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carolina pioneers

Affra Harleston and John Coming: Carolina Pioneers

There is never a good side to a war. But one of its byproducts is that sometimes the people dislocated by it are able to put their talents and abilities to good use in their new home. This was the case with two people whose family properties were damaged by the English Civil War of 1642 to 1652. The families of Affra Harleston and John Coming were Royalists who backed King Charles I against the parliamentary forces led by Oliver Cromwell.

During and after the war, the victorious Cromwellians occupied a number of royalists estates, damaging the homes and stealing what they wanted. Although Cromwell died in 1658 and the monarchy was restored under King Charles II in 1660, distrust and feelings of animosity lingered for years afterward.

To escape some of the problems associated with the war, several members of the Harleston family moved from their home in Essex County in the east of England to Dublin, Ireland. Affra was either born in Dublin or came there with her family as a small child. It is believed that Affra, whose name in Arabic or Hebrew means ‘young deer’ was the daughter of John and Elizabeth Harleston. She had two older brothers, John and Charles.

 John Coming was born in the early 1640s in a home on the River Teigh not far from the English Channel in Devon in southwest England. Like many who grew up in that area, John went to sea at a young age, but he also maintained a close relationship with his mother and siblings.

There is no indication that John and Affra knew each other before they met on the ship sailing to America. However, these two people, both in their twenties in August 1669, decided to leave home and start a new life in a distant province called Carolina on a ship named Carolina. The name Carolina comes from the Latin name Carolus or Charles. The province in America was fist called Carolina under King Charles I.

The venture was being financed by a group of eight men, known as the Lords Proprietors, who had helped establish Charles II as king of England. As a reward for their efforts, Charles II had given the group permission to set up colonies in America. The most enthusiastic member of the group at this time was Anthony Ashley Cooper who had been made Earl of Shaftsbury.

Having the reputation as a good sailor, John Coming was given the job of first mate aboard the Carolina at a salary of 3 English pounds a month. Henry Brayne, captain of the shipdescribed Johnas “of the hardy race of Devon sea rovers, a very honest, trusty, and able man, experienced in the western isles and coasts,” and later said of him that he is “a verie able man and accoynted (acquainted) well with our Virginia, Newingland (New England) and he Leward (Leeward) Islands.”

Affra Harleston came from a landed Essex family that dated back several centuries. In 1010 AD, Herolf the Dane came to England and founded a town in today’s Norfolk County, which he named after himself. As the name of the town became more anglicized over the years, it went from Herolfstune, to Herolvestune, and eventually to Harleston. As was the custom in the middle-ages, the town’s name was taken by many of the residents, and apparently this is the origin of the Harleston family name.

One branch of Harleston’s moved south from Norfolk County and established a family estate in Essex County called Mollands near the town of South Ockendon. Several generations of Harleston’s lived there until the English Civil War forced part of the family to move to Dublin, Ireland.

Some family members stayed at Mollands, but evidently Affra’s parents moved to Dublin where she grew up and was educated. In the summer of 1669, at the age of about 24 Affra decided to leave Ireland and she made her way several miles southwest to the port town of Kinsale to catch one of the ships to Carolina when it docked there. Affra must have heard that the ships were coming to Kinsale around the middle of August and she made sure she was there to meet them.

The fleet of three ships, the Carolina with about 100 people on board, the Port Royal with about 60 passengers and the Albemarle with around 40,sailed from the Downes off the coast of Kent, England about August 10, 1669. The fleet’s first stop was Kinsale, Ireland where the Lord Proprietors, who were financing the trip as a business venture, hoped to pick up more passengers for settlement in the new world.

It turned out, however, that many Irish people still distrusted the English from the years of Cromwell’s cruel reign in which thousands of Irish were killed or sold into slavery to plantation owners in the West Indies. As a result, only about 20 Irish joined the fleet, including Affra Harleston, who became one of 17 women along with about 90 men onboard the ship Carolina. Her older brother John stayed in Ireland, and Charles, another older brother, apparently sailed to Carolina at a later date.

Affra’s family had been prosperous land owners in England but lost a good bit of their wealth during the Civil War and under the Cromwell regime. It is obvious, however, that in spite of their reduced circumstances, the family valued education. Affra, unlike many females in her day, learned to read and write very well, as her letters to her relatives attest.

