Published in South Carolina Historical Quarterly Carologue Quarterly Winter 2010
(I submitted what I thought was a good article to Carologue editor Katherine Giles. She edited it into an excellent article.)
CAPTAIN WILLIAM LYFORD, SR.: A Most Intrepid Seaman
the earliest days of Charles Town’s settlement,
Spanish forays emanating from St. Augustine, Florida, kept South
Carolina in a perpetual state of alarm. The intensity of the Spanish
desire to drive the intruders from land they considered to be their
own increased when more Englishmen arrived to establish Georgia in
1733. One key player in keeping the would-be invaders at bay was
Captain William Lyford, Sr., a man considered by some to be one of
colonial South Carolina's most intrepid seamen.
was born around 1695 on the island of Jamaica. By the time he reached
adulthood, he had found his way as a mariner to Nassau (also
originally called Charles Town) in the Bahamas, long a haven for
pirates. Soon after his arrival, he wed Elizabeth Spatches, daughter
of well-to-do ship owner and government official Captain William
Spatches. Lyford became co-owner and master of several trading vessels
over the next few years, sailing to ports of call throughout the
Caribbean and as far north in the colonies as Philadelphia. Despite
his success, life as a commercial seaman was not without risk: During
a voyage in 1728, Spanish privateers seized his ship and sailed it and
its imprisoned crew into Havana. Lyford managed to escape, making his
way in a small piragua (dugout canoe) through 375 miles of open seas
to Nassau, bringing valuable intelligence about the Spanish fleet and
Havana's defenses home with him.
Lyford and Elizabeth had two children: William Jr., born in 1719, who
would become a mariner of note in his own right; and Mary, born in
1725. Elizabeth died just three years after the birth of her daughter,
and her death, along with the loss of his vessel to the Spanish and
the cost of a replacement schooner, plunged Lyford into deep financial
straits. On January 2, 1729, the Bahamas governing council banished
him from Nassau over unpaid debts. William had to find another home
port from which he could ply his trade. With his children in tow, he
relocated to Port Royal in South Carolina, the southernmost port in
the British colonies at that time. As it was also the nearest mainland
English port to the Bahamas and other colonized Caribbean islands,
Lyford had made frequent calls to Port Royal in the past. There, he
eventually remarried and continued his maritime shipping enterprise.
In 1737, he was appointed commander of Fort Frederick, overlooking the
Port Royal (now Beaufort) River. He served at this post for less than
a year, before returning to the sea.
On April 6,
1738, Lyford reported to Beaufort's senior military officer, Thomas
Wigg, that while on a commercial voyage he observed six vessels he
suspected as being Spanish warships near the St. Augustine bar. For
years, Spanish Florida and the English colonies had maintained an
uneasy truce, but after General James Oglethorpe established Georgia
in 1733, on land the Spanish claimed was theirs, the peace became
increasingly fragile. After Lyford spotted the ships, Wigg immediately
informed James Gascoigne, who commanded the British man-of-war Hawk.
He, in turn, relayed the report to the appropriate parties in
South Carolina and Georgia. With Governor Oglethorpe away on business
in England, William Stephens, the Georgia trustees' representative,
dispatched a messenger on horseback to warn the southern settlements
of a possible Spanish invasion. Meanwhile, Gascoigne moved the Hawk
to Georgia's Fort Frederica, preparing to engage the enemy
before they could reach any major British settlements.
Despite intermittent rumors of impending attacks and England's declaration of the War of Jenkins’ Ear against Spain in October 1739, the Spanish in Florida had never attempted a large-scale act of hostility against the English colonies. Lyford's report convinced colonial leaders that the long-dreaded attack was coming and that measures should be taken to head it off. At Oglethorpe's prodding, South Carolina joined forces with Georgia in an expedition against St. Augustine to drive the Spanish from Florida once and for all. Undertaken in May 1740 at great financial expense to both colonies, the expedition failed miserably. A major contributing factor to its failure was the animosity between South Carolina and Georgia: festering since Georgia's settlement, it flared again whenever officers tried to enforce the chain of command with men from the neighboring colony. Insufficient planning also took a toll: Oglethorpe crossed the St. Johns River into Florida before all of South Carolina's men had arrived, and the invaders had to slog through twenty-odd miles of soft coastal sand from the St. Johns to St. Augustine. Their cannons, which would prove ineffective against the massive walls of the Castillo de San Marcos, became bogged down in the sand, and some had to be abandoned.
