Adger became one of the wealthiest and most influential merchants of antebellum Charleston, and he used his position to good effect in the affairs of the city.
Merchant. Adger was born on November 2, 1777, in Moneynick, county Antrim, in the north of Ireland, the son of the linen manufacturer James Adger and Margaret Crawford. His father died in 1783, and his mother soon after married Robert Rodgers. In late 1793 the family emigrated from Ireland, arriving in New York in January 1794. Adger’s mother and stepfather opened a grocery business, while young James learned the carpenter’s trade. He did not take to it, however, and subsequently apprenticed in the hardware business under the supervision of John Bailey. In 1802 Adger sailed from New York in charge of a hardware cargo bound for Charleston, South Carolina. Making contact with his brother William, who had emigrated from Ireland and settled in Fairfield District, Adger remained in South Carolina. On September 6, 1806, he married Sarah Elizabeth Ellison of Fairfield District. They had nine children.
Adger became one of the wealthiest and most influential merchants of antebellum Charleston. He entered business as a cotton buyer shortly after his arrival in the city, forming the firm of Bones & Adger in partnership with his kinsman Samuel Bones, and then established the hardware firm of James Adger & Company. In 1818 Adger had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Alexander Brown of Baltimore, who, together with his sons, oversaw one of the largest mercantile and merchant banking operations in the United States. Adger became the Charleston agent of Brown, a connection that became the primary foundation of Adger’s subsequent fortune. Concentrating his varied business activities on East Bay Street, Adger formed a commission and factorage partnership with James Black to create the firm of Adger & Black and then purchased his own wharf. By 1850 Adger held at least $200,000 in real estate and owned eighteen slaves.
Adger used his position and wealth to good effect in the affairs of Charleston. He represented the city for a term in the S.C. House of Representatives from 1826 to 1828 and served Charleston in a variety of municipal roles, including director of the Office of Discount and Deposit, director of the city tobacco inspection warehouse, and as a longtime member of the Charleston Chamber of Commerce. His primary influence, however, came in the time and money he invested in promoting transportation improvements. In 1828 Adger served on the Chamber of Commerce committee investigating construction of a railroad between Charleston and Hamburg. He was also a delegate to the 1845 Memphis Convention to promote internal improvements in the South. Adger perhaps was best known his success in establishing a packet steamship line between Charleston and New York in 1845–1846. Although other prominent Charleston merchants were among the line’s investors, the company was popularly known as the “Adger line.” By 1853 company assets were valued at $500,000.
Adger died in New York on September 24, 1858. His body was returned to Charleston and buried in the cemetery of the Second Presbyterian Church.
Adger, John B. My Life and Times, 1810–1899. Richmond, Va.: Presbyterian Committee of Publication, 1899.
Greb, Gregory Allen. “Charleston, South Carolina, Merchants, 1815–1860: Urban Leadership in the Antebellum South.” Ph.D. diss., University of California at San Diego, 1978.
Moore, Alexander, ed. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 5, 1816–1828. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1992.