But apparently Harleston family money was in short supply in the late 1660s and Affra did not have enough to cover the cost of her passage to Carolina. For the convenience of those who could not afford the fare, a passenger could agree to become an indentured servant to a “master” for a given length of time and the master would pay the fare. Affra, who needed help to cover all of her expenses, signed on for a two-year indenture to Joseph Dalton, a prominent English lawyer who became secretary of the Carolina colony’s ruling council.

The indenture system generally worked well for both parties. The master was granted 150 acres of land for each male servant brought to Carolina and 100 acres for each female. Then at the end of a servant’s indenture, each male servant was granted 150 acres of land and each female 100 acres. It is believed that Dalton and Affra had an amicable relationship during the time of her indenture and as a freed servant received 100 acres of land when her tenure expired in 1672.

With Joseph West as fleet commander, the ships left Kinsale on August 17, 1669, and based on the favorable reports of William Hilton and Robert Sandford who had explored the area a few years earlier, they headed for Port Royal Sound in the province of Carolina.

The voyage was long and eventful with stops at Barbados, Bermuda, Nevis, the Bahamas, Sewee Bay, and Port Royal before reaching their final destination at Albemarle Point at what is now Charleston, South Carolina. The first stop was at Barbados where some passengers, mostly Barbadian planters, went aboard. The Albemarle was wrecked in a storm at Barbados and replaced by another ship, The Three Brothers, owned by Thomas Colleton, a Barbadian planter and son of John Colleton, one of the Lords Proprietors.

The three ships left Barbados and sailed north. Along the way they ran into another large storm that separated the ships and caused them a great deal of trouble. The ship Port Royal was wrecked at Abaco in the Bahamas and many of its 40 or so passengers stayed there. A few came later to Albemarle Point.

The crew of the Carolina put in at Nevis for a few days where they picked up a passenger named Henry Woodward who proved to be a valuable Indian trader and interpreter for the colony.

Although the Carolina was damaged in the storm, it made it to Bermuda where it stayed for several days undergoing repairs and picking up more passengers. The Carolina then sailed due west and landed at Sewee Bay, a few miles north of today’s Charleston. Here the colonists encountered the friendly Sewee Indians and a Kiawah chief or cassique who was visiting the Sewee at the time. A few days later when they sailed south, the Cassique of Kiawah who was described as “a very Ingenious Indian and a great Linguist in this Maine”, rode with them.

During the height of a large storm, Affra, who historian Frederick Dalcho described as “a lady of eminent piety and liberality” was heard praying by quoting a verse from the bible: “God will preserve me as he hath in many great dangers when I saw his wonders in ye deep and was by him delivered.” She vowed that once she settled in America, she would never cross the Atlantic again.

The colonists were relieved when in March 1670 the Carolina anchored near an Escamacu Indian village at what is now Parris Island in Port Royal Sound. These same Indians, in 1663 and again in 1666, had welcomed English ships captained by William Hilton and Robert Sandford, and in 1670 welcomed the Carolina with its company of tired but hopeful passengers.

The passengers and crew of the Carolina hoped this would be their last stop. However, the news they received from the Escamacu was not good. In the last year, a tribe of hostile Indians called the Westo, had moved down from Virginia and set up villages along the Savannah River. The Escamacu described the Westo as killers and slave catchers. They had raided the local Escamacu villages and captured several Indians which apparently had been sold to slave traders in Virginia.

After some discussion among the colonists and listening to advice from the Cassique of Kiawah who invited them to establish their settlement at his territory a few miles north of Port Royal, Joseph West and the colonists again boarded the Carolina and sailed another 60 miles north.

In the meantime, The Three Brothers, having been blown off course for several days, stopped at St. Catherines Island off the coast of today’s state of Georgia, to get water. There they encountered friendly Indians who paddled out to the ship in their canoes to greet them. The Indians were welcomed on board where the colonists and Indians traded tools and other items for food and animal furs. The next day, however, when some English went ashore to get water, they were arrested by Spanish soldiers who had been watching them.

For several days, Maurice Matthews and other officials aboard the Three Brothers tried to negotiate with the Spanish but the soldiers would not return the prisoners. To the Spaniards, the English were trespassers in territory they claimed as Spanish Florida and had no right to be there. Finally, after several days of trying to get the English prisoners released during which the English and the Spanish fired shots at each other, the crew of the Three Brothers gave up and sailed north to Port Royal Sound. The friendly Escamacu and Edisto Indians they spoke with at Port Royal told them the Carolina had already been there and had sailed north to Kiawah.

