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Author: Grant Quertermous, CAHPT Curator & Director of Collections
“Burglary—The residence of Mrs. Mary C. Alston, situate on East Bay-street opposite the Battery, was forcibly entered on Friday night last, and silver plate estimated to be worth about one thousand dollars, was taken from off the sideboard in one of the lower rooms.”
As described in the report from the June 4, 1850, issue of the Charleston Courier, Roper House, then the residence of Mary Coachman Allston (1785-1859), was burglarized in the summer of 1850, and several pieces of Mrs. Allston’s silver were stolen. Thankfully, the burglars were apprehended the following day while trying to exhume the pilfered silver, which they had buried near an adjacent wharf, and the pieces were returned to Mrs. Allston. In the decade prior to the Civil War, CAHPT’s Roper House was owned by Allston, a widow who also owned plantation property in Berkeley County. On April 3, 1851, Mrs. Allston purchased the double lot on East Battery containing Roper House from Martha Rutledge Laurens Roper for $35,000, though some evidence, including the above noted newspaper article, suggests that Allston resided at Roper House prior to the 1851 purchase, perhaps renting it from the widowed Mrs. Roper, who had moved to a house on Society Street.
Born in Berkeley County, South Carolina, in 1785, Mary Coachman Allston was the daughter of Benjamin Coachman, Jr., Esq. (ca. 1751-1785) and Rebecca Singleton Coachman (1753-1814). Little is known about Mary’s early life in St. James Goose Creek Parish. She was the youngest of the three Coachman children that also included Benjamin Coachman III (1772-bf. 1814) and Rebecca Coachman (1774-1838), who later married James William Gadsden in 1797.
Like many of the congregants at St. James Episcopal Church, Goose Creek, the Coachman family traced their ancestry to the British Caribbean colony of Barbados. Mary’s paternal grandfather, Benjamin Coachman Sr. (bf. 1705-1779), was born on the island of Barbados and came to South Carolina with his parents and siblings, setting in St. James Goose Creek Parish of Berkeley County. Benjamin Sr. was a planter who was elected to represent the parish in the second and third Royal Assemblies, and he was also a patriot who served as captain of the militia during the American Revolution. Several months after his 1779 death, his estate lent the sum of £180,000 to new state of South Carolina.
Mary’s father, Benjamin Coachman, Jr., briefly sat in the South Carolina House of Representatives as the delegate from St. George’s Parish of Dorchester County in 1779-80. Mary was presumably christened at St. James Church, Goose Creek, as it was the family’s church. Mary was an infant when her father died suddenly in March of 1785. Her widowed mother, Rebecca Coachman, and the other executor, Mrs. Coachman’s brother, published notice in the Charleston Courier requesting any debts owed by the deceased be brought to their attention for settlement. Benjamin Coachman Jr. was buried in the parish churchyard at St. James Church, Goose Creek, in what was either an unmarked grave or one that was marked with a simple stone. As an adult, Mary Coachman Allston later paid to construct an elaborate vaulted monument over the churchyard graves of both of her parents.
On her mother’s side of the family, Mary was descended from the Singleton family. Her mother, Rebecca Singleton Coachman was the daughter of John and Margaret Singleton, also of St. James Goose Creek Parish, and later of St. Bartholomew’s Parish in present day Colleton County. According to his 1778 will, John Singleton owned more than 2,200 acres of land in St. Bartholomew’s Parish and an additional 2,000 acres along the blackwater Satilla River in southern coastal Georgia.
