Gillon’s fluency in several languages, handsome appearance, and social graces helped him rise quickly in the commercial trade.
Congressman, merchant, naval officer, legislator. Gillon was born in Rotterdam, Holland, on August 13, 1741, the son of Alexander Gillon and Mary Harris. Gillon’s fluency in several languages, handsome appearance, and social graces helped him rise quickly in the commercial trade. Gillon first arrived in the American colonies as the master of the brigantine Surprize, docking at Philadelphia in December 1764. Within two years, Gillon met Mary Splatt Cripps, widow of William Cripps, and the two were married on July 6, 1766. The union produced one daughter. His wife died in 1787, whereupon Gillon married Ann Purcell on February 10, 1789. This marriage produced three children.
Gillon settled in Charleston in 1766, prospering in commercial ventures, operating a store and merchant vessels. In 1773 he opened the firm of Alexander Gillon & Company with his stepsons, William and John Splatt Cripps. Reorganized under Gillon and William Cripps, the firm operated a store on the bay that sold foodstuffs and wines. The lucrative venture enabled Gillon to retire from the mercantile trade in 1777, at which time he owned a house and lot on East Bay Street, a dock on the Cooper River, another fifteen lots in Charleston, and 5,500 acres of land on the Congaree River.
Gillon first came to public attention when he appeared before the Liberty Tree Committee on January 24, 1770, for violation of the Non-Importation Association boycott. Early in the Revolution, Gillon eagerly attached himself to the patriot cause. He was a member of the Committee of Ninety-Nine (1774), organized the German Fusiliers in 1775 (which he commanded until 1777), and served in the Second Provincial Congress (1775–1776). In 1776 he put his commercial abilities to use supplying munitions to the Continental Congress. In February 1778 Gillon turned down another supply contract with the Continental Congress to accept command of the South Carolina Navy with the rank of commodore. In Amsterdam, in May 1780, Gillon leased the frigate South Carolina from the Chevalier Luxembourg of France and set sail from Amsterdam in August 1781. After an ill-fated voyage across the Atlantic, which saw Gillon financially ruined, the South Carolina arrived in Philadelphia in May 1782. The South Carolina was captured leaving Philadelphia under command of John Joyner in December 1782. The resulting claims against the state arising out of Gillon’s brief command of the South Carolina were not fully settled until 1856.
After the Revolution, Gillon served in the General Assembly (1783–1791), representing the city districts of St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s, then the backcountry district of Saxe Gotha. Gillon also became immersed in the conflict between pro-British and anti-British factions in Charleston. He helped found the Marine Anti-Britannic Society and firmly allied himself with Charleston mechanics and the antiaristocratic faction in Charleston politics. In 1784 Gillon lost the election for intendant of Charleston to Richard Hutson, after which he increasingly associated himself with his backcountry supporters and officially moved to his estate, Gillon’s Retreat, in Orangeburg District. Reelected to the Tenth General Assembly, Gillon chose instead to serve in Congress (1793–1794) representing the Beaufort-Orangeburg District. He died on October 6, 1794, at Gillon’s Retreat and was buried in the plantation cemetery.
Bailey, N. Louise, and Elizabeth Ivey Cooper, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Vol. 3, 1775–1790. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1981.
Nadelhaft, Jerome J. The Disorders of War: The Revolution in South Carolina. Orono: University of Maine Press, 1981.