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Historic People


We will be going over short summaries of the lives of three of the people whose biographies have been presented in earlier blog posts on symbiotic These interesting people deserve a second look.

Alexander Garden: Physician and Botanist

One of the most beautiful and pleasantly fragrant flowers found in many gardens around the world is the gardenia. The name, gardenia, bestowed upon this flower by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1760 was in honor of physician and botanist Alexander Garden who lived from 1730 to 1791.

Garden was born and educated in Scotland then in 1752 moved to Charles Towne (as Charleston was called until 1783) in South Carolina where he set up a medical practice. Since medicinal plants were often used in treatments for a number of ailments, Garden became interested in growing a variety of plants from those with medicinal qualities, to flowers, and vegetables. As his skills and fame grew, he corresponded with several other popular naturalists in America and Europe.

Along with having a private medical practice, Garden also worked with the Charles Towne government to check the health of the African slaves being shipped into the area. As person whose livelihood was saving lives, he was appalled at what he saw. After visiting several ships, he wrote that: “There are few slave ships that come here from Africa but have had many of the cargoes thrown overboard. Some ships lost one fourth, some one third, some lost half; and I have seen some that have lost two-thirds of their slaves. I have often gone to visit those Vessels on their first arrival, in order to make a report of their state of health to the Governor and Council, but I have never yet been on board one that did not smell most offensive and noisome, what for filth, putrid air, and putrid dysenteries…it is a wonder any escape with life.”

Garden did well financially and established a home in Charles Towne and acquired land about 15 miles north of the city where he grew crops both for profit and use in medicine. His plantation flourished for several years until the American Revolutionary War came to Charles Towne in 1780. In that year British soldiers surrounded the city and the American army there was forced to surrender.

Although Garden agreed with many of the complaints of the Americans, having been born and educated in Scotland, he chose to maintain his relationship with the British. As is the case in nearly every war, loyalties are often split. Alexander’s son, Alexander Garden, Jr., who had been born in Charles Towne, chose to stand with the Americans and joined the Continental Army, achieving the rank of major.

In December 1782, after over two years of military occupation, the British left Charles Towne. Then in September 1783 the war officially ended when the Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of King George III of England and a delegation from the new United States of America.

Without British protection, many of the Charles Towne loyalists such as Garden, had their homes and property confiscated by the new American government. Garden lost his home at 98 Broad Street in Charles Towne while his plantation passed to his oldest son, Alexander, who was about 25 years old at the time.

In 1783, Garden, his wife Elizabeth, and four of their younger children, sailed to England but, sadly, his son Alexander chose to stay in Charles Towne. The Gardens lived in the Westminster area of London, where Alexander died of tuberculosis in 1791.

Today, Garden is considered one of the most important figures in colonial American history. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society, and in England became vice president of the Royal Society of London, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Although well known for his meticulous medical and scientific work, he is also said to have been respected for his “benevolence, cheerfulness, and pleasing manners.”

John Bachman: Theologian and Naturalists

Born in Rhinebeck, New York in 1790, John Bachman moved to Charleston, South Carolina in 1815 as a newly ordained Lutheran minister who also had learned a great about plants while spending time in the world-renowned garden that John Bartram had established in Philadelphia in the 1700s.

In Charleston, Bachman’s talents in both theology and botany were soon recognized. His Lutheran congregation at St. John’s Church was delighted with his kind demeanor and insightful sermons, and in 1830 he was elected president of Charleston’s Elliot Society of Natural History. He remained president until the society was closed because the American Civil War in 1861.

During the 1830s, Bachman became acquainted with John James Audubon, who is today considered one of America’s greatest naturalists. The two of them worked together on a number of bird and mammal books until Audubon’s death in 1851. As a result of their collaboration, Audubon named several animals after Bachman.

Although a New Yorker by birth, by the 1850s, Bachman had become fully emersed in the Southern way of life. He did not own slaves and for a few years helped educate some free black men who went to be prominent clergymen. Yet, he did not overtly oppose the institution of slavery. It is quite possible that he did not want to alienate his Charleston parishioners, many of whom would have owned slaves.

Tensions created by the issues of slavery and states’ rights divided America. Then, for many southerners, the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860 led them to believe that secession from the Union was the only solution to preserving the Southern plantation economy that functioned on slave labor.

The issues came to a boil when on December 20, 1860 a convention was held in Charleston in which the delegates drew up an Ordinance of Secession separating South Carolina from the United States. An example of how Bachman had given up his Northern sentiments and become devoted to the Southern rebellion was that he not only attended the convention but gave the opening prayer, a prayer in which he expressed the desire that the political, economic, and cultural issues between north and south could be resolved without resorting to war.

