Life at the Edge of Empire: North America, c. 1760–1812; The Charleston Drawing and Dining Rooms, Mia. February 1, 2019 – November 29, 2020

Life at the Edge of Empire:

North America, c. 1760–1812

The Charleston Dining and Drawing Rooms come from the 1772 Charleston, South Carolina, home of John Stuart, Britain’s superintendent of Indian Affairs, the chief diplomat to the Southeast’s Native peoples. At Mia, these rooms have traditionally been installed with period-appropriate furniture and paintings to illustrate the tastes of people who resembled John Stuart in their wealth and social station.But in many cases these artworks reveal far more about John Stuart’s world than its fashion sense. For North Americans in the late 1700s and early 1800s—whether free or enslaved, Native American or of African or European descent—life was impacted by a common set of historical forces, albeit in very different ways. These forces—territorial conflicts, international diplomacy, global trade of precious materials, and shifting national identities—are in some ways embodied by the worldly possessions you see before you. The objects expose deeper themes that tell a more complete story of North America and its inhabitants.This Project is part of Living Rooms, an initiative to present Mia’s historic interiors and decorative arts collections in new ways.

Generous support provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and donors at the 2014 Mia Gala.

Additional support provided by The Chipstone Foundation.


The wealthiest colony in British North America

Theus, (Born Switzerland),
1719–74, British North America (South Carolina Colony),
Portrait of a woman, 1770,
Oil on canvas.
Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell,

In comparison to their counterparts in other British colonies, white, male South Carolinians were extraordinarily wealthy. In 1774, the average net worth of a South Carolina freeman was 416 pounds sterling, over eight times that of his compatriots in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and ten times greater than those in New England. Why? About half of South Carolinians’ wealth took the form of human beings—enslaved people—who were counted as property. And at that time, enslaved Africans made up 60.5% of the overall population.

Uber-wealthy Charles Town (later renamed “Charleston”) was the kind of place where a portrait painter could thrive. Jeremiah Theus’s family arrived in South Carolina from Switzerland when he was 19. By 25 he was advertising his services as a painter. Over the next 30 years, Theus painted the likenesses of hundreds of elite South Carolinians.

Mahogany: African word, Caribbean tree, European taste

British North America,
Folding card table, 1750,
Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in Memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell 
The word “mahogany” comes from another word, moganwo, from the Nigerian Yoruba language. Yoruba men and women, imprisoned in Africa and forcibly taken to European colonies in the Caribbean as enslaved laborers, looked for the familiar in their new surroundings. There, they encountered a tree resembling the m’oganwo tree (Khaya ivorensis, or “African mahogany”) back home.

The massive trees were harvested on the Caribbean islands, sawed into lumber, and then stored and dried in warehouses before artisans used it for furniture. The costs associated with sourcing, processing, storing, and carving mahogany made it phenomenally expensive.

What was mahogany’s appeal? Its grain and coloration ranges from straight to swirling and from deep maroon to almost blond. In mahogany, tastemakers and craftspeople found a material that demanded enormous expertise to produce objects of great technical and aesthetic complexity.

A shared love of silver

Alexander Petrie (born England), British North America (South Carolina Colony), 1735–75, Coffeepot, 1755, Silver, wood. The James Ford Bell Family Foundation Fund, 75.6

By 1750, most of the world’s silver originated from mines in Mexico, Peru, and Bolivia, then part of the Spanish Empire. Silversmiths like Alexander Petrie, who immigrated to Britain’s South Carolina colony from England in the early 1740s, found no shortage of customers among the exceedingly wealthy citizens of the colony. Petrie used his ample earnings to set himself up as a land investor. In 1767, it was Petrie who sold John Stuart the lot on Tradd Street upon which he built this house.Native peoples also appreciated finely worked silver. Petrie sold “trade silver”—mostly jewelry—through his Charleston shop to Euro-American merchants who exchanged silver goods for deerskin from Native suppliers. Trade silver was not Petrie’s specialty but that of another silversmith who worked in Petrie’s shop, Abraham. Abraham’s last name was not recorded, as he was an enslaved African man.

The power of guns

(top) Jacob Dickert, American (born Germany), 1755–1822, Flintlock rifle, 1785–90, Iron, maple, brass. Gift of Richard and Sandra Vandenberg  2002.262. (bottom) John Bonewitz, American, 1779–1809, Flintlock rifle, 1790–1800, Iron, maple, brass, silver. The Driscoll Art Accessions Endowment Fund  97.106a,b

The original owner of the Charleston Dining and Drawing rooms, Colonel John Stuart, offered British-made firearms to his Native counterparts to curry favor and in exchange for land. From the 1750s to the 1770s, Stuart and other British administrators introduced tens of thousands of firearms to Native communities.

Military Commission Granted to Chief Okana-Stoté of the Cherokee by Governor Louis Billouart, Chevalier de Kerlérec (detail), 1761. Library of Congress, HD1-99295046. Image courtesy Library of Congress.