Although the English invaders successfully captured Forts Diego and Mose, the loss of 102 men (captured in skirmishes or killed in the Spanish recapture of Fort Mose) was no small factor in the expedition’s failure. The onset of hurricane season also worked against the British, whose eight men-of-war had blockaded the Atlantic coast to prevent the arrival of Spanish reinforcements. But a storm’s approach on July 5 forced the British further out to sea to prevent them from being smashed onto shore by the winds. In the meantime, a Spanish fleet from Havana bearing three hundred men and much-needed supplies slipped into Matanzas Inlet and made its way to St. Augustine. On July 16, 1740, Oglethorpe called off the siege of the seemingly impregnable Castillo de San Marcos and, failing to rally his weary troops for another shot at St. Augustine, headed northward for home.
Situation of our Southern Frontier”
South Carolina's vulnerability to invasion from the sea, especially by Spanish shallow draft row galleys, was a major concern to colonial leaders. At the August 15, 1740, session of South Carolina's Commons House of Assembly, Lieutenant Governor William Bull voiced his concern for:
Situation of our Southern Frontier, and the danger that may attend an
Attempt made against such Parts of this Province which lie near the
Sea Coast, by the Spaniards in their Row Galleys, which are capable of
coming into any of our Inlets, and lying in shole Waters where our
larger Vessels cannot get at them; and be ready to intercept any of
our Craft, and also to encourage the desertion of our Slaves, without
After much debate, the assembly ordered two half-galleys, the Beaufort and the Charles Town, built for South Carolina's coastal defense. Each mounted four carriage guns and twelve swivel guns and was rowed with thirty oars. Henry Smith, whom the assembly initially appointed commander of the Beaufort, lost his job to George Gibson before the vessel even touched water by running up a bar tab of twenty-seven pounds and eighteen shillings while trying to enlist a crew. The assembly first appointed James Barrett commander of the Charles Town, then moved him to the recently captured Juan Batista. Ultimately, they entrusted the Charles Town to Captain William Lyford.
Completion of the two galleys came at a crucial time. On June 22, 1742, a Spanish fleet appeared off St. Simons Island, site of Oglethorpe's headquarters at Fort Frederica. The fleet had attacked British positions on Amelia and Cumberland Islands on the way up from Florida, and on July 5, the Spanish began landing troops on St. Simons. Immediately upon receiving word of the assault, South Carolina's government began assembling assistance. The king's four men-of-war on the Carolina station were ordered to Georgia's aid. One of them, the Flamborough, was dispatched along with the new half-galley Beaufort on June 30. Other than the Beaufort, South Carolina had only the Charles Town, still in the process of being fitted out; the brig Carolina; the Juan Batista; and the hired schooner Ranger. By contrast, the Spanish fleet had dozens of vessels-and was growing larger by the day.
Recruiting the 475 crewmen needed for South Carolina's flotilla proved exceedingly difficult on such short notice. By July 16, only 236 men had been enlisted. Lyford needed fifty for the Charles Town, yet he had only thirty-six. Lieutenant Governor William Bull ordered press warrants for forty-two seamen from commercial ships for the Rye; issued a warrant for all vagabonds, vagrants, and straggling sailors; and encouraged slave owners to enlist their slaves. Seventy-three slaves sailed on vessels sent for the relief of Georgia, ten on the Charles Town alone. After a day's delay to investigate a report of a large Spanish galley hovering off of Charles Town's bar—feared to be a scout for an invasion of South Carolina—Lyford's ship sailed with the Rye to join the rest of the flotilla, which already had sailed southward.
When those vessels that left Charles Town earlier arrived off the bar of St. Simons, their appearance was feared by the Spanish to be a sign of a much larger British naval force. The Spanish began to withdraw from the island, and the enemy fleet was well on its way back to St. Augustine by the time the Charles Town arrived on July 24. The Beaufort and the men-of-war continued south in pursuit of the Spanish, while the Carolina, the Juan Batista, and two other ships returned home to South Carolina. Yet it was not until he was delivering an officer with a letter for Oglethorpe at Egg Island, in the mouth of the Altamaha River, that Lyford learned the Spanish had retreated. After sailing into St. Simons, he too received orders to return home from Captain Charles Hardy, commander of the Rye and of the Charles Town fleet. But before he could depart, Oglethorpe detained him, unconvinced that the island was safe from the Spanish. He promised to release Lyford as soon as the men-of-war returned from their cruise off St. Augustine, and the captain was forced to cool his heels under the Georgia commander's watchful eye.
