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Teal: The Banging Hammer
A Reconstruction sound
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In 1868, the auctioneer’s voice often intoned “going once, going twice,” and then “sold” as he banged down his hammer or gavel from the front steps of the old Robert Mills Courthouse. Thus, a Kershaw County tract of land, house, town lot or some other piece of real estate was sold at the hammer price by Sheriff E.E. Sill or Dept. U. S. Marshal Joseph M. Gayle.

The hammer often could be heard banging down elsewhere in the county as individuals sold items and estates to pay debts and taxes or to stave off starvation brought on by the economic conditions in the first few years after the Civil War. In addition to the sheriff and Dept. U.S. Marshal, in early 1868, auctioneers J.S. Meroney, J.K. Witherspoon, and S.A. Benjamin advertised their services in the pages of the Camden Journal and banged down their hammers at sales.

When your columnist recently realized he had never read what the Journal reported about the South Carolina Constitutional Convention of 1868, he examined the pages of that paper. In the Feb. 5, 1868, issue he found reports of a few fist fights and other activities by convention members, a convention largely composed of former slaves, individuals from other states frequently called carpetbaggers, and of scalawags, local white citizens who now joined with the newly enfranchised African-Americans.

While examining the February to May 1868 pages of the Camden paper, he observed the governmental notices and classified ads, but his attention fixated on sheriff and U.S. Marshal sales on the last two pages of many issues. He soon decided to tally the number of acres, the number of tracts of land, town lots, houses, stores and shops sold during these four months, provide an analysis of the sales, and then to suggest the “back stories” which led to them.

Sheriff sales

J.W. Ford, 500 acres on Beaver Creek, 600 acres on Flat Rock Creek, 300 acre Gardner tract on Beaver Creek, 125 acre Denison tract and 1,900 acres on Sawney’s Creek; A. Massebeau, I house and 2 lots on Mill St.; Nancy Ingram, 1 house and lot on Campbell St.; Wyatt Naudin, 1 house and lot on Campbell St.; Martha Marks, 1 house and lot on Lyttleton St.; Harriett George, 1 house and lot on Church St.; Mary Cole, 1 house and lot on Campbell St.; Monday Cook estate, 1 house and lot on corner of Rutledge St.; Lucy Sutherland, 1 house and lot on King St.; J.L. McDowell, 900 acres on Granny’s Quarter Creek; John Cantey, 500 acres and his home, Hobkirk; J.M. Ingram, 900 acres, Hanging Rock; Richard Hyatt, 150 acres; S.D. Shannon, 1,000 acres on Swift Creek; John Wheat, 100 acres on Jumping Gully Creek; Wylie Patterson, 2,600 acre Warrenton Plantation, 800 acre Russell tract on Persimmon Branch, 70 acre McCorkle tract on Singleton Creek, 56 acre Clanton tract at Liberty Hill; W.E. Hughes, 2,283 acres on Big and Little Pine Tree Creeks; W.R. Taylor, House and lot on Broad St.; S.N. Sowell, 300 acre and 100 acre tracts on Buffalo Creek; W.E. Adamson, 1 house and lot and furniture (sale conducted at Sheriff Sill’s home in Logtown); W.F. Perry, 2 houses and 1 lot on Broad St., 1 lot on Rutledge St. and 1 lot on Broad St.

U.S. Marshal sales

Bank of Camden building, corner of Broad and Rutledge; James Dunlap, 2,100 acre plantation, interest in 430 White Pond tract, house and 2½ lots (Lafayette Hall), house and lot (McCreight’s Shop), 2 houses and 3 lots on Broad St., house and lots on DeKalb St., House and lot on Market St.; 67 acre and 1,000 acre tracts at liberty Hill and 700 acre tract; Wylie Patterson, 860 acre Howie Place tract.

Locations of tracts at or on Hanging Rock creek, Granney’s Quarter Creek, Beaver Creek, Sawney’s Creek, Swift Creek, Jumping Gully Creek, Singleton’s Creek, Big and Little Pine Tree Creeks, Buffalo Creek, Persimmon Branch, Liberty Hill, Camden, Flat Rock and White Pond indicates the tracts lay all across the county. In the fourmonth period of this study, 25 tracts containing 20,741 acres of county land changed hands. This amounted to more than 31 square miles of Kershaw County. Tracts of land ranged in size from a modest 56 acres to plantations of more than 2,000 acres.

Sixteen houses, 20 lots, a bank building, a shop and two stores in Camden were sold. Often the contents of houses also went on the auction block. The sales affected individuals from all walks of life including former slaves, former free persons of color, John Cantey’s 500 acres and his fine home of Hobkirk and James Dunlap’s Lafayette Hall.

Behind each of the sales under discussion was an unknown to us “back story” of why the sale occurred. The sale notice for a widow’s house and lot in Camden could be pictured with a CSA soldier’s unmarked grave in a lonely, forgotten cemetery in Virginia. A one-legged Confederate veteran sitting on a bench in front of the Robert Mills Courthouse in 1868 may explain the sale of his house and lot that day. Investment in then valueless Confederate bonds may have produced bankruptcy and the sale of a fine mansion. These 1868 Camden newspapers advertised many bankruptcy sales.

Questions arise as to who purchased these pieces of property and what hammer prices they fetched. The classified ads in the Camden Journal showing merchants cutting prices and accepting only cash for a sale were hints the times and prices were not very good. However, a letter written by ex-Governor Benjamin F. Perry to a Mr. Butler which appeared in the Camden Journal of Feb. 5, 1868, provides a more definitive answer to the sale price questions.

Perry wrote property depreciated in value “one-half to two-thirds during the past year [1867]. No one is disposed to purchase anything and foreign capital has been driven out or deterred from coming here for investment. Property sold by the sheriff brings nothing. The [United Stated] Marshal of this state told me the other day he sold a plantation at public auction containing two thousand acres in Horry District to the highest bidder for five dollars. Mules brought only five dollars apiece.”

Perry’s letter does not document this fact, but it is well documented elsewhere many non-Southerners purchased S.C. property at “fire sale” prices during Reconstruction. Those were the carpetbaggers who sought to “peck” the remaining flesh off the bones of a prostrate state. This harsh statement should be paired with the statement many non-Southern individuals equally made significant contributions to various aspects of S.C. government, religion, education and the culture of the state during Reconstruction.

This column only presents four months of property sales for overdue taxes and bankruptcies. It does not require much math or imagination, however, to envision what economic, social, political and governmental upheaval awaited Kershaw County and South Carolina before Reconstruction ended in 1877. Better times did come and future columns will chronicle some of them.