Rebecca Brewton Motte
Rebecca Brewton Motte was a staunch supporter of the American Revolution, despite facing personal hardships during the war. She was a wealthy plantation and townhouse owner in Charleston, South Carolina (formerly known as Charles Town). During the war, British forces occupied Charleston, and at various times both her townhouse and plantation were seized and used by the British.
Motte’s true devotion to the American cause became evident when, in 1781, the Continental Army and its militia allies laid siege to Fort Motte, a British stronghold that happened to be on the site of her family’s plantation.
Finding the siege prolonged and difficult, the American forces, under the command of General Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion and Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lee, decided to set fire to the mansion around which the fort had been built, in order to drive the British out. Rebecca Motte, putting the cause before her own material wealth, not only approved of the plan but also provided the arrows wrapped in burning pitch to set her own house aflame.
After the war, the state of South Carolina recognized her sacrifices and reimbursed her for some of her losses. Rebecca Brewton Motte’s dedication to the revolutionary cause, despite the personal costs, underscores the sacrifices many made during this tumultuous period in American history.
Who were her parents?
Rebecca Motte’s father, Robert Brewton, played a pivotal role in the community. He led a militia company, which was a local military unit comprised of civilians. His position as a warden for a Parish church further denotes his societal influence and involvement in the community’s religious affairs. Rebecca’s mother, Mary Loughton Brewton, was Robert’s second wife.
Family background and childhood
She was born into the Brewton family, which was secure and affluent. The Brewtons were established leaders in both the Proprietary and Royal governments of South Carolina, which means they held significant influence during the times when South Carolina was first governed by the Lords Proprietors (Proprietary government) and later directly by the English crown (Royal government).
Growing up in such a well-established family in Charles Town, Rebecca would have been privy to the political, social, and economic intricacies of the time. Charles Town was a major port and a hub of cultural activities in the South.
Marriage and children
She tied the knot with Jacob Motte in 1758. She was in her late teens at the time. The couple had seven children, which was not uncommon for families of the period. However, the fact that only three of these children survived into adulthood highlights the high child mortality rates of the 18th century. Such tragedies were, unfortunately, a shared experience for many families of the time due to factors like disease and limited medical knowledge.
Her husband, Jacob Motte, passed away in 1781. Despite the societal expectations of the era, which often pressured widows to remarry for financial and social stability, Rebecca chose not to remarry. This decision underscores her independence and strength in a period where women’s roles were often limited by societal norms.
How she came into the possession of vast wealth
In August 1775, Rebecca Brewton Motte experienced a profound personal loss. Her brother, Miles Brewton, his wife, and their three children set sail for Philadelphia from Charles Town but tragically never arrived. They were lost at sea. This event was particularly poignant because Miles had been elected to the Second Provincial Congress and was relocating due to his political responsibilities.
The disappearance of Miles Brewton and his family had implications beyond the emotional distress. Financially, Miles was among the wealthiest individuals in South Carolina. Upon his presumed death, Rebecca inherited his substantial estate, which included his home in Charles Town and a plantation on the Congaree River named Mount Joseph. In the aftermath, Rebecca built a mansion on a portion of the inherited lands, further establishing her prominence in South Carolina society.
This tragic event, combined with her inherited responsibilities, would have shaped Rebecca’s life and her role in the community, especially during the tumultuous times of the American Revolution.
Heroics during the American Revolutionary War
During the Revolutionary War, Charles Town (later renamed Charleston) faced multiple attempts by the British to seize control. It was only on their third attempt, led by Sir Henry Clinton in 1780, that the British successfully captured the town. Charles Town then remained under British occupation for three years.
Rebecca Brewton Motte’s familial properties became strategic points for the British. Her late brother’s home in Charles Town was seized by Sir Henry Clinton, using it as his headquarters. The British enjoyed the comforts of the lavish estate, relegating the Motte family to far less opulent quarters.
After some time, Rebecca was allowed to retreat to Mount Joseph Plantation on the Congaree River, which she had inherited from her brother.
However, the respite was short-lived. British forces, under Lt. Donald McPherson, took over the mansion, converting it into a military post they dubbed “Forte Motte”. Once again, the Motte family was pushed aside, confined to smaller portions of their own residence. As American forces approached, the British further ordered the Mottes to relocate to an unfinished overseer’s house.
The tide began to turn with the return of American military officer General Nathanael Greene to South Carolina. He sought to dismantle the chain of British forts ensuring communication and supplies between Charles Town and the state’s interior. In this mission, he allied with General Francis Marion and Lt. Col. Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee.
Given the urgency of their campaign and fearing British reinforcements, they concocted a plan to burn the mansion, hoping to displace the British forces within. Remarkably, Rebecca Motte not only approved this drastic measure against her own property but also aided in its execution. While the plan successfully ousted the British forces, the fire did not consume them, as they managed to put it out in time.
In a striking demonstration of her character, on the evening of her triumph against the British, Rebecca Motte displayed graciousness and hospitality to her former occupiers, engaging in a conversation with McPherson about the principles of American freedom.
Following the surrender of the British at the end of the American Revolutionary War, Rebecca Brewton Motte returned to her residence in Charles Town.
Demonstrating resilience and astuteness, she labored intensively to recover her family’s lost assets and diligently cleared all outstanding debts.
Through her efforts, she regained her status and became one of the most affluent women in the town. Furthermore, her daughters made notable marital alliances with distinguished men, further elevating the family’s prominence.
Beyond her financial acumen, Rebecca was recognized for her benevolent deeds, making her a celebrated figure in Charles Town. As a result, she became a point of attraction for visitors, a testament to her reputation and standing in society.
Rebecca Brewton Motte’s eventful life came to a close in 1815. Her legacy remains as a testament to her fortitude, patriotism, and philanthropy during one of the most defining periods in American history.
Other interesting facts about Rebecca Motte
- Her older brother was Miles Brewton, whom she inherited vast amounts of wealth. Miles was the husband of Mary Izard, who was the daughter of a very wealthy plantation owner and slave trader
- Through her sister, Frances, she was the sister-in-law of Colonel Charles Pinckney, a very wealthy South Carolina lawyer and planter.
- Her daughter Elizabeth Motte tied the knot with Thomas Pinckney, an American diplomat and military officer in the Revolutionary War. After the death of Elizabeth, Pinckney got married to Elizabeth’s younger sister Frances.