When Lyford finally arrived back in Charles Town on August 9, 1742, he and other commanders of provincial vessels were ordered by the Governor's Council to become acquainted with the articles of war. The council had received reports from both Oglethorpe and Lyford that the Spanish fleet had regrouped in the St. Johns River with the appearance of making a fresh attack. The Charles Town, now in company with the Beaufort, Norfolk, Carolina, Kingston, and men-of-war Rose, Swift, Rye, Hawk, and Flamborough, headed south and were joined along the way by Oglethorpe's schooner and two of his scout boats. They arrived in sight of St. Augustine on August 26 and, seeing seven vessels at Castillo San de Marco and six half-galleys anchored near the bar, began pouring shot into the half-galleys, their nearest targets. Only the shots of the Charles Town and the Beaufort, which had nine-pounders, reached the targets, damaging two of the half-galleys so badly that the vessels had to be hauled ashore to stop their leaks. Sending an armada all the way to St. Augustine and expending considerable ammunition to damage just two half-galleys may not seem a cost-effective way to run a war. However, such a show of force and determination had some effect, for the Spanish never again mustered a major threat against the lower colonies.
On September 15, 1742, the council placed Lyford in command of South Carolina's provincial navy, which consisted of the two half-galleys and two scout boats. Two days later, he gave an account of stores and provisions of the Charles Town to the council, a lengthy inventory that included such items as padlocks, iron ladles, skeins of muslin, and a speaking trumpet. Among the gunner's stores were powder horns, swivel sponges, double head shot, hand grenades, and cartridge carcasses. Lyford also provided the manner in which nine-pound cartridges were expended: “In trying ye guns 2. Fired at Rhode Island privateer 3. At St. Augustine and the Galleys 79. Saluting St. Simons 9. For scaling the guns 14:” Such authority was a far cry from Lyford's early days in the virtually lawless Bahamas, yet he too would soon find himself on the wrong side of the law.
In July 1743, Lyford sailed from Charles Town to Florida under a flag of truce, to swap Spanish prisoners for English prisoners. A month later, Lyford was back at St. Simons when a former crew member, Henry Hill, made a serious charge against him. Hill claimed that on the July voyage, the Charles Town was loaded with extra food, clothing, goods, and slaves, all of which were sold in St. Augustine harbor for ten thousand dollars by Lyford, who also allegedly traded a grappling hook belonging to the Charles Town for a lesser one. Captain William Horton, who became military leader of Georgia after Oglethorpe's departure for England in 1743, forwarded Hill's deposition to the Governor's Council. Lyford and his men were commanded to travel immediately to Charles Town to face the charges.
Meanwhile, in response to earlier pleas from the assembly for aid against the continuing Spanish threat, King George II sent his largest man-of-war, HMS Loo, to serve on the Carolina station. The Loo, commanded by Ashby Utting, was armed with forty guns and would be stationed at Port Royal. In their October 6 session, the council planned a grand welcome for the Loo, surprisingly putting into the record, “And we humbly beg leave to recommend to your Honour that Captain William Lyford, who is esteemed the best pilot for the harbor of Port Royal, and who is employed by the public, may be ordered to attend that service, with the galleys and scout boats.”
Yet in the same session, the council ordered Lyford to respond to Hill's charges. Lyford painted Hill as being of such bad character that he was obliged to dismiss him. He acknowledged the sale of a few dry goods at St. Augustine, but did not think a little traffic would be of consequence. Nonetheless, he apologized for using the government's vessel for the purpose of selling merchandise. His crew presented an affidavit at Lyford's trial that addressed only the grappling-hook issue, saying a much better one was received in the exchange. Lieutenant Thomas Beswicke, who was charged along with Lyford, refused to answer questions and was taken into custody by the provost marshal. A similar fate befell the first crewmen called to testify after he also refused to answer questions. Bull's no-nonsense tactics worked wonders to loosen the tongues of those witnesses who followed. One crewman substantiated Hill’s claim about the sale of goods and slaves. Another testified that upon arriving back in Beaufort, he and another crewman had carried to Lyford's house a chest so full of silver that they could hardly lift it.
The council had heard enough. They declared Lyford and Beswicke unfit for service and their trading with the enemy a treasonable act, issuing a warrant for Lyford's arrest to send him to England for trial. Yet the ink hardly had dried on the warrant when on December 13, 1743, Bull received a letter from Ashby Utting, commander of the Loo, informing the lieutenant governor that no man but Lyford was capable of piloting the ship in and out of Port Royal. Without Lyford, the Loo would have to leave, which would surely displease the king. Bull immediately made a plea to the council on Lyford's behalf, mentioning the potential loss of the Loo and the fact that this was the first accusation against Lyford, who had been a faithful subject to the king, and who had given information in 1738 of the Spanish fleet off St. Augustine. The plea apparently worked: public records say nothing further of Lyford being sent to England for trial.
