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Robert Gilmor Journal, 1806-1807

Baltimore merchant Robert Gilmor (1774-1848) was an intellectually gifted and well-traveled man who moved in influential circles. During the early 1800s he developed pulmonary problems and his physician prescribed a trip to Southern Europe or the West Indies-somewhere far away from a Maryland winter. But Gilmor had never seen the deep South, and rather than try a wintery ocean voyage, he set out for Charleston. The South Caroliniana Library has acquired his journal of the 1806-1807 trip, "Notes taken in a tour through the states of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina in the year 1806."

Gilmor said that his object was to produce not a literary journal, but a Baedeker guide with mileage and tavern information that might someday prove useful to his friends. Fortunately, a few miles south of Washington, D.C., his practical approach began giving way to digressions. On reaching Richmond, Va., his lifelong interest in art surfaced; his description of the town reads like an art critic's review:

"The great pride & beauty of Richmond...is the Capitol, which is built of brick after the model of the celebrated Maison Carreé of Nimes, a plan of which Mr. Jefferson had made when in France, and adapted to the purpose of a state building. The copy however falls very far short of the original temple...and has been spoilt by having the columns of its grand portico, as well as the pilasters, capitals & bases of common plaister, which has crumbled away and gives a degraded air to the building. Instead of the [magnificent] flight of steps in front of the portico, it has two lateral staircases of the heaviest, Gothic structure that can be imagined, which totally destroys the effect of the building....In the capitol is a statue of General Washington by Houdon, & a bust of the Marquis de la Fayette. The former is a good likeness and possesses all the merit of detail, in which Houdon has shewn himself an accurate man, for the seams of the groins, the stitching of the bootheels, and the chais work of the seals & spans, certainly are good, but I look in vain for the classic dignity which would have been given to this statue by an artist who ever studied the sublime monuments left us by the ancients."

In a back leaf of the journal, Gilmor made a pencil sketch of the capitol and armory, and dated it 20 December 1806.

Twelve miles from Roanoke, Va., he stopped at Drummond's and found "a palace of a house, much too grand in appearance for a tavern, yet its interior did not disgrace its exterior. We dined, or rather supped sumptuously, but we unfortunately for our poor servants found, that the custom of the country was, to permit people of colour only to have a blanket & a floor to lay on, while their masters has beds of down. No entreaty nor bribe had any effect in procuring them their accustomed beds, & they were forced to submit to their hard fate."

Crossing into North Carolina on the 25th, Gilmor reached Louisburg, "a contemptible little village, where we were so disgusted with a set of Drunken cockfighters & neighbouring clowns, who had come in to frolic their Christmas out, at Hill's Tavern, that we came on as far as Fox's to pass the night."

"Raleigh is a small, miserable village," he wrote, "tho' the Capital of the State of North Carolina. The only brick house in the place is the State house, which is a large but not elegant building." He was badly entertained at the local tavern and found no encouragement to remain in town as long as he had intended. On the road, his gig horse threw a shoe, and he found no blacksmith until he reached Averysborough. There he mounted his saddle horse and crossed the Cape Fear River.

At Fayetteville, Gilmor branched off the main stage road to Georgetown and Charleston and instead headed for Camden to deliver some letters. "Crossing a dreary country of sand hills & swamps [I] came to breakfast at a miserable log hut (the best tavern that was to be found)....Mr. Wilkis, the man who kept the hut, however was as kind as his circumstances would permit; he attended to my horses, while his wife made me some coffee & a Johnny cake; The wind was very cold and blew thro' the open logs very cold. The fire was also made of logs & quite open so that you could see through the chimney; the back being covered with clay to make the fire against. As there were no occasion for windows (which indeed are rarely found in this part of North Carolina) the door was left open to furnish light for a woman who was sewing."

On New Year's Day 1807 he crossed the Pee Dee River and continued on toward Camden, where he met Col. John Chesnut. "Col. C. is one of the richest Cotton planters in Carolina. On my expressing an inclination to see the mode of picking & preparing the Cotton for market, he politely offered to carry me to his fine plantation on the banks of the Wateree.... Accordingly I visited it on horseback; and I confess I was much pleased with the noble plantation. The land belonging to him stretches along the river for 5 miles, and is chiefly a rich flat....He shewed me the difference between this extensive & rich river land as it is called, and the land just above it...the former only producing the long stalk cotton, while the latter will only bring the short. He shewed me the mode of picking the cotton from the tree, the ginning it, and packing it away in bales fit for the Charleston market, where it is sent on large boats by the river."

