William Ancrum Papers, 1757–1789: Letter Book and Account Book

South Caroliniana Library

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Formerly owned by wealthy Charleston merchant William Ancrum (ca. 1722–1808), this single volume (171 pages, bound in vellum) contains both a letter book and financial accounts that reflect the financial impact of the American Revolution on this South Carolina businessman and planter.

The letter book, 1776–1780 (169 letters), preserves communications with merchants in Camden, S.C., as well as plantation overseers, and others; the account book details Ancrum’s personal expenses, 1776–1789. The earliest financial entries, 1757–1758, preserve mercantile accounts recorded during the French and Indian War by the firm of Fesch & Guinard [Guignard], the original owner of the volume.

A member of the successful Charleston, S.C., firm of Ancrum, Lance & Loocock, Ancrum owned at least two plantations, Redbank and Good Hope, located near Camden in the South Carolina backcountry. He was, however, an absentee land owner and, consequently, many of the letters in Ancrum’s letterbook are addressed to overseers Marlow Pryor, Parker Quince, and Joshua Terrel. There are also letters to Camden, S.C., merchants Joseph Kershaw (1727–1791) and John Chesnut (1743–1818).

Ancrum’s letters to his overseers discuss management of plantation operations, including the health of slaves, news of runaways, and the transportation of crops and supplies between Camden and Charleston. The first letter in the volume, dated 1 March 1776, concerns the whereabouts of “negro Billy,” a runaway. The return of Billy is discussed in a letter of 23 March 1776 in which Ancrum urges Marlow Pryor to “use such means as will prevent his running away in future.” Writing again to Pryor on 4 September 1776, Ancrum advises, “When I was at Camden Mr. Chestnut told me that he would get the person who made shoes for his Negroes to make some for my Negroes also, pray put him in mind of it. … I have no prospect of getting any clothing for them,” Ancrum continues, “so that they will be under a necessity of making a shift with such as they have, I believe it will be necessary to plant some cotton next year, as am doubtful there will be no dependence on getting cloth to buy.”

Clothing the African-American slaves on his backcountry plantation proved difficult for Ancrum throughout the Revolutionary War years, and a number of his letters address the problem. On 19 September 1776 he wrote to Captain Vesey about a cask of indigo shipped on board the brig Fanny and urged Vesey upon the ship’s arrival in the West Indies to sell the indigo and invest the proceeds in “white or col[oure]d Negro Cloths such as is commonly used here for winter Clothing of Negroes.” Again, on 30 October 1776, Ancrum urged Marlow Pryor to minimize the slaves’ exposure to the weather because of insufficient clothing, and on more than one occasion urged his overseers to “plant some Cotton as there is no dependence on getting Clothing but by making Homespun.” A letter dated 23 March 1776 discusses Ancrum’s purchase of cattle and slaves, but notes that the latter decision hinged upon “the unsettled state of our public Affairs [which] at present discourages me from running a debt.” The same letter comments on the scarcity of farming tools on the Charleston market: “there is not a Hoe nor a Bar of Iron to beg of in Town” and advises Pryor to “patch up the old ones in the best manner you can.”

The conflict with England led to a sharp increase in the price of slaves, as evidenced by a letter to Marlow Pryor, 23 December 1776, referring to a sale in Charleston at which slaves sold for “as high as between 700 and 800 British pounds pr head.” Ancrum purchased an enslaved slave woman and child the following month and sent them to Redbank plantation, noting in his letter to Pryor that they were “the only ones I have as yet been able to purchase. They sell at such extravagant prices.”

Inflated prices were a constant complaint throughout the Revolutionary years, and Ancrum’s letters routinely discuss the rising prices and the extraordinary wage demands of tradesmen. A letter to Parker Quince, 16 August 1779, reports that Ancrum had been unable “to procure any Negroe Tradesmen for you such as would suit, £10,000 has been offered for Carp[ente]rs. The price of field slaves far exceeds your limits, upwards of 300 has been purchased lately by one person for which he gave £4250 pounds.”

