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the 1706 french and spanish invasion of charles towne

A European War that came to America: The 1706 French and Spanish Invasion of Charles Towne

Having been founded by primarily English and Barbadian settlers in 1670, by 1700 Charles Towne in what is now South Carolina was growing rapidly. The town site had been moved from its original 1670 location on the west side of the Ashley River to the peninsula called Oyster Point where a deep-water harbor made it possible for larger ships to bring in more cargo and people to the settlement. Immigrants were arriving frequently from Europe, the West Indies, and other settlements along the Atlantic. By the beginning of the 18th century, Carolina had an estimated population of over 5,000.

Three problems concerned the Charles Towne colonists at this time. One was that the Spanish still considered Carolina to be part of Spanish Florida and resented English expansion into the area. In fact, the first settlement site had been in a creek far enough up the Ashley River so that it could not be seen by Spanish ships patrolling along the coastline. In a letter to Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the Lords Proprietors who financed the founding of the colony, Charles Towne’s first governor, William Sayle asked that Cooper send more supplies and people to strengthen the colony “for the Spanyard watcheth onley for an opportunity to destroy us…”

Another challenge was that although most of the Indians in the area were friendly, some of them were becoming increasingly unhappy about their treatment at the hands of unscrupulous traders. The greediest of the traders, for example, were accused of instigating conflicts between tribes and trading for the Indian prisoners who were then sold as slaves to Caribbean planters. As early as July 1674, members of the Stono tribe, part of the Cusabo Nation living near the original English settlement, rebelled against English encroachment on their lands. Most of the other Cusabo tribes, such as the Edisto, Kiawah, and Escamacu continued to remain peaceful, at least for the next few years.

The third problem confronting the colonists was that the French who controlled the Mississippi River valley considered English traders, who by that time were establishing trade with the Cherokee and other tribes several miles northwest of Charles Towne, to be intruders. Both French and English traders vied for economic as well as political influence with the large Cherokee tribe. As more settlers moved into wilderness areas north of Charles Towne, it was important to keep the Cherokees, Catawba and other southern tribes friendly to the English.

Events in Europe further raised the ire of the Spanish and French against the English, as conflicts among the European nations led to conflicts in America as well. In 1700 the king of Spain, Charles II, died without a direct successor and the Spanish and French, both staunchly Catholic nations at the time, saw this as an opportunity to join forces and counter the growing power of their Protestant rival, England. Charles II had stipulated in his will that the throne of Spain be offered to his 17-year-old grandnephew, Philip of Anjou, who was also the grandson of France’s Louis XIV. Philip was crowned king of Spain in November 1700 and by taking the Spanish throne under the name of Philip V, he united Spain and France politically.

The English saw this unification as a threat to themselves and the European balance of power. Within a few months, when diplomacy between the nations failed, the result was the War of Spanish Succession, also known as Queen Anne’s War, since she was the queen of England at the time. In the chess-match politics of the day, the war pitted England, the Netherlands, Austria, and Prussia against Spain, France, and Bavaria. Since the nations involved were mostly either Catholic or Protestant, the war in Europe took on the tone of a religious conflict as well as a political one.

In North America, however, it was primarily a war of control of the continent. Battles were fought from French New Orleans, to Spanish Florida, to the mid-Atlantic English colonies, and as far north as French controlled areas in Canada.

By the spring of 1702 the war was beginning to be felt in Carolina, which at that time was not yet divided between North Carolina and South Carolina. Rumors were spreading that Spain and France were joining forces to attack Charles Towne in an attempt to bring the English colony under French and Spanish control. So, in a pre-emptive move to keep the two nations out of Carolina, Governor James Moore and Deputy Governor Col. Robert Daniell mustered an army of about 500 colonists and 500 Indians and sailed south in 14 boats from Charles Towne toward the Spanish town of St. Augustine, Florida.

Col. Daniell and his contingency of 100 colonists 500 Indians were landed in the vicinity of Amelia Island, north of present-day Jacksonville, while Moore with 400 colonists sailed on to St. Augustine. Their plan was that Moore would attack by sea and Daniell’s troops would attack the town by land.

Although Moore attempted to keep his plan of attack a secret, word got out, and by the time he arrived at St. Augustine on November 10, 1702, the residents of the town had retreated into Castillo de San Marcos, the formidable Spanish fort completed in 1695. Moore laid siege to the fort for a few weeks, but his small guns did little to dislodge the Spanish, who apparently had brought along plenty of food and supplies. He sent boats to Jamaica to get larger guns but before they arrived back, news of a Spanish fleet heading toward St. Augustine from Havana cut short Moore’s plans. On December 29 he and his men burned their ships and set fire to the town then returned by land to Charles Towne.