But not all guns were imported from Europe. In Pennsylvania, Jacob Dickert and other gunsmiths perfected a type of long gun with a “rifled” barrel—the interior had spiraling grooves that made the bullet spin like a football, increasing its range and accuracy.

These weapons spread southward into Cherokee hands. Cherokee leader Oconastota, pictured in 1761 with the governor of the French Louisiana colony holding his long rifle, used such weapons to lethal effect a year earlier in an attempt to free Cherokee hostages held at the British Fort Prince George in South Carolina. A London newspaper reported,

We have reason to believe the Indians have a good many rifle-barrelled guns amongst them, as their bullets seem to come this way with great force.

The Anglo-Cherokee War

Alonzo Chappel, American, 1828–1887, The Ride of General Marion’s Men, 1850, Oil on canvas. The Julia B. Bigelow Fund  44.15

After fighting alongside the British against the French during the French and Indian War (1754–63), Cherokee leaders and soldiers grew disgusted with their British allies when their requests for compensation were summarily dismissed. Ensuing skirmishes escalated into the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758–61), in which British troops marched through Cherokee country, setting Cherokee towns and crops ablaze. The war achieved nothing beyond death and destruction, and it was ultimately John Stuart who brokered peace with Cherokee leaders. Stuart was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs in the aftermath.

Francis Marion, seen in this painting, fought in the Anglo-Cherokee war and wrote of the pointless destruction he had witnessed:

. . . we proceeded, by order of Colonel Grant, to burn down the Indian cabins. Some of our men seemed to enjoy this cruel work, laughing very heartily at the curling flames as they mounted, loud, crackling over the tops of the huts; but to me it appeared a shocking sight . . . when we came, according to orders, to cut down the fields of corn, I could scarcely refrain from tears.

. . . I saw everywhere around the footsteps of little Indian children, where they had lately played under the shelter of the rustling corn . . . When we are gone, thought I, they will return, and, peeping through the weeds with tearful eyes, will mark the ghastly ruin poured over their homes and the happy fields where they had so often played.

Marion later fought in the Revolutionary War (1775–83).  His reputation as a crafty guerrilla fighter during earned him the nickname the Swamp Fox.

Oddly enough, Marion owed his future fame to this very room. In 1780, Marion was the dinner guest of William McQueen, a fellow officer and the new owner of John Stuart’s house (Stuart, who was loyal to Britain, fled to Florida in 1775). Later that evening, attempting to flee a rowdy party, Marion jumped from a window, broke his ankle, and was sent to his home in the countryside to recuperate just before British troops took Charleston (then called “Charles Town”). If not for this lucky mishap, he would have been captured. Months later, Marion led a raid that freed 150 American soldiers from British imprisonment.

British diplomacy with Native American nations

Attributed to Gilbert Ash, American (active New York City), 1717–1785, Side chair, 1750–65, Mahogany, white pine, ash, mohair. Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in Memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell  31.15.12

This chair resembles ones made by the woodcarver Gilbert Ash for Sir William Johnson (c. 1715–1774) to furnish Johnson Hall, his house in the British province of New York. Johnson was appointed superintendent of Indian Affairs for Britain’s northern colonies in 1756. He was the governmental counterpart of John Stuart, the original inhabitant of this room, in the northern part of British North America.

Much like Stuart’s, Johnson’s appointment was made in recognition of long-time political engagement with the Native nations of his region, namely the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples). Johnson could speak the Mohawk language and arranged military alliances on behalf of the British government.

Making common cause with Native Americans

William Savery, American (Philadelphia), 1722–1787 Armchair, 1750–70, Walnut and white pine with modern upholstery. Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell  31.14.

Philadelphia Quakers had long desired to make common cause with Native Americans. When William Savery created this chair and it associated (31.17.3)  table in the 1750s or ’60s, his fellow Philadelphia Quakers had just created the Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures, whose aim was to repair relations that frayed during the French and Indian War (1754–63).

Savery’s son William Savery, Jr. (1750–1804), emerged from this context as an outspoken advocate for the rights of Native Americans and enslaved Africans. In the 1790s, he joined two Quaker delegations that attended treaty negotiations between the United States and Native leaders in Ohio and western New York State. He acted as a mediator and adviser to Native leaders as the newly formed U.S. government tried to acquire Native lands.

1812: A Young Country at War

A map of the American lakes and adjoining country, the present seat of war between Great Britain & the United States. London: 1813. Library and Archives of Canada

With the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the American Revolution ended and the United States was born. The U.S. government spent the next decades solidifying military control over Native lands in the Northwest Territory—today Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as the northeastern part of Minnesota. Many Native nations banded together under the leadership of Shawnee leaders (and brothers) Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, fighting a series of battles against U.S. forces to keep their lands.

Britain, still a potent force in North America, was suspected of aiding Native leaders in the Northwest Territory while also attempting to thwart U.S. trade with France. Tensions boiled over in 1812, when U.S. president James Madison signed a declaration of war against Britain.

