City Market Myths & Charleston FYI

Charleston’s most popular attraction is her City Market. This unique shopping venue is well known to locals and tourists alike, but there are some common misconceptions about the market’s official name and history.

Herman Moll Map of the Walled City, 1733

Herman Moll Map of the Walled City, 1733

Charles Town Geography

The City Market still sits in its original location between North and South Market Streets. The property stretches for three blocks, from East Bay to Meeting. When the city of Charles Town, named after King Charles II, was founded in 1680 this area was a deep-water creek, later named Major Daniel’s Creek. By 1704 a wall was erected for city defense. The wall was constructed of brick and cypress along the Cooper River waterfront, and earthen walls guarded the land sides. The walled city covered approximately 62 acres, bounded by what is now East Bay Street, Meeting Street, Cumberland Street, and Water Street. Vanderhorst Creek ran along the south side of the wall. Both creeks, Vanderhorst and Major Daniel’s, were deep enough to accommodate boat traffic.

The Emergence of City Markets

In the 18th century, various markets opened throughout the walled city. A produce market was located on the end of Tradd Street at South Adger’s Wharf. Fish markets were located on Dock Street (now Queen Street) along the waterfront and Major Daniel’s Creek. Local butchers set up shop at the corner of Meeting and Broad. Shopping at these markets was part of daily life in Charleston, as there was no way to effectively preserve food, particularly meat.

Butchers routinely tossed scraps, commonly known as “offal,” into the street. Their dogs, known as “Butcher’s Helpers,” disposed of these scraps. Shoppers also brought dogs to the market. Dogs were a good solution to a growing sanitation issue, particularly from the canine perspective, but of course, problems arose. Dogs fought one another, harassed horses, and bit humans. Rabies was just one of many causes for concern. In 1799, the Commissioner of the Markets banned dogs from all city markets. Offenders were fined 20 shillings, and their dog(s) were killed and pitched into the water.


An Official City Market Opens

In 1788, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, a signer of the US Constitution, donated land around Major Daniels’s Creek to the City of Charleston for use as a public market. Daniel’s Creek was eventually filled in, and vendor sheds were constructed from 1804 through the 1830s. In 1807, the Centre Market was established by city ordinance. The ordinance mandated that the area always be used as a city market, and it was to be open every day but Christmas Day. Rules for the Centre Market and enforcement of these rules were left to the Commissioner of the Markets. Stalls at the Centre Market were rented for 25 cents per week.

City Market Coined “Slave’s Market” by Locals

The Centre Market is now referred to as the City Market, but it was unofficially known as the “Slave’s Market” because slaves and free blacks sold their wares there. This practice gave rise to the often-repeated myth that slaves were sold in the City Market, and today, many locals and tourists have misrepresented the venue as “The Old Slave Market.” The truth is that slaves were never sold there. They were sold along the waterfront until 1856 when the city banned public auctions. Auctions were then moved to an area between Chalmers and Queen Streets known as Ryan’s Mart.  The city’s Slave Mart Museum is located there today.


A Habitat for “Charleston Eagles”

A variety of goods were sold at the City Market in the 18th century, including meat, and without dogs, scrap disposal was a persisting sanitation issue. Black vultures, which were indigenous to the Lowcountry, became the solution. Affectionally known as “Charleston Eagles,” these scavengers picked the streets clean of refuse for over 120 years. While efficient, vultures elicited derision from visitors and residents alike.

Postcard by Detroit Publishing Co. 

Postcard by Detroit Publishing Co. 

“In the earlier portions of the day the market has a very busy appearance, the commodious street on either side being crowded with human beings, beasts and birds.  To a stranger, from the North particularly, the birds are not the least interesting, they being buzzards, the self-appointed scavengers of warm climates.  They are nearly as large as a turkey, and are tame, familiar and grotesque to the last degree.  They surround the market, particularly at the closing in the afternoon, when everything not sold must be cleared out, hopping and skipping in the street and on the sidewalks in a manner peculiarly their own, or roosting on all the eaves and chimney tops when they have gorged themselves, or there is nothing more for them to eat.  They are looked upon by the inhabitants as a necessary evil, and are protected by law.”
– New York Herald December 15, 1861

Yes, black vultures were protected, and offenders were fined. By the 1920’s “Charleston Eagles” had naturally disappeared from the city due to Improved sanitation practices, but black vultures can still be seen cleaning the roadways in more rural areas of the Lowcountry.

City Hall 2017.jpg

Old Market Property Becomes City Hall

So, what happened to Charleston’s original beef market site at the corner of Meeting and Broad? The beef market building was destroyed by a fire on June 13, 1796. In 1800 the city conveyed the Beef Market Property to the Bank of the United States. Gabriel Manigault, Charleston’s “Gentleman Architect” is credited with the design of the elegant Adamesque building which opened there in 1804. By 1811 the State Bank of South Carolina acquired the building occupying it until 1818 when it was transferred to the City of Charleston. It has served as City Hall since then and is the second oldest city hall in continuous operation in the United States. 

Meet Me in Washington Square

Just behind City Hall is Washington Square Park, which dates back to 1818. The park was formally dedicated October 18, 1881, on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown in honor of George Washington. My regularly scheduled tours depart from Washington Square. This is a beautiful spot to meet, snap photos, and begin a stroll through our wonderful city. Prefer to meet at a location of your choosing? I would be happy to customize a tour to suit your starting locale...

Email me to learn more about private tours.

Jennifer Morrow