A problem that may have been related to the high prices for slaves was theft. Ancrum’s letter of 9 May 1778 to the Florida firm of Panton, Forbes & Company solicits their assistance in recovering three slaves stolen from his Congaree plantation: “It is suspected that some of the McGirts who were formerly settled near Camden & some time ago retired to East Florida & who it seems have givin themselves up to those scandulous practices, are the perpetrators of this villainy, who have also taken off with them a great many horses from the settlements on the Wateree River.”

The principal crop grown on William Ancrum’s plantations was indigo. In a letter of 15 March 1777 Ancrum orders the sale of indigo to satisfy a debt and instructed Joseph Kershaw to “distinguish the Cheraw Indico from that made at Redbank” when it was sent to Charleston. A letter dated 10 October 1777 gives instructions for shipping indigo to Charleston before the roads becomes impassable and lists supplies that he could ship upstate in return. Transporting the crop to Charleston incurred other obstacles during times of heavy rain. Ancrum responded to John Chestnut in a letter of 3 October 1777 expressing regret over “the great damage occasioned by so high a flood in the river.”

As prices for dry goods, medicine, rum, lumber, tobacco, salt, and other items continued to rise, Ancrum urged economy upon his overseers and encouraged them to consider planting provision crops in order to feed the slave population. A number of letters also concern the transportation of flour, butter, tallow, corn, tobacco, and pork to Charleston but warn that they must not be transported by wagons which were being impressed for use by the army. Ancrum wrote overseer Joshua Terrel on 9 February 1780 advising him to “plant sufficiently for a plentiful crop of provisions, also some flax & cotton so that it is possible to procure some clothing for the Negroes” and reporting that he had been unable “to get any Cotton Cards yet,” a significant concern for efficient removal of the seeds from the fiber in the decades prior to widespread use of the cotton gin.

Ancrum’s letters contain only occasional references to the military conflict, his comments relating chiefly to the economic implications of events. A letter of 15 July 1777 cites a problem in shipping salt which might be viewed “as a breach of the Embargo … & consequently subject a person to public Censure which few people would care to incur.” Rice, salt, and indigo were under embargo during this time, and as a result William Ancrum was prohibited from selling much of his indigo crop. Two letters, 5 and 18 September 1778, addressed to Messrs. Campbell, Hooper, & Company discuss the embargo affecting the rice crop. “The Embargo prevents the Exportation of Rice,” the earlier letter states, “notwithstanding I believe some small parcels are shipped off but clandestinely & with some risque.” The second letter, 18 September 1778, relates news of the seizure of Captain Almy’s vessel which “was this morning stop’d at Fort Moultrie & on searching the vessel was found to have rice on board.” Another letter, 26 September 1778, to Campbell, Hooper, & Company details the activities of hostile British ships off the South Carolina coast.

Ancrum’s correspondence refers also to events and conditions in Charleston, S.C. A letter of 28 January 1778 relates details of the damage resulting from a fire on 15 January which “has laid in Ruins the whole of Church street square to the Bey [bay].” “The Scene was dreadful,” Ancrum notes, and “the distress of many, before very great, now became almost insupportable—the loss in property immense, the principal part of the Town being destroyed, which in our present situation cannot soon be properly rebuilt.” A letter of 16 February 1778 to Geo[rge] Hooper comments on the aftermath of the fire: “the consequences will be severely felt by many, it never would have happened in a worse period when the distress of many was already great, & no materials to be go to repair the losses … properly by rebuilding.”

The Library published a similar version of this essay in the 1990 annual program of the University South Caroliniana Society (pp. 28–31).

Henry Fulmer and Brian Cuthrell of the South Caroliniana Library suggested this collection, assisted with the background and history of the papers, and allowed the Digital Activities Department access to it for loading to CONTENTdm. Kristi Wright of the Conservation Lab scanned the collection and Santi Thompson (MLIS, 2008) and Saxony Scott (MLIS, 2009) created the metadata. The metadata records follow the SCDL and Western States Best Practices Dublin Core format. Saxony Scott also created a home page for the collection. Matthew W. Shepherd (MLIS, 2012) updated the collection Web pages in 2013. The work could also not have been done without the help of Tony Branch, of the Systems Department, who is the systems administrator for the CONTENTdm database and helps to manage the computers and scanners in the Digital Activities Department.

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