The Management of Sequestered Estates in South Carolina, 1780–1782

The War Years (1775-1783)

December 20, 2021
by Ian Saberton Also by this Author


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On September 16, 1780, while at the Waxhaws on the northern border of South Carolina, Lt. Gen. Earl Cornwallis, the British General Officer commanding in the South, issued a proclamation appointing John Cruden to be the province’s Commissioner for Sequestered Estates. The reasons behind the proclamation and the purposes of it, together with Cruden’s role, are set out in its opening lines:

WHEREAS, notwithstanding the moderation of the British government and His Majesty’s unparalleled clemency to those of his deluded subjects who from a sense of their errors have returned to their duty and allegiance, there are several persons of property in this province who obstinately persist in their guilty and treasonable practices and are either in the service or acting under the authority of the rebel Congress, or by abandoning their plantations to join the enemies of Great Britain or by an open avowal of rebellious principles and other notorious acts do manifest a wicked and desperate perseverance in opposing to the utmost of their power the re-establishment of His Majesty’s just and lawful authority: And whereas it is a duty incumbent upon me to take all due precaution to secure the tranquillity of His Majesty’s government and the peace and liberties of his faithful and loyal subjects in this province, and to prevent the wicked designs of such ill-disposed persons as are above described from taking effect: And whereas it might be of dangerous consequence to suffer such persons to possess and make use of their estates in this province, thereby furnishing them with the means of carrying on their malicious and traitorous designs more effectually into execution: And as it likewise appears to me both just and expedient that the property which they have voluntarily staked in support of rebellion should now be applied on our part to defray a portion of the expences occasioned by the obstinate delinquency of their faction: I have therefore thought proper to issue this proclamation to notify all persons concerned that I have ordered the estates both real and personal in this province belonging to the wicked and dangerous traitors above described to be sequestered; and I have constituted and appointed John Cruden Esq. to be commissioner to execute the purposes of this proclamation with full power and authority, on receipt or an order or warrant under my hand, or the hand of the officer commanding the British forces in this province or of the Commandant of Charles Town, and not otherwise, to take into his charge, custody and possession the estates both real and personal of those who have abandoned their plantations to join the enemies of Great Britain, and of the estates both real and personal (not included in the Capitulation of Charles Town) of those in the service or acting under the authority of the rebel Congress, and of the estates both personal and real of those persons who by an open avowal of rebellious principles or by other notorious acts do manifest a wicked and desperate perseverance in opposing to the utmost of their power the re-establishment of His Majesty’s just and lawful authority.

Cruden’s commission is also extant and may be found in my edition of The Cornwallis Papers. A son of the Reverend William Cruden of London, he had been a merchant in Wilmington, North Carolina. In March 1775 he at first refused to sign the association subversive of the royal government but was later “persuaded” to do so. Declining to take the test oath two years later, he was banished and saw his property confiscated by the revolutionary authorities. Repairing to the Bahamas by way of East Florida, he for a time resided in Nassau before going on to South Carolina shortly before or after the Capitulation of Charlestown.

Cruden embarked with alacrity on the execution of his trust. Almost one hundred estates and above five thousand enslaved people were seized, deputies of proven loyalty were appointed, each for a prescribed district, and experienced overseers were employed. All in all, as he began work, he optimistically considered the prospects of success to be promising with great reason to expect a permanent and increasing revenue of fifty to sixty thousand pounds per year,[1] notwithstanding that by then the whole of the region to the east of the Wateree and Santee was in open revolt and no longer under British control.

That the charges might be as light as possible, Cruden arranged for his deputies to receive a commission on the produce which passed through their hands, subject to certain additional compensation for their extraordinary trouble and expenses, which were great. The most frugal agreements were made with overseers and other employees.

Yet there were immediate problems, for, unsurprisingly, almost all the seized plantations were in a very poor condition. During the campaigns of 1779 and 1780 they had been either deserted or neglected by their proprietors and had suffered exceedingly from the devastations of war and attendant circumstances. None in the previous year had produced any considerable crop, very few had even yielded sufficient provisions to support the enslaved until the ensuing harvest, and many were totally destitute of that indispensable article. The enslaved in general were almost if not entirely naked, given that only very scanty supplies of clothing had been attainable for several years. The estates were likewise destitute of all sorts of plantation tools and were generally very ill supplied with horses, cattle and stock of other kinds.