Mary Coachman was not yet three years old when, on January 25, 1787, her widowed mother Rebecca became the fourth wife of Benjamin Smith (1735-90), a wealthy merchant and planter of St. James Parish. Smith owned a nearly 800-acre plantation in Goose Creek that was comprised of land from the former Boochawee and Howe Hall plantations as well as a large house in Charleston at the corner of Church and Broad (49 Broad Street) that is still extant. The house featured a large commercial space on the first floor that was “likely one of the largest private commercial spaces in Pre-Revolutionary Charleston.” Smith and his family could access the second floor living quarters through a rear entry off the piazza, which provided access to the stair passage without passing through the first-floor retail space. Mary’s stepfather became known as “Benjamin Smith of Goose Creek” even while residing in Charleston, and he was elected seven times to represent St. James, Goose Creek Parish in the Royal and General Assemblies. He also represented Goose Creek at South Carolina’s state convention to ratify the independence of the United States. By the time he married Rebecca Coachman in 1787, Benjamin Smith had eight children, and he had outlived three previous wives.
Following this marriage, Mary and her siblings likely split their time between Smith’s Broad Street residence and his Berkeley County plantations. Benjamin Smith and Rebecca Coachman Smith were married only three years when he died in July 1790. Rebecca, now twice widowed, received no property in her second husband’s will as he bequeathed all of his property and sixteen enslaved individuals to sons from his previous marriages.
On December 15, 1808, Mary Coachman, now twenty-two-years-old, wed Benjamin Allston Sr. (1765-1847), a forty-three-year-old rice and indigo planter from Waccamaw Neck. An announcement of the marriage in the December 20, 1808, issue of The Charleston Daily Courier indicated that Reverend James Dewar Simons conducted the ceremony, which suggests that it took place at Charleston’s St. Phillips Episcopal Church where Simons served as longtime rector.
It was the third marriage for Benjamin Allston Sr., whose eldest daughter and new wife were only a few months apart in age. Allston was previously married to Mary Charlotte Cooke Allston, with whom he had three daughters before she died in September 1801. Two years later in December 1803, he married Dorothy Johnston Singleton, the widow of Major John Singleton. She died in February 1807, and the following year he wed Miss Coachman.
Allston owned Turkey Hill, a large plantation located on the Waccamaw Neck in Prince George Winyah Parish that had been in his family for at least three generations. His grandfather John Allston Sr. first acquired the land in the 1740s, which then passed to Benjamin’s father, Josias Allston. In 1812, Benjamin included a portion of land from the Turkey Hill estate as a dowry for his surviving daughter Martha Hayes Allston (1789-1869) at the time of her marriage to John Pyatt. In the Federal Writer’s Project Slave Narratives, Liza Small, who was formerly enslaved at Turkey Hill, described the mansion house at Turkey Hill as “some big white house been to the water front.” In addition to Turkey Hill, Allston acquired additional property and an 1814 plat indicates that he owned 1,000 acres at the point where Socastee Creek flows into the Waccamaw River.
A successful rice and indigo planter, Allston was a member of the Winyah Indigo Society, an 18th century agricultural and social club in the region that sponsored a school and later a library society in Georgetown. In 1790, Allston owned 25 enslaved individuals, and by 1840, that number had increased to 493. In 1846, a year before his death, he took out an advertisement in the Winyah Observer newspaper warning “against trading with my servants, or of employing them, particularly the carpenters and smiths without a written permit signed by myself or some of my managers.” Just a month before his death, his distant relative Robert Francis Withers Allston of Chicora Wood noted that Allston, who was 84 years of age, regularly harvested “400 bushels [sweet potatoes] per acre repeatedly.” Charlestonian Fredericks Adolphus Porcher described Allston as a self-made man whose financial success allowed him to summer in Flat Rock, North Carolina. Porcher notes that he was “a venerable old man, rather deaf but very fond of company. He had been a very successful man, commencing life I believe as an overseer. By means of industry and thrift he had become one of the richest rice planters in the Waccamaw.” Porcher further described Allston as “an utterly uneducated man. His language was like a negro’s, not only in pronunciation. But even in tone.” Allston’s speech patterns and dialect, recalled by Porcher, were a result of his early and lifelong exposure to Gullah, a creolized dialect of English spoken by enslaved laborers on the rural plantations that was influenced by African language in grammar and sentence structure.