"The discovery of the cotton crop is but a new thing in Carolina & Georgia, & has within these fifteen years made the fortune of half the great landholders....The Invention of the saw-gin by Whitney has been one of the most fortunate discoveries for these states, as it saves a vast deal of labour; one hand alone can attend & feed a gin with raw cotton, and turn out as much picked clean cotton as would have required 20 or thirty hands before....Before this invention the roller-gin was used, which could only clean & pick the black-seed cotton, which is the long staple, and easily parts with its seed, but the short staple, or green-seed has its cotton adhering to it, so that one hand could only gin about 16 to 20 lb. per diem, whereas now by the saw-gin, which tears the cotton from the seed, a single negro will gin 900 lb. This of course renders negroes valuable and on enquiry I find that 250 to 280 Drs. is given for new negroes at Charleston, say for boys & 300 to 350 for grown persons. A planter is valued here in proportion to the number of negroes he owns, as each negro is presumed to earn from 100 to 200 Drs. per annum. Coll. Chesnut has about 300 to 400 and their huts all built in a row like a street form a little village certainly bigger than some of the North Carolina towns."

On 4 January, Gilmor noted, "Coll. Kershaw was so good as to accompany me to the celebrated field where the battle of Camden was fought on Hobkirk's hill." "Camden is a small pretty village," he wrote, "much beautified by the Handsome houses of Coll. Chesnutt & his son, with one or two others, all which are built in the New England Style, with piazzas, & painted white with red roofs." In Gilmor's estimation, it was the first place "which gave any idea of the residence of gentlemen that I had seen since I left Richmond."

Gilmor left Camden the following day and headed down the Santee Road to Charleston. On the way, he wrote down impressions of Stateburg, Manchester, and other stops en route. After some misadventures at the swamp crossings, he reported, "I gave up my plan of visiting the Eutaw Springs & the celebrated field of battle where my friend General Williams gained so much honor, and...set out for the Santee Canal, which I reached by a fine strait road in 2 1/4 hours....The Santee Canal connects the Santee & Cooper rivers, and is used by boats from Camden & the banks of the Wateree & Congaree; the canal is 20 feet wide at bottom & 25 at top-has 6 sets of locks in 21 mile (its length) 2 of which are double. They admit boats of 10 feet width only. The toll is 25 Drs. for any passage through the Canal, but the stock has as yet paid no dividends."

He crossed Strawberry Ferry on the 8th and the next morning he reported, "I set out early, & travelling the main road cut up by waggons carrying their cotton & indigo to market, breakfasted at the 4 mile house, and got to Charleston to dinner, taking up my lodgings, with Mrs. Smith, the only decent boarding house in the City."

Gilmor's friends Henry William DeSaussure and Adam Gilchrist took him around and made introductions. On Sunday the 11th he went to church with DeSaussure "& heard Dr. Bewst. Dined with Mr. Gilchrist. In the evening came in to Drink wine several gentlemen, among whom were, Wm. Loughton Smith the celebrated member of Congress and Washington's administration & afterwards ambassador to Spain & Mr. Lowndes member of Congress, & very amiable man whose lady had sent me a pot of marmelade on hearing I was indisposed."

The following Tuesday, his traveling companion from New York, Mr. Schermerhorn, joined him, and they "rode to Ladson's Wharf to see the Guineamen & were shocked with the sight of 400 on board of one ship, all stowed away seperately, in places which almost suffocated me."

The Charleston visit paid unexpected dividends, as he explained in an epilogue to his journal: "After remaining in Charleston the whole winter, it was my lot to marry Miss Sarah Ladson on the 9 April 1807. She was the sixth daughter of Major James Ladson, an old revolutionary officer, who served as aid de camp to General Lincoln at the siege of Charleston. Mrs. Ladson was the half sister of Mr. William Loughton Smith the former minister to Madrid, & own sister to Joseph Allen Smith Esqr. an American gentleman who has spent 15 years in travelling over every part of Europe, and whose manners & accomplishments have gained him the notice of the first society in all countries....Mrs. Gilmor is connected by father & mother with most of the respectable families in Carolina, particularly the Middletons, the Gibbes, the Manigaults, the Haywards & the Izards."

In later years, the connections formed in Charleston gave a South Carolina orientation to Gilmor's correspondence. The South Caroliniana Library's collections include other related material, including letters addressed to him by Charles Fraser, Alexander Garden, and Joel Roberts Poinsett.

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