The James Poyas Daybook: An Account of a Charles Town Merchant, 1760-1765

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Ledger entries for the 30th of April, 1765, Charles Town, South Carolina, The James Poyas Daybook Collection, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives.

Ledger entries for the 30th of April, 1765, Charles Town, South Carolina, The James Poyas Daybook Collection, Lowcountry Digital Library, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives. The last page in this daybook reveals the fragile state of Poyas's ledger today. Poyas’s two daybooks are now archived at the Charleston Museum and the South Carolina Historical Society, and are currently the only documents available that detail the daily activities of a Charles Town merchant in the late colonial period. 

City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, September 20, 1799, Charleston, South Carolina, courtesy of America's Historical Newspapers.

City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, September 20, 1799, Charleston, South Carolina, courtesy of America's Historical Newspapers. Although the exact date of James Poyas's death remains unknown, a Charleston newspaper posted a death announcement for Poyas in 1799.

In June 1766, Poyas’s mercantile business suffered from a glutted local market. The shops and stores along Bay and Tradd Streets were overstocked with dry goods and manufactured items from England, while a growing number of local artisans increasingly supplied South Carolinians’ demands for consumer goods. In order to direct more customers to his store, Poyas offered a ten percent discount for purchases over £20. By March 1767, however, he placed an announcement in the newspaper that all his debtors must settle their accounts—he planned to close his shop and leave Charles Town in the summer.

In June 1767, Poyas and his wife Elizabeth also filed for a deed of separation after little more than a decade of marriage, which severed their shared property. At that time, it was not possible for the South Carolina colonial legislature to grant absolute divorces because they considered marriage to be under the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts—which were not established in the area until the 1780s. Poyas left Charles Town and his wife that summer and relocated to London, England, where he reestablished his mercantile business. From there he sent shipments of textiles, groceries, and dry goods to Charles Town.

In 1770, Poyas became a trading partner in the firm of Daniel DeSaussure and Company. He managed the firm’s accounts in London while DeSaussure managed the company’s retail dry goods store in Beaufort, South Carolina, and Josiah Smith, Jr. managed the Charles Town store. In 1774, the firm reorganized to become DeSaussure, Poyas, and Company. Though the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783) temporarily disrupted trading activities, by the early 1780s this London-based company thrived again, selling not only goods but also enslaved Africans at private and public auction. At this point Poyas shifted to large-scale slave trading, managing sales that included as many as 1,500 men, women, and children. It is unclear when his association with the firm ended, but in the late 1790s, Poyas was trading independently with Charleston merchant Robert Foster (Charles Town was renamed Charleston in 1783). Poyas died in London sometime between October 1796, when he wrote his will, and March 1799, when Robert Foster filed suit against insolvent accounts in the Court of Common Pleas for his deceased partner’s outstanding debts. 

The entries in the daybook that James Poyas meticulously maintained from 1760 to 1765 illustrate how a relatively small-scale merchant interacted with various individuals from the rural South Carolina backcountry to the bustling port city of Charles Town, as part of the dynamic Atlantic World marketplace of the eighteenth century. During his career, South Carolina's population increased dramatically as new lands became available in the backcountry and planter demand for enslaved labor grew with the expansion of the colony’s plantation-based economy. Merchants such as Poyas provided goods to various customers and enabled planters to transport and sell their crops to foreign markets. As settlers migrated to the South Carolina backcountry as well as Charles Town, Poyas and other merchants served as critical links in a trading network that provided tools, textiles, and groceries for colonists as they cleared the forests and expanded the towns and villages of the rapidly growing colony.