Just five years after Mary and Benjamin Allston married, her mother, Rebecca Singleton Coachman Smith, died on January 7, 1814. Following her death, she was buried adjacent to her first husband, Benjamin Coachman Jr., and their son, Benjamin Coachman III, in the churchyard at St. James Church, Goose Creek. Mary Coachman Allston financed the construction of the family vault found over their graves. According to the terms of her mother’s will, Mary’s sister Rebecca inherited most of the estate, perhaps indicating her greater need for the financial legacies than Mary, the wife of a wealthy and prosperous planter.
Tracking Mary Coachman Allston through the historical records of the 19th century South Carolina Low Country quickly became a tedious and confusing process as she resided in the city of Charleston as well as in both Berkeley and Georgetown Counties at the same time as several other very similarly named individuals including Mary Charlotte Cook Allston (the deceased first wife of her husband), Mary Charlotte Allston (a deceased daughter of her husband), Mary Pyatt Allston (later Mrs. William Jones), Mary Motte Allston (Mrs. William Allston), Mary Allston Young (1779-1841), and Mary Kerr Allston (Mrs. Joseph W. Allston).
Mary and her husband Benjamin appear on the 1810 census in Georgetown County, presumably residing at his Turkey Hill plantation. The census reveals that he owned 279 enslaved individuals. In 1825, Mary’s husband purchased a house in Georgetown, South Carolina, that is also extant and now known as the Stewart-Parker House. The earliest portion of the house was constructed in 1740, and additions in the late-18th century gave it the current Federal style façade. The house remained under the ownership of Allston’s descendants until 1979, and it is now a historic property of the National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of South Carolina.
Mary and her husband never had children, but evidence suggests that Mary was close to her surviving stepdaughters with whom she was very close in age as well as her nieces and nephews—the children of her sister, Rebecca Coachman Gadsden. “Denied the sacred ties of a mother,” her 1859 obituary noted, “she never failed of having about her an object whom she rendered worthy of her maternal regards.”
Benjamin Allston Sr. died in December 1847 in the city of Charleston while on his way back to Turkey Hill. His obituary in the Winyah Observer stated that his education had been interrupted by the American Revolution and that he had regularly vacationed in the mountains for more than twenty years. “Few persons were more generally known and respected than Mr. Allston… His mind was vigorous.” It went on to note that a “ready hand was always cheerfully extended to welcome to his hospitable mansion.” He was buried in the family cemetery on his Turkey Hill Plantation under an ornate marble obelisk bearing the Allston coat of arms. His grave is adjacent to that of his first wife and two of their daughters who predeceased him. Benjamin Allston’s only surviving daughter, Martha Hays Allston Pyatt, inherited a portion of his plantations and the enslaved labor force required to operate them, and his grandsons were bequeathed the Georgetown house and plantation lands known as Richmond and Rosemont. The loss of his will and estate papers resulting from a Civil War-era fire in Georgetown makes it difficult to determine the full extent of Allston’s estate or specific bequests and provisions noted in his will.
It was presumably after her husband’s death that Mary Coachman Allston relocated to Charleston. The 1850 Federal U.S. Census as well as the Federal Census Slave Schedule, indicate that she owned fourteen enslaved individuals on her property in Charleston. These individuals probably served a variety of domestic tasks and were housed in the dependency building that Robert W. Roper originally constructed behind the house, which also served as a kitchen and carriage house. Other members of Mary Coachman Allston’s immediate household at Roper House included her niece Ann Johnson Gadsden, daughter of her late sister Rebecca, as well as Ann’s husband, Benjamin Gadsden, who identified himself as a planter.