The next year, Moore led another foray into what is now Georgia and Florida destroying a number of Spanish missions and Indian villages, especially those of the Apalachee tribe in the region of western Florida who were considered loyal to the Spanish. He and his men kidnapped hundreds of enemy Indians to be sold as slaves. Also accompanying him back were a number of Indians friendly to the English who set up villages along the Savanna River.

These attacks held off the Spanish for a while, but in the summer of 1706, the Spanish and French joined forces and assembled a fleet of six war ships at St. Augustine manned with 800 Spanish and French soldiers under the command of Jaques LeFeboure. Their plan was to attack Charles Towne and other English settlements along the Carolina coast.

LeFeboure’s spies had reported that the population of Charles Towne was being decimated by a yellow fever epidemic and this might be a good time to attack. The disease had killed several people including former governor James Moore who had died in early 1706.

The new governor of Carolina, Sir Nathaniel Johnson who owned Silk Hope, a 1,940- acre plantation in Berkeley County some 30 miles up the Cooper River from Charles Towne, had become governor when James Moore’s term of office had expired in 1703. One of his first projects was building a fort on James Island at Windmill Point, a neck of land at the edge of Charleston Harbor. Johnson said he liked the location because it was “within a carbine shot” of all vessels that sailed into the harbor. The fort was being built to hold 30 cannons and house several dozen soldiers. It was named Fort Johnson, after the governor.

Johnson, also instigated the construction of a wall around 62 acres of the heart of Charles Towne, making it one of only a few walled cities, such as Quebec, Boston, and later Savannah, Georgia in North America. Some of the citizens of Charles Towne grumbled about the cost of these projects, but Johnson claimed the fort and the wall were needed, and in light of the French and Spanish threat to the town, his foresight proved to be correct.

Like Moore in St. Augustine, LeFeboure was hoping for a surprise attack, but on August 21 as the six French ships were sailing north out of St. Augustine, they were spotted by a Captain Peter Stool, a privateer out of New York aboard The Flying Horse. When he saw the French warships, Stool hurriedly turned his ship around and headed for Charles Towne. LeFeboure’s fleet chased him but Stool managed to stay ahead.

In the meantime, LeFeboure caught site of a Dutch ship in the area, and since the Netherlands was one of the countries France was at war with at the time, he sent one of his ships, the Brillant, after it.

After what must have been a tense 4-day sail being chased by a fleet of French ships, Stool managed to get to Charles Towne on Saturday August 24 about an hour before LeFeboure’s fleet of five ships arrived.

That was a close call, but it was enough time for Captain Stool to warn Col. William Rhett, who was in charge of Charles Towne’s defenses, that the French would be arriving soon. Rhett immediately sent riders out to call in the militia troops living in the area and to send word to Governor Johnson of the impending attack.

It was not long after Stool’s arrival that watchmen on Sullivan’s Island spotted the French ships and lit five fires to warn the residents of Charles Towne that there were five enemy ships approaching the harbor. After taking soundings of the harbor’s depth, LeFeboure anchored his ships just outside the harbor entrance and planned his strategy.

The next day LeFeboure sent an emissary to Governor Johnson demanding that he surrender the town in one hour or the ships would attack. Johnson, however, was confident that the artillery batteries of “one hundred choice great guns” set up along Charles Towne’s shoreline, as well as the recently completed wall around most of the town could repulse an attack. His reply to LeFeboure was: “I do not need a minute to decide. I hold this province for Her Majesty Queen Anne of England. I am ready to die in its defense but not to surrender it.” Based on Johnson’s defiant reply and seeing that Charles Towne was heavily defended, LeFeboure decided not to risk a direct assault.

Instead, he split his troops into two units. A group of about 100 soldiers was sent to attack James Island on the south west of the harbor. It is believed the troops landed in the vicinity of present-day Clearview community on the northeast part of the island, about one mile west of Fort Johnson, which was still under construction at the time. The invaders burned a number of houses and ravaged the countryside until they were repulsed by a combined force of 60 Carolina militiamen and 20 Indians under the command of Captain Jonathan Drake. Several of the invaders were taken prisoner.

