Notes on the Life of Henry Middleton, Part One
Henry Middleton, founder of Middleton Place, was born three hundred years ago this year. Henry was a devoted husband and father, a public servant for most of his life, a successful planter and investor, and the owner of over 800 enslaved people. He amassed one of the greatest fortunes in the colonies and loaned much of it to South Carolina’s Revolutionary War effort. Henry Laurens described him as a “gentleman in all respects … a man of honor, understanding and precision in business.”
Henry is best known as a President of the First Continental Congress, but his contributions often go unnoticed, perhaps unintentionally, because he left so few personal papers to study. Of the fourteen American Presidents before George Washington, Henry’s papers are considered the rarest, so adding life to his story after three centuries has proven to be a difficult task. However, if the Middleton Place Foundation’s research files are thoroughly mined for the sometimes small but fascinating bits, a depiction of Henry and the lessons we can learn from his life can be discovered.
Henry, the second son of Arthur Middleton (1681-1737) and Sarah Amory, was born near Goose Creek on the original land grant received by his grandfather, who emigrated from England via Barbados. Very little has yet been discovered about Henry’s early life. Some historians have speculated that he may have been educated in England, like his older brother William, but to date no substantiating evidence has been found. Certainly the loss of his mother at age five was a tragic event for Henry and his younger brother Thomas. Fortunately, one year later his father married Sarah Wilkinson Morton, and the Middleton brothers would have a nurturing stepmother to guide them for much of the reminder of their lives.
Henry’s story starts to come into focus when his father died in 1737. At age twenty, Henry inherited his home place, The Oaks in St. James Parish, and another 1600 acres of land on the Cooper River. His father had already provided Henry’s older brother William with much of his inheritance, when he bought him the land and paid for the construction of the house William would name Crowfield after a family estate in England.
Four years later, Henry married Mary Williams, the twenty-year old daughter and heiress of John Williams. Her dowry and inheritance included a three-story brick house perfectly situated on a high bluff over the Ashley River and the surrounding five hundred acres. In 1742, Henry was elected to the Assembly of the Commons House, representing the area of his new home on the Ashley River, St. George’s Parish, and the couple’s first child and eventual heir, Arthur, was born. As Henry and Mary set about developing formal Gardens with the likely aid of an English gardener, the former Williams homestead began to be recognized for excellence in design and beauty. In London’s Gentleman’s Magazine for July, 1753, a clever description was printed, “Here Drayton’s seat, and Middleton’s is found. Delightful villas! Be they long renown’d.”
Even at a young age, Henry seems to have been an active plantation manager. He interviewed and hired overseers and he occasionally advertised for the return of enslaved people who ran away from one of his plantations or his town house. In 1741, Henry placed an advertisement in the South Carolina Gazette for “a man without a family who wants an overseer’s place and understands plantation business.” Later Henry requested the return of Sarah, a young enslaved girl, in the same newspaper offering a reward of five pounds.
In the succeeding years, he continued to serve in the Assembly and to build his fortune. Henry was named Speaker of the House, the highest elected office in the colony, in 1745. In order to carry rice and indigo from his Combahee River plantations, he purchased a twenty-five ton schooner and christened it Charming Molly, after his wife Mary, lovingly nicknamed Molly by family and close friends. On March 7, 1749, Henry joined the Charleston Library Society, a new literary and social group that had been formed just three months earlier so the young men of the city could avail themselves of the latest publications from Great Britain.
Even with growing political and financial success, the loss of four young children must have made the 1740s a difficult time for Henry and Mary. The birth of their daughter Henrietta in 1750 began a permanent expansion of their family. A son, Williams born in 1752 died in childhood, but the next five children all survived to marry and produce heirs to carry on the family line.
In 1755, Henry further complemented the garden design and improved the indoor living spaces at Middleton Place by adding two dependencies, or flankers, on either side of the main house. The new additions were likely constructed by enslaved carpenters Hercules, Prince or Stephen, and enslaved bricklayers such as John Baptist, said to be an “old fellow” on a 1793 list. The north flanker displayed a collection of paintings, contained a growing library, and was a conservancy of music. The south flanker contained work spaces and what perhaps were additional sleeping area for visitors.
Henry’s change of residence from St. James Parish to St. Georges Parish had a lasting effect on the town of Dorchester up the Ashley River from Middleton Place. He served as a Commissioner of the Dorchester Free School and was a Warden of St. Georges Anglican Church. In 1751, Henry made a significant contribution for the completion of its bell tower and, in 1755, he gave the church a fine silver alms basin made by Charleston silversmith Alexander Petrie. Today, specially carved bricks in the bell tower still bear Henry’s initials and the date 1751, and the alms basin is prominently displayed in the Middleton Place House Museum with other family silver made by Petrie (Henry’s next door neighbor on Broad Street).
In 1753, Henry’s life changed forever, when his older brother William inherited Crowfield Hall, the Middleton family estate in Suffolk, England. Henry would soon become the head of the Middleton family in South Carolina and his ties to England would be strengthened. William sold Crowfield in Goose Creek, but retained other more profitable plantations in preparation for the move. Henry agreed to look after those properties in his brother’s absence and William would look after Henry’s son Arthur, as he was then ready to begin his formal education in England. Certainly Henry took comfort in knowing his twelve-year-old son, bound for Harrow and Westminster School, and then Trinity College, Cambridge and Middle Temple, would initially have a guardian close at hand. Arthur remained with his uncle and English cousins for the next nine years.
William had been a member of the Royal Council until his departure for England, representing the King’s interests in the colony. After William resigned his council seat, King George II elevated Henry to the vacant spot. Henry would serve on the Council for the next fifteen years, even though he often sided with fellow colonials.
The 1750s ended with Henry’s thirty-nine year old wife Mary once again pregnant with the last of their children. She had managed family affairs for twenty years, while almost continually bearing children. In 1761, Mary died, leaving her enslaved nursemaids and wet nurses to care for a household of six small children, ranging in ages from one to ten years. As his father had once remarried to provide a nurturing mother for his young family, Henry would need to get his children a new mother soon.
During the twenty years of his marriage to Mary Williams, Henry greatly increased his ownership of land and enslaved workers, and made other successful investments. His large family was a tremendous sense of pride and his social and political status was matched by few of his peers. At one point during the period, Henry advertised in the Gazette for an overseer with experience with working “indico” [indigo]. Qualified candidates would receive ample pay for their services, but he said “it will be needless for strollers to apply.” Looking back at Henry’s life and accomplishments on the 300th anniversary of his birth, it’s no wonder that “strollers” need not apply because Henry seemed to be in perpetual motion, always advancing himself, his family and eventually his country. •
By Tracey Todd, Vice President & Chief Operating Officer