Finally, on about April 12, 1670, after almost eight months since leaving Kinsale, the ship Carolina with about 120 passengers, dropped anchor in a tidal creek on the west side of a river that three years earlier explorer Robert Sandford had named the Ashley, after Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftsbury, one of the eight Lords Proprietors. Following its unpleasant encounter with the Spanish, the Three Brothers landed there about five weeks later with its 60 passengers. The little colony was growing rapidly.

Located some three miles up from the entrance of what became known as Charleston Harbor, the site was chosen because it could not be seen by Spanish ships sailing up from St. Augustine that regularly patrolled the area. Since the Spanish still considered the area a part of Spanish Florida, and the English settlers as intruders, it was necessary to stay out of sight as much as possible. For as William Sayle, the colony’s first governor wrote to Anthony Ashley Cooper, “the Spanyard watcheth onely for an opportuny to destroy us…”.

The landing site was first called Kiawah after the Indians who lived in the area, and was later changed to Albemarle Point after George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, another of the Lords Proprietors. A few months later the colony’s name was changed to Charles Towne after King Charles II.

By the end of the voyage, Affra Harleston and John Coming had fallen in love and decided to get married. Their plans had to be put on hold, however, because of Affra’s indenture to Joseph Dalton. She was legally bound to him as servant for two years and was not free to marry until the indenture expired.

As in other new colonies in America, the settlers faced many days of hard work and food shortages. Once the colonists had established enough shelters to live in, Henry Brayne, who had been captain of the ship Carolina, and First Mate John Coming sailed the Carolina to Virginia to get food and farm animals. For the weeks the ship was gone the colonists had to rely largely on the Indians for food.

Thanks primarily to the negotiations of Henry Woodward, the passenger who came aboard at Nevis, who had lived with the Escamacu for several months and spoke the same Cusabo language used by the Kiawah, the Stono, and other nearby tribes, the colonists managed to survive in good shape. The Indians provided food as they could without depleting what they needed for their own well-being.

Several of the settlers were soon granted tracts of land where they established homes and plantations. For his service to the colony, John Coming was granted 133 acres on the peninsula between the Ashley and Etiwan River (today’s Cooper River) on land that would later become the city of Charleston. John established a small plantation where he grew some food crops, but at that time he was also busy running trading vessels along the coast of America and the Caribbean Islands, as well as to England. Then, in February 1672, shortly after Affra’s indenture to Joseph Dalton expired, she and John were married.

On one of his voyages, John brought back 6 servants, five men and a woman. For each man he was granted 150 acres, and 100 acres for the woman, which added another 850 acres to his and Affra’s land holdings. At that time, however, they had not chosen a place for a larger plantation than the small one on the peninsula that hey currently occupied.

It is not known what Affra did during her two years of servitude to Joseph Dalton. One would suspect that she was an obedient and faithful house servant. Later, when she had servants of her own, she expected the same level of obedience and faithful service from them as she had shown to Dalton. There was an incident that showed that Affra did not tolerate bad behavior from servants. On the 4th of June, 1672, she brought a complaint before the governing council against three of her servants, Philip O’Neil, John Chambers, and Michael Lovell “for their disobedience to her in refusing to observe her lawful commands…”. After weighing the evidence, the council decided that Lovell and Chambers would receive reprimands and Philip O’Neil, the main perpetrator of the little rebellion, would be given 21 lashes on his back.

As the population of Charles Towne grew and the town needed more land and better facilities for ocean trading vessels, the colonist began making plans to move the town across the Ashley River to the peninsular where John and Affra had settled. At that time, because of the abundance of oysters there, the area was called Oyster Point or White Point. Since John and Affra owned some of the land where the proposed new town would be built, in July 1672 they graciously gave half of their land to the Charles Towne government for use as a building site.

By 1680 streets had been laid out and lots surveyed, and the colony had guns enough to ward off a Spanish attack. The colonists living at the original landing site moved their growing town to the land that had been part of John and Affra’s small plantation. John was granted a lot in the new town, and the couple established a residence in what would eventually become downtown Charleston.

While John was still busy at that time sailing a number of vessels such as the Blessing and the Edisto from Barbados to Virginia, to New York, and to England, Affra became involved in the social affairs of the colony, which was now a bustling town of well over a thousand people. It was said of John, now known as Captain Coming, that, although he traveled quite a bit, he continued to maintain a correspondence with his family in Devon as often as he could.

In about 1682, when John decided to retire from sailing, he requested and was granted by the Lords Proprietors 740 acres of land for a plantation. Since John had already been granted 850 acres from the six servants he brought to Charles Towne, this additional grant, plus the peninsula property, increased the couple’s holdings to over 1600 acres.

