Originally built in 1767, war and natural disaster led to several rounds of reconstruction and expansion. In its final completed state, the wharf could hold upwards of six ships at a time.
Once released from quarantine off the coast at Sullivan’s Island, slave ships proceeded onto Gadsden’s Wharf. An estimated 100,000 West Africans were brought to the wharf between 1783 and 1808 – the peak period of the international trade.
The number of enslaved persons held at Gadsden’s Wharf could range from a few to a thousand at a time. Persons awaiting sale were kept in large holding spaces, sometimes for many months. Mass casualties were not uncommon at the wharf. Many men, women, and children died on site, never even reaching the auction block. This makes Gadsden’s Wharf sacred ground.
Thousands of others were sold, forced into new lives in bewildering circumstances: perhaps as domestic slaves in Charleston homes, as laborers in the rice fields of Lowcountry plantations. Many were purchased and taken far outside South Carolina, fanned out in cities and towns across the nation.