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

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Artisans and Entrepreneurs

Selection from ledger entries for Saturday, the 23rd of August through Wednesday, the 27th of August, 1760, Charles Town, South Carolina, The James Poyas Daybook Collection, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives.

Selection from ledger entries for Saturday, the 23rd of August through Wednesday, the 27th of August, 1760, Charles Town, South Carolina, The James Poyas Daybook CollectionLowcountry Digital Library, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives. Selection shows the purchases of Sarah Wood, midwife, which included fabric, thread, and leather shoes.

While the majority of Poyas’s customers were Lowcountry planters, the colony’s diverse and growing artisan and entrepreneurial business class also relied on his services. By the 1760s, there were approximately four hundred skilled white men and women, and an unknown number of skilled Africans, plying their trades in the city. The most frequently listed artisan occupation in the daybook was that of the tailor. Tailors helped clothe the colonists of South Carolina and fashioned outfits for the gentry, and most worked in Charles Town. Archibald Tomson purchased horn buttonmolds from Poyas for his store on Bay Street. Customer Thomas Fell’s garment shop was on Elliot Street. In May 1760, local tailors and Poyas customers William Williams and John Logan formed a partnership and opened a store on Broad Street after apprenticing for several years with master tailor Walter Mansell.

In addition, Elliot Street tavern keeper John Wood also purchased Irish linens and a dozen sailors’ buckles from Poyas. Wood’s wife, Sarah Wood, was a midwife who purchased several types of cloth, linens, and thread. Prominent gunsmith John Milner purchased pewter dishes, tea canisters, shoes, and an umbrella.


Detail from “A map of the parish of St. Stephen, in Craven County,” surveyed by Henry Mouzon, South Carolina, 1773, courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society.

Detail from “A map of the parish of St. Stephen, in Craven County,” surveyed by Henry Mouzon, South Carolina, 1773, courtesy of the South Carolina Historical Society. In the lower right-hand corner, two white men oversee slaves working on an indigo plantation near the Santee River.

By the mid-eighteenth century, the wealthiest planters in South Carolina were often absentee landowners. While they maintained residences on some of their plantation properties, colonial planters often traveled during the summer and winter seasons to urban townhouses in Charles Town or Georgetown, or to northeastern retreats such as Newport, Rhode Island. While they were away, white male overseers maintained and directed the labor of the enslaved population. Several of these Lowcountry overseers purchased items from Poyas’s store, including Maurice Fleming, overseer for J. Wright’s property on the Santee River, and Alexander Miott who managed Elias Horry’s properties in Prince George Winyah parish. Edward McCally, who managed Richard Beresford’s Santee properties, purchased seventy-five yards of assorted fabric, linens, and husbandry tools necessary for the work and clothing of enslaved Africans cultivating indigo on the property. Historic accounts of plantation life in the Lowcountry often focus on the relationship between the masters and slaves. From the Poyas Daybook, however, it is evident that overseers also took an active role in procuring and distributing material goods as well as directing labor on plantations.  

Rural Settlers

"Picturesque America," Ashley River, Charleston Museum Illustrated Newspapers Collection, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives, Charleston, South Carolina.

"Picturesque America," Ashley River, Charleston Museum Illustrated Newspapers CollectionLowcountry Digital Library, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives, Charelston, South Carolina. The Ashley and Cooper Rivers along the Charleston peninsula served as major waterways for Poyas and other merchants to ship goods to cities and rural areas in South Carolina. 

By the mid-1760s, settlers in the South Carolina backcountry represented about three-fourths of the white population in the colony. Merchants like Poyas provided access to trading networks that were crucial to their survival in the often-harsh South Carolina hinterlands. Supplying the region required navigating the many waterways that served as the most accessible means of transportation in the eighteenth century. As the colony’s white population expanded in the late colonial period, coastal schooners and sloops also transported goods from Charles Town to burgeoning settlements on the Saluda, Savannah, and Pee Dee Rivers. In the 1760s, at the height of his mercantile career in Charles Town, Poyas supplied dry goods and groceries to over sixty rural customers.

Though Poyas also distributed his goods in wagons, he primarily used coastal schooners. The boats he used belonged to members of the Cordes, Mazyck, Gailliard, and Horry families, among others. Poyas hired Captain George Dick to carry goods to customers in Georgetown where they were sold and transferred onto smaller riverboats for transport further inland. Poyas’s rural customers lived at Boonesborough, Congaree, Williamsburg, Black Mingo, Purrysburg, Savannah, and Cainhoy. The backcountry settlements of Camden, Long Canes, and others tended to cluster near navigable rivers, stores, and trading posts, and were held together by religious, ethnic, and familial ties. For Poyas and other Charles Town retail merchants, backcountry settlements were prime markets to sell excess goods and manufactured products.