LeFeboure sent another 150 soldiers to the opposite side of the harbor. These landed at the mouth of Shem Creek in today’s Mt. Pleasant where they burned two boats and a storehouse belonging to a Mr. Dearsby. Apparently, the soldiers had not had a decent meal in a while because in the midst of their plundering they slaughtered several hogs and cows and had a good meal. While feasting on their spoils, they were surprised by militia troops under the command of Captains John Fenwick and William Cantey. In the ensuing battle, 12 of the invaders were killed and 33 taken prisoner, while only one Carolinian was killed. The rest of the French and Spanish invaders were chased back to their boats or swam out to the ships. A few of those who attempted the swim, drowned along the way.

The following day Col. Rhett outfitted 7 merchant ships with guns and sailed out of Charles Towne to engage the French ships. By this time LeFeboure had become convinced of the Carolinians’ determination to stand their ground and decided to give up the fight. When he saw Rhett’s makeshift warships coming toward him, he weighed anchor and sailed out of the area.

Two days after LeFeboure’s departure, apparently unaware of the events at Charles Towne, the Brillant under Captain Pacquereau, had gotten off course chasing the Dutch ship. Pacquereau wound up landing his troops north of Charles Towne near Sewee Bay. His revised plan then was to march south and join up with LeFeboure. But, like LeFeboure’s fleet, his ship was spotted.

Again, Colonel Rhett and Captain Fenwick went into action. Rhett sailed north from Charles Towne with two armed ships while Fenwick took a company of militia by land. Fenwick found the French-Spanish camp and attacked. His Carolinians killed 14 of the enemy and took 50 prisoners. Meanwhile Rhett captured the Brillant with some 90 men on board, including French general Arbouset and several officers.

In a few days the invasion was over, and the whole affair wound up being a humiliating defeat for the French and Spanish forces and a complete victory for the scrappy Carolinians. In total, about 50 of the invaders had been killed in battle or drowned trying to escape, and over 150 were taken prisoner.

Housing that many prisoners was a problem for the Carolinians so they sent several of them to Virginia to be sent on to England. The ultimate fate of the rest of prisoners is unknown, although as prisoners of war, they were probably sent back to Florida.

The war raged on in other parts of North America for about four more years. In 1710, for example, the British captured Acadia and Port Royal in Nova Scotia and secured other victories as well that caused the French to retreat north and west into Canada. As for events in Europe, the war lasted until 1712 when a truce was declared. In 1713 the Treaty of Utrecht was adopted which separated the thrones of France and Spain. It stipulated that Philip V would remain king of Spain and Louis XV, who was only five years old at the time, would become king of France.

English skirmishes with the Spanish continued along the coastal communities from Florida to Carolina for the next three decades. Then in July 1742 the English won a decisive victory at the Battle of Bloody Marsh on St. Simon’s Island, Georgia in which over 200 Spanish soldiers were killed. By that time, Spain’s influence as a global power was waning, and never again did the Spanish or French attempt to destroy the English settlements in Carolina or Georgia. A century later, in 1845, what was once Spanish Florida, became the 27th US state.

It is interesting to note that although Fort Johnson was not finished in time to help thwart the French ships in 1706, it proved important in later conflicts. In 1775, at the beginning of the American Revolution, it was captured from the British who had set up a camp there and was the site where the flag of the state of South Carolina was first raised.

Then, 86 years later in January 1861 Confederate soldiers fired the first shots of the American Civil War at a supply ship, Star of the West, attempting to bring food and ammunition to Federal troops stationed at Fort Sumter, a large brick and earthen fort which had built on an island in Charleston Harbor. The ship was forced to turn around and leave before it reached Fort Sumter. Four months later on April 12, 1861, Confederates again fired from Fort Johnson, this time at Fort Sumter itself starting the Civil War.

The area is still called Fort Johnson today but little of the actual fort remains except a powder magazine believed to date from 1765. However, the 40 or so acres that were part of the fort’s grounds are today home to a number of state and national marine biology research laboratories.

As for Sir Nathaniel Johnson, his term of office as Carolina governor ended in 1709. He died three years later at Silk Hope in Berkeley County, South Carolina. Johnson was able to produce some silk at Silk Hope, but it never became a profitable crop.

Nathaniel’s son, Robert, became a popular governor of South Carolina, serving two terms: 1717 to 1719 and again from 1729 until he died in 1735.

William Rhett continued as a sea merchant with a fleet of ships that sailed between Charles Towne, Barbados, and the Bahamas. In 1718 he again answered the call to defend Charles Towne. He took two armed ships and pursued Steed Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate” into the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. After a heated battle Bonnet was captured and taken back to Charles Towne where he and several of his men were hung.

Rhett lived until 1723 and died at his home at 54 Hasell Street in Charles Towne.

Ted McCormack

One comment

  1. Great historical research and a compelling account of early Charlton history woven from it. Good work, Ted.

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