper), redwood, gold dust, gum and beeswax, dyeing materials and medicinal drugs. The Samuel Treadwell could have traded for some of these items, either exclusively or in addition to a primary cargo of slaves. There is a strong case to be made that Angus Bethune and his partners wanted to be among the first out the gate when the illicit smuggling of slaves could be openly resumed with legality.
Whether they had been involved with the trade prior to then can only be surmised (though their shipping out prior to 1802 does look rather suspicious). South Carolina repealed its non-importation law late in 1803, so a July arrival of a slave ship in port would have still been illegal. Still, the reason given for the repeal of the law in the first place was that it had become unenforceable and slave smuggling was a regular practice. A schooner of that period averaged 50 tons and as a slave ship might have transported 85 people in its hold. Questions, questions...
Rather tellingly, the revenues collected on imports in Charleston in the years 1804-1807 show a marked spike when compared to those which immediately followed. West-Central Africa was a new and lucrative market for slave traders at the turn of the 19th century, with South Carolina importing 20,000 during this period. Could the Samuel Treadwell have made it this far and returned on an 8 month voyage? For now I can only speculate.
I believe in clear-eyed genealogy. is not good history. Part of me is excited by these discoveries and thrilled to pursue further research. Part of me feels it was appropriate that I learned more about of my slave-holding, quite possibly slave importing ancestors on Martin Luther King Day. The dead are not finished speaking to us, but it requires new ways of hearing to make sense of what they have to say.
Namibians have a proverb that says;
"You can't smell yourself. Let another one smell you."
Those old merchants and planters knew what they were talking about without having to spell out the nature of that "valuable cargo". They could not smell their stench in that sanitized legal language.
Some of what they say to me is; 'We are stuck in the same old conversation, products of our time and place. And here we remain, while life goes on without us.'"
So I stop, look, and listen, testing assumptions, probing beneath the surface, open to whatever is revealed to the light of day.