In the early months of 1775 war clouds were gathering over the 13 colonies and patriotic fever was running high. One such patriot was from Charleston, South Carolina and his name was Christopher Gadsden.
Christopher was born in 1724 the son of Thomas Gadsden, who had been in the Royal Navy before becoming customs collector for the port of Charleston. Young Christopher quickly rose to prominence as a skilled merchant and ardent patriot.
When the Second Continental Congress opened in Philadelphia in May 1775 Christopher was a South Carolina delegate and member of the “Marine Committee”.
On October 13th of that year, George Washington as Commander in Chief of all Continental Forces, authorized the formation of a Continental Navy and appointed Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island as Commodore of the Navy.
The first warship commissioned in this new Navy was the 400 ton Alfred which was a converted merchant ship originally built in Philadelphia in 1774. Alfred became Hopkins flagship and outfitted with a crew of 220 officers and men.
Gadsden was a friend of Hopkins and just before Hopkins set sail on the Alfred, Gadsden presented him with a special flag he had designed. The flag featured a solid yellow background, a coiled rattlesnake with 13 rattles which represented the 13 colonies and the provocative words “Don’t Tread on Me”. Hopkins liked the flag and flew it aboard the Alfred when he set sail.
This flag soon became immensely popular and at the time was widely known as the Gadsden Flag. In honesty, however, there were many variations of this flag before and after Gadsden’s design to include one by Hopkins. But today the flag is still very popular and still called the Gadsden Flag.
Gadsden was later appointed a Brigadier General in the Continental Army and taken prisoner by the British when they captured Charleston in May 1780. The British sent Gadsden and several other prisoners to their British East Florida headquarters at Fort St. Mark’s in St. Augustine, Florida.
At St. Augustine he was offered local parole, but declined and spent 42 weeks in solitary confinement at the fort.
After the war, Gadsden worked to rebuild his family’s business interests which had suffered during the war to include expanding what is known today as “Gadsden Wharf”. He also served in the South Carolina House of Representatives and in 1788 he voted for ratification of the United States Constitution. He died in Charleston from an accidental fall on August 28, 1805 and is buried there in St. Philip’s Churchyard.
His home still exists and is listed on the National Historic Register. His grandson, James Gadsden, is the architect of the famous 1853 Gadsden Purchase which made southern Arizona and southwest New Mexico part of the United States. James is also buried in St. Philip’s cemetery.
St. Philip’s church makes for a most interesting stop should you visit Charleston. Many historical figures are buried in the churchyard including Edward Rutledge signer of the Declaration of Independence and Charles Pinckney signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Also, the famous 1672 Spanish Castillo de San Marcos located in St. Augustine was called Fort St. Mark’s when the British controlled the the city during the Revolutionary War. When the United States took control of Florida in 1821, it was re-named Fort Marion. In the late 1800’s the fort was used to house dissident Native Americans from the Cheyenne, Comanche, Arapaho and Apache tribes. Today, the fort is a National Landmark and bears it’s original Spanish name of Castillo de San Marcos.