Lyford immediately became one of the Loo's pilots and sailed her southward on December 30, 1743, on a cruise against Spanish shipping in the Florida Straits. On February 5, 1744, the Loo and an English ship she had recaptured from the Spanish ran aground on what is now known as Looe Key, a partially submerged island in southern Florida. Both ships were damaged beyond repair. Nearly three hundred men, the entire crews of both ships, made it safely back to civilization in four boats: a longboat, a yawl, a captain’s barge, and a thirty-ton sloop. Unfortunately for Utting, loss of one of His Majesty's ships automatically mandated a court-martial for her commander. Based on the testimony of Utting's crew and an affidavit written by Lyford, the Admiralty Court unanimously voted to acquit Utting of charges of negligence.
Coming Full Circle
No longer in the employ of the government, Lyford resorted to his old means of livelihood, commercial shipping. He acquired two boats, the ten-ton schooner Ann and Mary, placed under the command of Jonathan Wickham, and the twenty-five-ton Kouli Kan, which he commanded himself. In October 1744, Lyford sailed from Port Royal in the Kouli Kan, ostensibly bound for the Bahamas. Her cargo consisted of grain, livestock, hogs, turkeys, and sundry parcels of dry goods. Sometime later, a mariner arriving at Port Royal from St. Augustine reported seeing Lyford at St. Augustine selling goods from his ship. Almost a year later, Lyford reappeared in South Carolina among fifty-two prisoners the Spanish had been holding at St. Augustine. According to Lyford, while bound for the Bahamas, a French privateer captured him and carried him into St. Augustine.
He returned home to learn that Ann, his wife of eleven years, had died a month earlier. With few remaining ties in Port Royal, Lyford accepted an offer in early 1746 from John Tinker, governor of the Bahamas, to return to the islands and take command of the Isabella, a captured Spanish galley being converted into a privateer. Within weeks, the Isabella captured the Neutra Senora de la Luz in the Bay of Campeche. The ship was bound for Veracruz laden with a cargo of quicksilver, brandy, oil, wax, and other merchandise valued at £52,500.
the islands and take command of the Isabella, a captured Spanish galley being converted into a privateer. Within weeks, the Isabella captured the Neutra Senora de la Luz in the Bay of Campeche. The ship was bound for Veracruz laden with a cargo of quicksilver, brandy, oil, wax, and other merchandise valued at £52,500.
Public records say nothing more of Lyford until he wrote his will on December 9, 1753. To his third wife, Elizabeth Evans Rowland, whom he married in the Bahamas sometime after Ann’s death, he left one milled dollar, a Spanish coin circulating in the colonies and the Caribbean during the colonial period. William Jr., who by this time was a successful mariner in his own right, received one British shilling. He left the rest of his worldly possessions to his youngest son, seventeen-year-old James, with the stringent stipulation that “my said son James shall not now nor at any time else have possession of my said Estate but to lie in the hands of my said Executors and they giving him for his support as much at a time as the said Executors shall think sufficient for his support.”
William Lyford, Jr., established his own reputation as a seaman, owning and commanding trading vessels that hauled merchandise between coastal ports, Caribbean islands, and as far away as England. He was twice captured by privateers and served for ten years as chief bar pilot of Savannah. As a loyalist, he piloted British men-of-war along the coast. He also helped plan and carry out Andrew Deveaux's raid that drove the Spanish from Nassau, Bahamas. For his exploits, he was awarded two generous grants in the Bahamas. The grant on the western tip of New Providence Island is now the exclusive residential resort Lyford Cay.
Lyford's grandson John Cutler Braddock was the son of Mary Lyford and David Cutler Braddock, a talented seaman whom Lyford coaxed into South Carolina's service from Georgia after the Spanish invasion of St. Simons. John was born in Beaufort at the time his grandfather faced the charge of trading with the enemy. As an adult, he commanded the Georgia galley Lee in the American Revolution and ferried troops in one of Georgia's expeditions against British-held East Florida in May 1777. The Lee, along with two other Georgia galleys, captured three British men-of-war at St. Simons on April 19, 1778.
By 1763, when the Treaty of Paris transferred control of Florida from Spain to Great Britain, South Carolina and Georgia had turned their attention from the Spanish threat to the growing conflict between the American colonies and the British throne. The colonial neighbors did join naval forces again in 1775, when South Carolina sent a handful of vessels to Savannah to aid Georgia in seizing much-needed gunpowder from incoming British supply ships. But by then the combination of South Carolina's booming trade and rapidly growing population had made ineffective the armed privateers and small provisional navies for which William Lyford, Sr., served. South Carolina on the brink of war needed warships and a dedicated naval force to protect her waters. Nonetheless, the legacy of seamen such as Lyford remains an important chapter in South Carolina's maritime history.