There is a magical corner in the city of Charleston. It is where Queen Street meets Church Street. The corner may be the most drawn, painted, and photographed in all of the city, a favorite of Charleston Renaissance artists Alfred Hutty and Alice Ravenel Huger Smith, and recently, for an artist who camped out all summer, in his van, painting an enormous canvas of the spot. What is the energy that enlivens this place? Certainly, it is the presence of the Dock Street Theatre, which is said to have been the first building built, in 1736, specifically for theatrical performances in America. Later, in the early 1800’s that building was renovated by Alexander Calder (who, some say, was related to Alexander Calder, the artist) into The Planters Hotel. The building complex is the last surviving antebellum hotel building in Charleston. Directly across the street is the French Huguenot Church, built on this site in 1687, which is the only remaining Huguenot church in America. Then there is St. Philips Episcopal Church, whose history harkens from the earliest days of Charles Town, the colony. Her pointing spire and imposing tower, built in the Wren-Gibbes tradition, anchors and reaches to the heavens in this neighborhood, now called the French Quarter. The engraving above is by Alfred Hutty.
This is a place that confirmed for me the power of pilgrimage. Some years ago, after years of searching, documenting, and graphing the ancestors, one of my goals was to find the house where Aunt Elizabeth Blanche Smith Torrans lived in the middle of the 18th century. From the fabulously interesting, and impeccably researched book about her younger brother, Joshua Hett Smith, (who was accused, then exonerated, of treason with Benedict Arnold!) called Accomplice in Treason (Richard J. Koke, published by the New York Historical Society, 1973) I learned that Elizabeth lived with her husband John Torrans at 36 Queen Street. Her younger sister Margaret Smith had married Alexander Rose and lived nearby. Their brother, Samuel, would move later to Beaufort, and three more siblings would eventually follow. Alexander Rose and John Torrans were merchants in the middle of the 18th century when Charleston was a bustling trade center, the hub of the Atlantic trade for the southern colonies, the wealthiest and largest city south of Philadelphia. (By 1770 it was the fourth largest port in the colonies, after only Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, with a population of 11,000, of which slightly more than half were slaves) The Smiths of New York were children of Judge William Smith and Mary Dubois Het Smith. Elizabeth’s mother, whose beautiful portrait this is, was French Huguenot. Two of John and Elizabeth’s daughters, Rosella Torrans and Eliza Cochran, would be professional artists, landscape painters, according to David Ramsay, the great physician and South Carolina historian.
So imagine my thrill, on this pilgrimage to the places my ancestors walked, to saunter, address in hand, to this very magical corner and stand, awestruck, realizing that this very spot was where the house at 36 Queen Street would have been! A quote from a favorite book called The Art of Pilgrimage by Phil Cousineau, in a chapter where he speaks of this very sort of pilgrimage says that people wonder what you are pursuing when you search for ancestors. He suggests telling the story about the thread. Pilgrimage is to go somewhere looking for the sacred. It is also about making meaning, and being able to see what is often right before our eyes! It’s about finding the ‘under glimmer’ about which, the poet, Basho, reminds us. It is the age old story, the same as the archetypal Greek myth of Ariadne, Theseus and the labyrinth. It is about going out to come back, about coming full circle, about finding the golden thread that leads us to our center.
I love the part about the under glimmer. This helps me to understand why the fascination with 36 Queen Street is so real for you. It is a romantic crossroads, often memorialized, which once housed our ancestors. Now, if only we could understand what Elizabeth Blanche Smith Torrans did with herself all day long in that house…:) That’s what I’m fascinated with. I want to know how people lived inside these historical houses.
Just found your blog tonite.. Thank you.
“I have felt many times there is a sense of place as powerful as if it were visible and walking and could touch me” Eudora Welty from “Some Notes on River Country”
One comment – the corner of Queen and Church was first owned by Joseph Pendarvis (See Shaftbury Papers)c. 1680’s. I am a descendant of his. As you can understand, it is the story that
is important, and there are hundreds told about this family that you never heard of.
Dee! I am so thrilled to get this comment, and well, to ‘meet’ you! Eudora Welty is a great hero of mine, so thank you for this quote from her. Very cool to know that your ancestor owned the land there – and a house? Do you know anything about it? Which corner? Too cool! Theirs was at 36 Queen. There is a Pendarvis gentleman on Edisto Island now, so know the name. Oh, please tell me some stories! Elizabeth Smith Torrans’ family was a fascinating one! Again, thank you so much for writing. Please keep reading! Cheers, Charlotte
Hi Charlotte – sorry for the delayed response.
Joseph Pendarvis had two lots northeast Corner Church and Queen (site of St. Phillips Churchyard) and east side Church St. betwen Queen and Cumberland St. in year 1682/84 – see “Proprietary Records of S.C. – Abstracts” by Susan Bates
Get a copy of the “Grand Model Plat of Charles Town” at Calhoun St. Library and you can find who first lived at your 36 Queen St. address.
The Story -about forbidden love: The grandson, also Joseph, fathered seven children with a woman he truly loved. When he died he provided for their care and welfare by giving them thousands of acres of land (land was owned from the Ashley River to the Cooper River), a plantation(where Magnolia Ceme. is now) and a plantation in Colleton Co. with over 100 slaves. Another Plantation was sold to Eliza and Charles Pinckney as their country home. Soon the woman also died leaving these orphan children in the care of Childermas Croft. They all became productive people and married into Charleston’s elite society.
Did I mention Joseph Pendarvis referred to the woman of his children as “my pure perfect slave” and was freed by him by manumission???? I and all Prendarvis’ living today come from these seven children.
[…] I spent the day walking here again, and through the French Quarter, past the place where my aunt Elizabeth Blanche Smith Torrans lived most of her 82 years, at 36 Queen Street, until her death in 1817. She is buried at the […]
I just stumbled on your blog as I was researching Alexander Rose and Margaret Smith. They are my 4x great grandparents. I am the great granddaughter of Arhur Rose Guerard and Madeleine DiMarcavellor. I started working on my family tree a few months ago and as I trace my family roots, I like to imagine what their life was like and the places they lived. I live in S.CA and don’t know much about South Carolina, but I feel an yearning to learn more about it’s history and charm. I have been trying to find out as much a possible about my family history and then plan to vacation both of the Carolinas next year to see where they lived, worked, and died.
I look forward to reading the rest of your blog and follow your posts.
Deb, wow, hopefully I responded to you many years ago! But I do not see one so I am doing so now! I am completely intriqued by your ancestors, and know quite a bit. A fascinating heritage! Anyway, thank you for finding me. I write less about history now and make more art, but it is always of interest to me. Cheers and best cousin wishes, Charlotte
Hi Charlotte, I too am a descendent of Elizabeth Blanche Smith. Rosella Blanche Torrans married my 3 X great grandfather Stephen Watson. They moved to Liverpool before 1865. Their son William Watson inherited the merchant business and he also was Chairman of the Cunard Line prior to his death in 1909. His daughter Harriet was my great grandmother. My parents moved to Ireland and I was born here. So cead mile failte from your Irish cousin!