Things did not go well for the United States. Britain’s navy blockaded U.S. ports. British troops put Washington D.C. to the torch, and the White House was burned to the ground. A ceasefire was drawn up in 1814 and ratified in early 1815.

Proclaiming one’s patriotism

Captain Eleazer Daniels, American, 1788–1858, Tool chest, 1805–15, Wood, pigments. Gift of funds in memory of Gep Durenberger from Paul J. Borchert, Rita Dobbins, Sheila Dobbins, Jeffrey M. Ducharme, Mia Docent Class of 2005, Ed Hardy, Colleen Michels, Byron & Janet Nordstrom, Jennifer Komar Olivarez, Karen & Robert Schmidt, and John Joseph Waters  2016.9a–d

With talk of politics and war ever present among free, white Americans, even a cabinetmaker’s toolbox could become a marker of one’s alliances. Captain Eleazar Daniels of Medway, Massachusetts, a town southwest of Boston, owned this box and in it stored the tools he used to make furniture for his local community. Daniels probably painted the two figures on the front. Today, they are very hard to read, but they are likely based on the era’s satirical political cartoons and may represent the United States and Britain in the War of 1812. The figure on the right, wearing a long coat and trousers, levels a sword at the figure on the left, who is probably the embodiment of American liberty. Presented as a Native American, with bare legs and arms, he or she carries a spear and wears a Phrygian cap—a symbol of independence adopted by American and French revolutionaries in the late 1700s. Ironically, Euro-Americans identified themselves and their freedom from tyranny with the very Native peoples they were seeking to destroy.

T. Colley (English), The belligerent plenipo’s, 1782. Library of Congress, 92510333

Artists feel the strain

Gilbert Stuart, American, 1755–1828, Portrait of Alexander Townsend, 1809, Oil on panel. Gift of the Heirs of Mrs. Vernon A. Wright  51.34

When Gilbert Stuart painted this portrait of Boston lawyer Alexander Townsend, he did so on a wooden panel rather than on canvas. The U.S. government banned commerce with England as tensions rose between the two countries over trade and territory disputes—which would ultimately lead to the War of 1812. Canvas, which was imported from Europe, wasn’t available to Stuart and his fellow artists.

The free, white New England merchant class opposed the trade embargo, reliant as they were on trans-Atlantic shipping. In Boston, they hired Townsend, a noted orator, to deliver a July 4 (1810) speech in favor of restoring friendly relations with Britain:

Antipathy to Britain! . . . this is natural [after the Revolutionary War], but is it noble? The generous and brave are foes only while the fight lasts. They shake hands the moment it is over. [Native Americans] in peace, bury the hatchet.* Go to the wilderness and learn refinement! What has been the conduct of Britain? Has she not given you all the advantages, more than all the advantages of commerce since the peace than before?

*The practice of ceremonially burying or putting away weapons to mark the end of hostilities by some Native peoples was documented by Europeans in North America as early as 1680.

Painting patriots and loyalists

Attributed to James Earl, American, 1761–1796, Portrait of Captain Enos Reeves, early 1790s, Oil on canvas. Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell  55.19

In South Carolina, the last years of the Revolutionary War (1775–83) were characterized by brutal conflicts between those citizens who favored independence and those who supported British rule. After the war, some loyalists returned to England, while free white patriots marked their independence by rejecting the name “Charles Town” and its associations with the British monarchy—Charles II was king when the South Carolina colony was founded—in favor of “Charleston.”

The possible painter of this portrait, James Earl, captured both sides of the conflict. He moved from Massachusetts to London in 1787, making a name for himself painting portraits of Americans who had moved to England after the war because of their loyalties to Britain. In 1794 he left London for Charleston. He died there of yellow fever in 1796, but not before painting the likenesses of U.S. patriots such as Captain Enos Reeves. Reeves, who moved to Charleston after the war, married into the local landed gentry and retired to a quiet life of luxury.

American Identity, British Style

United States, Lyre-back Sheraton side chair, 1800, Mahogany with modern upholstery. Gift of James F. and Louise H. Bell in memory of James S. and Sallie M. Bell  31.15.2

The War of 1812 caused many free, white Americans to question their abiding sense of kinship to Britain—a connection felt through shared language and customs. On questions of taste and fashion, however, that affinity scarcely wavered. As the United States developed its government and political philosophy, modeled upon ancient Greek democracy and the Roman Republic, the well-to-do sought out furniture styles that referenced Greek and Roman forms. Ironically, the style thought to best embody these ideals was developed by British furniture designer Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806).

Sheraton’s two design books, the Cabinet Makers & Upholsterers Drawing Book (1791) and The Cabinet Dictionary (1803), came to define both British and U.S. furniture design for decades. The American-made chairs, tables, and side cabinet in this room all exhibit the clean lines, delicate forms, and geometric shapes that Sheraton developed.

Thomas Sheraton, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book, in Four Parts, 1802. Plate 36, number 1. Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art