Letter, 21 April 1819, of Pierce Butler to Robert E. Griffith, both in Philadelphia, is from very late in the lifetime of the South Carolina statesman and Constitution signer Pierce Butler (1744-1822).
Originally this letter may have been part of the business archive of the Philadelphia firm of Nicklin and Griffith, one of many merchant firms with whom Butler had business dealings. As such it is a valuable new addition to an existing collection of manuscripts that has long been in the South Caroliniana Library and that apparently originated from the same source.
Philip Nicklin (1760-1806) and Robert Egglesfield Griffith (1756-1833) were Englishmen who had immigrated to Philadelphia and had become prosperous merchants after the American Revolution. Their joint business ventures ranged from the China trade to land speculation, and they were prominent in Philadelphia society. Nicklin was active in many city organizations, while Griffith married a strikingly beautiful woman many years his junior, had husband-and-wife portraits painted by Gilbert Stuart, and hired a noted English landscape architect to design his country retreat on the Schuylkill River.
Nicklin and Griffith had begun their dealings with Butler by the late 1790s, when they purchased a small consignment of his rice to fill out one of their cargoes to England. More significant may have been the business advice they gave him in the cotton trade. Butler had grown impatient with high shipping costs to London and by 1798 he decided to start shipping his cotton to the Liverpool market. Nicklin and Griffith referred him to the firm of Humble, Holland, and Hurry -- who are today remembered not only for their place in the commercial history of Liverpool but for their family connections to the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell.
As land speculators, Nicklin and Griffith had ventured into South Carolina real estate. Most of their extant correspondence with Butler relates to their purchase of the famous 70,000-acre Salvador Tract in Abbeville District, S.C., and the complicated title litigation that followed. Butler believed that he had been the victim of cheats. He claimed that Nicklin and Griffith traced their ownership to “sharpers” who had bought the land from him in 1796 through an unsecured mortgage, but legal challenges from other parties dated back to the 1780s and these put Butler on common ground with the Philadelphia merchants.
When Nicklin died intestate in 1806, the financially troubled Griffith was left to sort out the affairs of the partnership and carry on the business correspondence with Butler.
The Salvador title dispute finally landed in the federal courts, first in the Charleston district court and then in the United States Supreme Court. In his 1814 decision in Griffith v. Frazier, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled against both Griffith and Butler, who traced their rival claims through a 1790 sheriff’s title. Marshall held that there had been errors in the legal procedure leading to the sheriff’s auction at the courthouse in Ninety Six (Greenwood County, S.C.).
The library’s newly-acquired letter alludes to a disagreement between Butler and Griffith over costs incurred in this litigation and it refers to legal services performed by Eldred Simkins, Keating Simons, and John Julius Pringle. Principally it reflects Butler’s contention that he, and not Griffith, had borne much of the inconvenience: “I was put to the expence of going two hundred Miles to Charleston, to bring the Cause to a hearing; during the whole of the trial I attended the Court from nine o Clock in the morning ’till five in the evening - I had not one comfortable dinner but on Sundays during the trial. Nicholson told You in my hearing, that if I had not been in Charleston the Cause woud not have been brought to a hearing.”