Updating Interpretation at The Heyward-Washington House


A current project of the Education Department is updating the interpretation of the work yard and outbuildings of the Heyward-Washington House. Though the main house was built in 1772 for Thomas Heyward, Jr.,  the lot itself dates to 1694.  The “back of the house” has been the site of a gunsmith forge, kitchen, laundry room, and even a bakery.  New interpretive panels are being placed in the kitchen and laundry building of the site to discuss urban slavery and the history of the lot.

We hear much about plantation slavery and little about the inner workings of slavery in the cities. Many wealthy planters owned a house in town as well as one or more plantations and would divide their time between dwellings, depending on the planting, harvesting and social seasons.  Slaves assigned to the house and stables, such as cooks, maids, washerwomen and coachmen, often moved back and forth with them. Between  10 and 15 slaves maintained urban households, and typical chores or assigned duties included cooking, cleaning, tending fires, washing and mending clothes, emptying chamber pots, polishing silver, looking after young children, and tending to horses and assorted livestock.  According to the 1790 census, 17 slaves were present on the Heyward property.


Work yards were the center of activity and the support system to any house in town and included outbuildings, wells, cisterns, drainage systems and gardens. The work yard was the domain of the urban enslaved, as they prepared food, laundered clothes, and  tended the livestock and kitchen garden.

The Heyward-Washington House work yard is the location of the first extensive archaeological excavation in Charleston.  Archaeologist Elaine Herold unearthed over 88,000 artifacts used and discarded by both owner and slave who lived and worked on this site.  A small selection of these is displayed in the main house.

Archaeologists found evidence of two colonial houses predating the current structure, additional outbuildings, wells, and trash pits.  They also found a multitude of animal bone.  Analysis of this bone suggests that cows, pigs, sheep, and goats were maintained and butchered on the property for family meals and would have supplemented meats purchased from the city markets and local vendors, including a large variety of wild game.


A separate excavation of the privy yielded even more significant artifacts, including the complete set of feather edged creamware and Chinese porcelain tea wares once belonging to Mrs. Elizabeth Heyward.  Perhaps the most remarkable artifacts found were two fragments of basketry representing the earliest known examples of the Lowcountry’s sea grass basket tradition, as well as several slave-made pottery sherds, referred to as colono ware.  The recovery of this basketry and colono ware, along with the Heyward’s creamware and porcelain tea wares, is representative of the physical proximity of master and slave on the same house lot. Many of these artifacts are on exhibit in the Museum’s Lowcountry History Hall.

The new displays in the Heyward-Washington kitchen will feature artifacts recovered from the site along with images of the buildings through the years. The culmination of the project will give a more well-rounded history of the site from the walled city to the present day.