Most of the eight original proprietors had remained staunch supporters of the Stuart monarchy after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and others changed sides to become key figures in the restoration of his son in 1660.
King Charles II granted the land that became North and South Carolina to eight English noblemen in 1663. Before the government of King George II bought out the last owners in 1729, nearly fifty individuals owned or claimed to own these eight shares. South Carolina owes its formative beginnings to these shareholders and their joint colonial enterprise.
Most of the eight original proprietors had remained staunch supporters of the Stuart monarchy after the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and others changed sides to become key figures in the restoration of his son in 1660. The original proprietors gained both elevated rank in the English nobility and colonial property as rewards for this service. The titles of the eight initial owners reflect their rise: Edward Hyde, first earl of Clarendon; George Monck, first duke of Albemarle; William Craven, first earl of Craven; Anthony Ashley Cooper, first earl of Shaftesbury; John Berkeley, first baron Berkeley of Stratton, and his brother Sir William Berkeley, governor of Virginia; Sir George Carteret; and Sir John Colleton. No documentary evidence survives for the organization of the joint enterprise, but it is likely that it was suggested by Sir John Colleton, who ran its affairs in the early years until his death in 1667. A second charter in 1665 extinguished lingering claims from an earlier grant to Sir Robert Heath and extended the grant’s boundaries.
Settlement attempts by New Englanders and Barbadians failed, but the foundering colonial enterprise was rescued by Anthony Ashley Cooper in 1669. Ashley Cooper, who had not yet become the first earl of Shaftesbury, persuaded the other proprietors to fund an expedition from England that established the first permanent English settlement in South Carolina in 1670. None of the original proprietors ever set foot in their colony. Two of them, the earl of Clarendon and Sir William Berkeley, failed to contribute their shares to the financing of the joint enterprise. Sir Peter Colleton, who inherited his father’s share, and the five other active shareholders added the joint proprietorship of the Bahamas to their holdings in the same year that South Carolina was founded. A 1672 agreement to give the Albemarle region, which had been previously settled from neighboring Virginia, to Sir William Berkeley in exchange for his share in the proprietorship fell through. Protracted disputes over the ownership of his share and the Clarendon share necessitated an act of Parliament to assure clear title when the proprietorship was surrendered to the crown in 1729.
Ashley Cooper with assistance from John Locke, who served as secretary to the proprietorship from 1668 to 1675, wrote the Fundamental Constitutions as part of the preparations for the 1669 expedition. That document’s elaborate provisions provided a governing structure for the proprietorship as well as the colonial settlements. The group was to be headed by a palatine, whose substantial powers in naming governors and vetoing laws sometimes had a major impact in South Carolina in later years. The title “palatine” had its origins in the feudal powers of the prince/bishops of Durham, powers granted to the shareholders in their charters. The first three palatines, George Monck, John Berkeley, and Sir George Carteret, were more like figureheads during the years from 1669 to 1682 when the earl of Shaftesbury took the lead in managing their affairs and the fledgling South Carolina settlement.
English noblemen supported their opulent lifestyles from the rents from their landed estates, and the proprietors expected to profit handsomely from their vast new American holdings. They were quickly disappointed when in the early years the often-stubborn colonists did not repay the expenses of setting up the colony. Collection of quitrents on land granted to colonists was a continual problem. Dreams of wealth from gold and silver or the production of wine, silk, and olive oil proved all too elusive for the colony’s successive proprietary owners. Shares in the joint enterprise were bought and sold over the years, but none of the proprietors reaped much profit from their colonial investment.
Only the Colleton, Carteret, and Craven shares remained in the hands of the families of their original owners in 1729. Later generations of the Colleton family were resident South Carolinians at Fair Lawn Seignory on the upper Cooper River. John Carteret, earl of Granville, the great-great-grandson of the original owner, did not join the other seven shareholders in selling out to the crown and received the Granville District along North Carolina’s northern border as his eighth share in the colonial property.
John Archdale, who also served as one of South Carolina’s most effective proprietary governors, bought two different shares over the years. Because he was a Quaker, he placed the first in his son’s name, and he was subsequently disappointed when that son sold it when he came of age. In contrast to Archdale’s positive influence, another purchaser, Seth Sothel, brought disruption and discord when he briefly claimed the governor’s office in South Carolina in 1690.
Proprietary efforts to control South Carolina’s development were slightly more successful than their hoped-for profits. South Carolinians early on asserted an irritating independence. Attempts by royal officials to void the charter began as early as the 1680s in moves to tighten control over England’s colonies. From the South Carolinians’ point of view, the proprietors’ vetoes of their laws, their failure to adequately support the colony’s security, their cessation of further land grants at the same time that they reserved fifteen large tracts for proprietor’s baronies, and other grievances had “unhinged the frame of government.” In December 1719 the South Carolinians revolted against the proprietary regime and asked the crown to take direct control of the colony. A provisional royal governor arrived in 1721, and negotiations led to the 1729 surrender of the proprietors’ ownership of Carolina to the British government.
Lesser, Charles H. South Carolina Begins: The Records of a Proprietary Colony, 1663–1721. Columbia: South Carolina Department of Archives and History, 1995.
Powell, William S. The Proprietors of Carolina. Raleigh, N.C.: Carolina Charter Tercentenary Commission, 1963.