After scouting around the area, the place where Affra and John chose for their plantation was north of Charles Towne some 15 miles up the Cooper River at a point where the eastern and western branches of the Cooper come together. The merging of the streams at their plantation formed a ‘T’ in the topography, prompting John and Affra to name their new plantation ComingTee. He also named a part of the land ‘Blessing’ Plantation after one of the ships he had commanded.

John and Affra experimented with a number of crops and discovered that the area was well suited for rice cultivation which was just getting started in Carolina. By the late 1680s, rice was becoming an important cash crop in the Carolina low country, and ComingTee was well located for that crop, far enough up stream to where the river water was fresh but low enough downstream that there was still the rising and falling of the tides that pushed the fresh water into the rice ponds at high tide and allowed it to drain out when the tide ebbed.

In the 1680s the couple built a substantial wooden home at ComingTee which apparently was still standing in the 1900s. They also continued to maintain their home in Charles Towne.

In the next few years, Affra and John continued to be involved in the social and political affairs of the colony. John served for several years on the Charles Towne Grand Council and in recognition of his leadership abilities in May 1691 he was made one of the deputies for the Lords Proprietors.

After being with Affra for over 26 years, serving many years as a respected sea captain and member of Charles Towne’s governing council, as well as becoming a successful planter, John died on November 1, 1695 at ComingTee. He left his entire estate, ComingTee and Blessing plantations as well as their property in Charles Towne to Affra.

After John’s death, it seems that Affra spent most of her time at her home at the corner of Wentworth Street and St. Philips Street, in an area of today’s Charleston now mostly occupied by the College of Charleston, several residences and a few churches. While there, she gave 17 acres of land to the Episcopal Church where Grace Episcopal Church is now located on Wentworth Street. Episcopal Church historian Frederick Dalcho complimented her by calling her a “benefactress of the church in Carolina.”

Affra died on December 28, 1698 and was buried at ComingTee beside John. In her will she left half of ComingTee and Blessing plantations to her nephew, her older brother John Harleston’s son, also named John. The other half she left to a half nephew of her husband, a man named William Ball, Jr., the son of John Coming’s half-brother, William. It turned out, however, that William Jr., who had established a successful tailoring business in England, was not interested in moving to Charles Towne, so the property passed to William’s younger brother, Elias Ball, who was born around 1676.

The Ball’s had entered John’s Coming’s family after the death of John’s father. John’s mother, Mary, then married a Mr. William Ball with whom she had other children who were John’s half siblings. There were at least two Ball sons. One of those sons also had two sons, William and Elias who would have been John Coming’s half nephews.

Affra’s older brother Charles had also moved to Charles Towne and no doubt would have inherited at least a portion of Affra’s property. But Charles had left Carolina for Barbados in late 1678 or early 1679 and was never heard from again. It is believed he died in a ship wreck in the Caribbean.

Elias Ball and John Harleston both arrived in Carolina around 1700 to claim their inheritance. Each one got half of ComingTee and Blessing plantations, as well as the property in Charles Towne. Elias Ball retained the name ComingTee for his half of the property, while John Harleston set up two new plantations which he named Hut and Fishpond. Both men continued the rice cultivation that John and Affra had started.

The Ball and Harleston families became closely involved with each other when they inherited Affra and John Coming’s estate, and the ties became much closer when John Harleston’s sister Elizabeth sailed over from Dublin and married Elias Ball. John, a while later, married Elizabeth Willis. Both couples produced several children which became the ancestors of many later generations of Ball’s and Harleston’s.

It seems that Elias Ball spent most of his time at ComingTee, while John Harleston went back and forth from his plantations to what had been Affra’s home in Charles Towne. ComingTee plantation stayed in the Ball family until 1927 when it was sold. The Harleston family retained ownership of their Hut and Fishpond plantations until the death of William Harleston in 1871, the last Harleston owner.

Sometime in the early to mid-1700s, John Harleston, or his son John, sold lots around the Harleston home in Charles Towne and the area came to be known as Harlestonborough. Today, Harlestonborough has grown to be a large part of Charleston called Harleston Village that encompasses several blocks between Calhoun and Broad Streets and west of King Street to the Ashley River. Named in honor of John Coming is Coming Street which begins in Harleston Village and runs north some 18 blocks.

John and Affra were an important and influential part of the success of early Charles Towne. Although they did not have children of their own, through their nephews, the Ball and Harleston descendants are spread across America both in family names and place names.

Ted McCormack

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