But war came, and in July 1861 Union warships set up a blockade of Charleston harbor. By the end of November, the Union army had taken all of the sea islands a few miles south of Charleston from Hilton Head to Edisto, putting the army within striking distance of Charleston. As the threat of invasion grew, John and his wife Maria joined others in leaving Charleston for safer areas. Bachman closed St. John’s Church and went to Columbia, where, unfortunately, Maria died.

After the Confederate surrender in April 1865, Bachman returned to Charleston and reopened St. John’s Church. He lived in Charleston and continued his theological and scientific work until his death in 1874. An indication of his stature in the community was that on the day he died, church bells were rung throughout the city and the College of Charleston closed its classes for the day.

John Bachman is noted for excelling in a number of fields from theology, education, natural history, botany, zoology, and even race relations. Although today, some of his views might seem contradictory, Bachman was a man of his time who was caught up in the cultural predilections of his neighbors, his state, and his nation.

Laura Matilda Towne

War is never good. It is unfortunate that thousands of years ago, humanity began the practice of settling disputes by fighting battles. As our population grew, so did the size of our battles and wars, as well as the killing and destruction. We know war is wrong, yet we so far have not been able to get ourselves under control enough to stop fighting. Until we put this scourge behind us, all we can do is try to help those who become victims of wars they do not want and do not start.

Laura Matilda Towne saw a need and became a hero to people who were caught in the middle between two waring armies. In November 1861 when United States troops captured St. Helena Island, Hilton Head, and other Confederate-held South Carolina Atlantic islands in the Port Royal area, thousands of enslaved African Americans were set free, no longer owned by white planters or forced to work on plantations. This was a great time in African American history. The problem was, however, that these people who had always worked for others, had to learn to live as free, self-sufficient Americans.

In January 1862, US General Thomas W. Sherman, commander of the Union ground forces at Port Royal, South Carolina, requested that teachers from the North come and train the ex-slaves in everything from reading and writing, to modern agriculture and animal husbandry. In the next few months, over 100 people went south from every northern state. Most stayed a couple of months or a year or two. But one notable woman came and stayed for the rest of her life. She had a tremendous long-term impact on the educational, social, and medical well-being of the people on St. Helena Island where she settled.

Laura Towne was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on May 3, 1825. In her late 20s she moved to Philadelphia and attended the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania. Established in 1850, the Women’s Medical College was the first school in the world authorized to award women the title of Medical Doctor or MD. Today the institution is part of the Drexel University College of Medicine.

In 1862, a few months after the Union occupation, the US government set up the Port Royal Experiment as a cooperative venture between the federal government and several private philanthropical organizations, many of which were funded by Quakers, Unitarians, and other religious groups. The overall goal of the endeavor was to help the African Americans make the transition from a life of slavery to learning how to live free and independent. It is interesting that since the Civil War was still raging at this time, the freed slaves were legally referred to as “contraband” and as such were not returned to their white owners.

Laura Matilda Towne, an open-minded 36-year-old Unitarian, volunteered to go to Port Royal and set up a school as well as help provide medical care for the freed slaves. The Port Royal Relief Committee of Philadelphia paid for her passage south and provided enough money for her to open one of the first schools in the area. She arrived at St. Helena Island on April 9, 1862.

Laura set up a classroom in an abandoned plantation house called The Oaks. The school grew rapidly, and a few months later Laura was joined by Quaker teacher, Ellen Murray from Newport, Rhode Island, and for a while, Philadelphian Charlotte Forten. Under the care of these three women the school flourished and soon grew to the point that classes were moved to an abandoned church and then in January 1865 to a three-room school that Laura had built. She named it the Penn School after William Penn and her home state of Pennsylvania.

On April 14, 1865, five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Laura attended the raising of the US flag at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, exactly four years and two days after Confederate forces had fired on the fort starting the Civil War that had brought her to St. Helena Island. It was a festive occasion, but the celebrants had no idea that in a few hours, President Lincoln, who had worked tirelessly to end the conflict and done his best to give the freed slaves their rightful place in American society, would be killed by an assassin.

In the decades following the Civil War, it was obvious that many southerners were resentful that blacks were given the right to vote and had attained so much political power. It was a dangerous time for blacks and those trying to help them socially and economically. But Laura and Ellen bravely carried on through the tumultuous time and did not abandon their work.

When Laura died in February 1901, she left the Penn School under the operation of the Hampton Institute in Virginia, another school started during the Civil War for freed slaves. More industrial and mechanical classes were added, but the Penn School remained basically the same as Laura and Ellen had set it up years earlier. Ellen continued teaching there until her death in January 1908.

Today the Penn Center has been designated a National Historic Landmark and a Reconstruction Era National Historic Park. It is open to the public and has become a venue for a variety of cultural activities. It is an important and on-going legacy of the courage and perseverance of Laura Matilda Towne, Ellen Murray and many others who risked their lives and livelihoods to help an oppressed people.