On receiving reports from his deputies to the above effect, Cruden at once set in train material ways of alleviating matters. On the sequestered estates about the Congaree and Wateree Rivers and in the District of Ninety Six[2] there had been found large quantities of wheat, Indian corn and peas which, together with stocks of cattle, sheep and hogs, were over and above providing for their wants and capable of supplying not only some of the plantations that were deficient but also the King’s troops serving in those neighborhoods. Some tobacco, indigo and hemp were also found there besides a small crop of rice and some indigo in the lower settlements, all of which, apart from the rice, were sold.

Nevertheless, there was, unavoidably, a very large outlay on purchasing food and clothing for the enslaved and, additionally, horses, cattle and other necessaries for many other plantations, without which Cruden’s commission could not succeed. Another great and equally unavoidable expense was dealing with the small pox and a malignant camp fever, both of which were raging throughout the province. It was necessary to treat with medicine and advice those who were already infected and, as respects the small pox, to inoculate those who were not.

Of this time Cruden was later to report, “It is well known that all sorts of plantation necessaries were scarce and dear, especially woollens. Blankets of the most moderate quality could not be purchased under nine or ten guineas a piece, and the common kind of Negro cloth still dearer in proportion, and even not to be procured at any price, in the beginning of winter. There was therefore a necessity for cloathing many of the Negroes with a kind of coloured coarse duffel, which, altho’ costing more per yard than common plains, was not in fact dearer, as being double the width and of much better quality. The shoes, plantations tools and other necessaries, altho’ charged in the name of John Cruden & Co. to prevent a number of cross useless entries in the public books, were purchased of the various importers and shopkeepers in town[3] on the lowest terms and charged at the same prices which were actually paid.”

As far as revenue was concerned, there was, besides the crops and other products that he expected to gain eventually from the seized plantations, a more productive article that promised him a greater, speedy and constant source ― lumber and firewood. On some estates were good saw mills. Others were proposed to be erected where plenty of timber was to be found. From the great and almost inexhaustible demand for this commodity and its high price both locally and in the West Indies a vast revenue might have been obtained had the province remained open and quiet. One estate, says Cruden, was capable of furnishing ten hundred thousand feet per year, worth above £6,000,[4] without interfering with or reducing the quantity of its other produce. Yet, before long, Cruden’s expectations were largely dashed and soon after, except at the margins, all was to come to nought. Why?

Well, as stated earlier, the entire eastern region of the province was in open revolt and no longer under British control. Elsewhere, with the defeat of Major Patrick Ferguson and his loyal militia in October, and despite the actions at Fishdam Ford and Blackstocks in November, the whole of the territory to the west of Broad River, that is to say, the part lying between the Saluda and the province’s northern border, had effectively fallen to the enemy by the close of 1780. To the east of Broad River no control was exercised by the British over the mid to northern part of the territory there, where the enemy was free to operate. Thus the only parts of the province remaining under British control were the area of the Backcountry lying between the Congaree and the environs of Winnsborough and Camden, the territory lying south of the Congaree and Saluda, and ― tenuously ―the low country west of the Santee, which was subject to incursions from the other side of the river by numerous bands of revolutionary irregulars intent on pillage and creating mayhem.

The situation continued to deteriorate. After Cornwallis perversely forsook the province for his winter campaign in January, followed by Brig. Gen. Thomas Sumter’s incursion down the Wateree and Congaree in March, and by Major Gen. Nathanael Greene’s arrival with his Continental corps in April, the British vacated the entire Backcountry by the summer of 1781. Then, soon after their pyrrhic victory at the Battle of Eutaw Springs in September, they retired to the vicinity of Charlestown by the close of the year, abandoning the rest of the province.

The effect of these calamities on the functioning of his office Cruden was graphically to relate ― at least in part ― in a report of June 1781. He begins by saying, “The frontiers and great part of the interior of this province became scenes of confusion, robbery and murder,” adding that Brig. Gen. Francis Marion had “overrun and destroyed the eastern and southern parts.” Of Sumter’s incursion he remarks, “On this occasion all the settlements at Ninety Six and on the Congaree and Wateree were broke up. Many overseers were murdered, and several Negroes having been carried off, the rest were secured at the different posts until they could be removed to places of more security.”

Speaking generally, he continues, “By this [Sumter’s] and the subsequent incursions of the enemy vast quantities of provisions and cattle and a great deal of tobacco, indico etc. were lost and the plantations destroyed. Great part of the Negroes were saved and brought nearer town and might yet have been employed to advantage, but the invasion of the province by General Greene, the evacuation of Camden, George Town and other outposts, with the general revolt of almost the whole country, have frustrated all the Commissioner’s measures and cut off not only all prospects of a crop but even all communication with the estates, the greatest part of which are actually in the enemies possession.”