Mary Coachman Allston died in Charleston on June 30, 1859. The unknown author of the obituary, which appeared in both The Charleston Daily Courier and The Southern Episcopalian, recalled her “equanimity and her cheerfulness, under all circumstances, rare and most useful in seasons of danger and of sorrow, were instructive and beautiful to all who came under her influence.” Her funeral was held at Charleston’s St. Philip’s church on July 1, 1859. It was the same church in which she was married fifty years earlier, though a new building had been built in 1835 after a fire destroyed the earlier structure. According to her obituary, she wanted to be buried in the vault that she had consecrated for her parents in the churchyard at St. James Church, Goose Creek, rather than adjacent to her husband in the Allston family cemetery at Turkey Hill.
According to the terms of Mary Coachman Allston’s will, which was probated in Charleston on July 5, 1859, her two nieces, Ann Johnson Gadsden and Mary Singleton Gadsden Bee, received the largest share of her estate. Ann received a bequest of $10,000 as well as an enslaved man named Frank, her aunt’s new carriage, harness, and team of carriage horses. She also received the silver tankard stolen in 1850 that was subsequently returned as well as all the household furniture, glass, crockery, household linens, bed, bedding, and wine. Mary Bee also received $10,000 in trust for her children, as well as a silver tea service, and three dozen sterling silver spoons. Additional legatees named in the will were great-nieces and nephews. One such bequest was the 900-acre Lawrel Hill plantation in Berkeley County, willed to great-nephew John James Bee. Lawrel Hill was the plantation property that Mary had inherited from her own late father, Benjamin Coachman. Martha Hayes Allston Pyatt, Mrs. Allston’s stepdaughter, received a “diamond brooch with her beloved and honored Father’s hair and mine” as well as some silver tableware that was likely Allston family silver.
The 1850 newspaper announcement of the robbery and Mary Coachman Allston’s 1859 will provide clues for her use of specific rooms at Roper House. The newspaper article indicated that her silver was stolen, “off the sideboard in one of the lower rooms.” This suggests that she used one of the first story rooms as a Dining Room, perhaps the southwest room that served that same purpose for Mr. and Mrs. Roper and continues to serve that purpose today. As with other houses in Charleston, the most formal spaces of Roper House are located on the piano noble, including the impressive Double Parlor which occupied the entire western half of the house. Bequests noted in her will also indicate that the entrance hall contained a lamp, which she bequeathed to another friend. The second floor Double Parlor contained “three large mirrors,” a carpet, and other furnishings given as specific bequests, with indications that furniture not included among the bequests should be sold. Several dozen bottles of “old madeira wine” that Mrs. Allston bequeathed to various individuals was likely stored in the attic of Roper House. As a fortified wine, Madeira was frequently stored in attic spaces in the 19th century.
Mrs. Allston owned an impressive amount of silver and made bequests for more than 140 pieces ranging from the tankard that thieves attempted to steal in 1850 to a “new soup ladle” and a “sugar dish”, as well as a silver marrow spoon. This latter tool considered antiquated by the mid-19th century, was used to remove the marrow from animal bones, considered a delicacy. The silver tableware was probably a combination of pieces acquired for and by her as well as family heirlooms from both the Allston and Coachman families. For example, a pair of silver salt cellars bequeathed to John F. Pyatt, the son of her stepdaughter, were described as Allston family silver belonging to his great-grandfather, Josias Allston, her later husband’s father. Finally, Mrs. Allston gave a $500 bequest to the Ladies Calhoun Monument Association, “to assist in erecting a monument to the memory of John C. Calhoun our great statesman and a good man.”
In November 1859, Mrs. Allston’s executors conveyed Roper House to neighbor William Ravenel for $21,200. The estate was still being settled in March of 1860, as her executors, Alexander Robertson and John Blacklock of Robertson, Blacklock & Co., posted notice in the Charleston Daily Courier requesting the submission of any outstanding claims against the estate.
While Mary Coachman Allston’s ownership of Roper House lasted less than ten years, her residency is an important part of the property’s early history. Ongoing research will help us to better understand her use of the house as well as her role as enslaver to the fourteen individuals she kept on the property.