“These misfortunes,” he goes on, “have not only destroyed all the Commissioner’s resources but have also involved him in a very heavy additional expence: several overseers and other persons employed by him on these estates have been murdered, to support whose distressed families he is called on both by humanity and the honor of Government. Many others with their wives and children have been obliged to fly to the British lines for protection and must also be maintained, but the heaviest charge is a vast crowd of loyal and helpless refugees, who have lost their all and been driven from their habitations by the rebels on account of their attachment to Government. The Commissioner has received express orders from Earl Cornwallis, Lord Rawdon[5], and the Commandant[6] to maintain houses for many of these. To this purpose several valuable places in safe situations near Charles Town have been appropriated which would otherwise have yielded considerable profit, and he is under the necessity of purchasing provisions to feed these people as well as great numbers of the sequestered Negroes driven from the estates, who must otherwise perish. He has also the mortification to find that the valuable property of some gentlemen employed and acting under him has been materially injured and in some parts of the province entirely destroyed by the enemy in revenge for their having assisted in this business, the rebels threatening, and when in their power (which is too extensive) constantly executing, vengeance on all persons acting in this department.”

“The incursions of the enemy, “he adds, “are now so frequent and so near our lines that the procuring firewood for the use of the garrison, which the Commissioner had contracted for and would under more favourable circumstances have been very able to have performed, has been greatly obstructed and rendered exceedingly expensive and precarious, and several vessels employed by him in that service have been burned or otherwise destroyed by the enemy. By Earl Cornwallis’s instructions the wives and children of sequestered persons were directed to be supported out of the produce of the estates and certain portions thereof were allotted for that purpose with a discretionary power in the Commissioner to supply further sums if the said portions should prove inadequate to the purpose, which, from the many misfortunes above set forth, has too often happened and has required considerable sums.”

He concludes, “It grieves the Commissioner to be under the necessity of observing that, contrary to all appearances at the time of adopting this measure, it has, instead of yielding a very considerable revenue to Government, brought on it a heavy but unavoidable expence, to defray part of which he has been compelled to apply to the Commandant for a supply and has received four thousand pounds,[7] which is very short of his advances, to reimburse which a much larger sum will still be necessary.”

In May 1782 his account for his first year in office was approved by the Commandant and Board of Police in Council, who certified that £6,855[8] was due to his office from the Crown. One month later he sailed from Charlestown to New York to present his entire accounts to Sir Henry Clinton, the British Commander-in-Chief, but his subsequent accounts have not come to light. By June 1783 he was still awaiting material recompense from the Crown for his services.

So what became of Cruden? By May 1785 he was again residing in the Bahamas, this time at Rawdon Harbor. Three years later, with his father dead and his mother, sister and her children dependent on him, he submitted a claim to the royal commission seeking compensation for his losses.



Peter Wilson Coldham, American Loyalist Claims (National Genealogical Society, 1980), 111.

Robert O. Demond, The Loyalists in North Carolina during the Revolution (Duke University Press, 1940), 54, 66, 184.

Robert Stansbury Lambert, South Carolina Loyalists in the American Revolution (University of South Carolina Press, 1987), 236, 264.

PRO 30/11/7(52), (53) and (57) (UK National Archives, Kew).

Ian Saberton ed., The Cornwallis Papers: The Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Theatre of the American Revolutionary War (Uckfield UK, The Naval & Military Press Ltd., 2010), 1: 219, 2: 320-3, 6: 266-291.

Ian Saberton ―

“Cornwallis and the Autumn Campaign of 1780 ― His Advance from Camden to Charlotte,” Journal of the American Revolution (JAR), July18, 2017;

“Cornwallis quits Charlotte, abandoning the Autumn Campaign of 1780,” JAR, August 19, 2019;

“Cornwallis’s Refitment at Winnsborough and the Start of the Winter Campaign, November-January 1780-81,” JAR, March 18, 2019, being articles, particularly the last, which detail Britain’s disastrous loss of control in South Carolina during the last four months of 1780.

Banastre Tarleton, A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781 in the Southern Provinces of North America (London, 1787), 186-191, where the complete text of Cornwallis’s proclamation is set out, though the date of it is wrongly given as September 6, 1780.

[1]Between £9.2 million ($12.7 million) and £11.02 million ($15.2 million) in today’s money.

[2]The district lay preponderantly between the Saluda River and the province’s northern border with North Carolina.


[4]Above £1.1 million ($1.5 million) in today’s money.

[5]In the absence of Cornwallis, Rawdon commanded in the field in South Carolina.

[6]The Commandant of Charlestown was Lt. Col. Nisbet Balfour.

[7]Some £735,000 ($992,250) in today’s money.

[8]Some £1.26 million ($1.7 million) in today’s money.

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