richard dereef

I wanted to know more about this “colored slave owner” after reading that small bit about him in the gullah tour article.  There is more information out there than I’d expected.  I wish I could see a photograph of his Caucasian and Indian (American) parents.  The New York Times article truly fascinates me.  First of all, I’d love to know who wrote it!  Secondly, it’s nice to hear (although there’s nothing nice about the sick and twisted system) that there were legitimate and acknowledged mulatto children.  But that nice feeling quickly disappeared when I searched for more information on Isabella.  I’ll include that in a separate post.

[Richard DeReef]

Richard Edward DeReef was one of the richest black men in Charleston. He had a Wharf at the end of Chapel Street, was in the “woodage business” (wood), and owned rental properties, most of which are located on the East side of Charleston. Because of his dark complexion he would have never been accepted into Charleston’s elite mulatto society but he claimed to be of Indian descent, and he had money.

IMAGE: ON RIGHT — Richard Edward Dereef (1798-1876), a free black wood factor and real estate investor, built this small two story frame single house sometime after he purchased the site in April, 1838. The site was part of a large lot, extending to Calhoun Street, on which Dereef erected several buildings, of which only this house remains. Dereef, a native Charlestonian, was one of the wealthiest men of the free black community. He and his son, Richard, Jr., had a wood factorage business on Dereef’s Wharf at the foot of Chapel Street, and lived nearby on Washington street. By 1867 Dereef had conveyed this property, apparently built for rental purposes, to Margaret Walker, a black woman.
(Stockton, unpub. MS.) SOURCE

COLORED SLAVE OWNERS.; One Family of Mixed Blood in Charleston Owned Forty Negro Servants.

May 26, 1907, Sunday

To the Editor of the New York Times:

Truth is stranger than fiction, and had not the information of the ownership of slaves by colored citizens of Charleston, and elsewhere, been sent forth by such an authority as The News and Courier, the statement would have been regarded as incredible. But The News and Courier has not stated nearly all the truth which is, according to your confession, surprising to you, and, according to your belief, surprising to many others in the North.

The prevalent views, State documents, Congressional debates, and lecture courses bearing upon the general subject render it difficult of belief that the proclamation of emancipation by Mr. Lincoln reduced many colored people of the South, and especially in the City of Charleston, from a state of affluence and competence to a condition of need, if not of poverty.

But such was the case.

Those slave owners were not called “negroes,” but “colored people,” as they were generally of mixed blood- sometimes of Caucasian and African; sometimes of Caucasian and Indian; (American.)  Many of the colored people of Charleston had no African blood whatever.  The question you ask, and The News and Courier failed to answer, is:  How did those people come into possession of their slaves- by inheritance, gift, or purchase?  The answer is, By all these ways.  They were generally the children of rich planters who, in the early days of the coast settlements, established themselves in lower South Carolina, with Charleston as the centre of operation.  These children were regarded as such, and not as illegitimate of slaves.  They bore the name of the father with recognition and as by right.  They were also educated.

Upon the death of the father these children would come, by inheritance, into possession of the estate, including beasts of burden, slaves, etc.  There was a very large number of free colored people in Charleston in the eighteenth century.

An interesting article on this subject may be found in the January issue of The Southern Workman.  Some of those who owned slaves in years before the war were by name De Reefs, McKinlays, Westons, Hollaways, Thornes, and Howards.  There are descendants of some of those people in  New York and Brooklyn to-day.  There is information enough at hand on this subject to fill a book, but let me relate you one story which may prove interesting.

There was a rich planter in Charleston of the name of Fowler.  He took a woman of African descent and established her in his home.  Whether there were a pledge of relationship or form of ceremony is not of record, but it was known that he had no other family.  There was a daughter born in that home to whom was given the name of Isabella.  But the planter insisted upon it that all persons should know her as Miss Fowler.  She grew to womanhood, and was married to Richard De Reef, a young man of Caucasian-Indian blood.  At the time of her marriage her father presented to her as a wedding gift a plantation and a sufficient number of slaves to work it.

The News and Courier says that two colored Charlestonians had each fourteen slaves, but the records of the family showed that at emanicpation Mrs. Isabella De Reef liverated forty instead of fourteen.

In another thing the News and Courier is wrong- that is, in saying those free persons of color had no political privileges.  The De Reef brothers- Richard and Joseph- born, respectively, in 1798 and in 1802, voted on reaching their majority, and ever after.  Some others may have enjoyed the same privilege, but there are colored men in Charleston to-day, and some now living elsewhere, who could claim the right to vote on the “grandfather clause”;  these were never enfranchised by an amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

A former Charlestonian.

New York, May 23, 1907.

click HERE for a link to a copy of the original NYTimes article

16 thoughts on “richard dereef

  1. wow.. interesting article! I’ve driven by that house many times. As soon as I saw it w/o even reading I recognized it because I live in Charleston.

  2. Hi, I am a descendant of Joseph DeReef (brother of Richard) and know quite a bit about that family’s history. The first of that family (Richard and Joseph’s father) came over to South Carolina from the island of Minorca, off the coast of Spain, sometime in the late 1700’s. He was a free man and obviously of African descent. He married an Indian woman, but his sons and daughter were described as dark (and photos of the sons corroborate that). His lineage always remained free but at some point when laws became strict and free blacks could be sold into slavery, two lines of that family left the states. One went to the Bahamas; the other went to Bermuda. After the Civil War ended, those families came back to South Carolina. It is a fascinating story. There is a fair amount of historical papers (some of it published) and other evidence telling their stories, plus the oral stories passed down in the family. One distant cousin has collected it all. We are scattered around now – South Carolina, New York, Chicago, California, Ohio…

  3. Would be nice if all of the decendants could get together in one state and have a big gathering. I found family member scattered from East to West. South to North. We are all over. Read many stories of the family. Very interesting.

  4. Hi Peggy MacLeod

    My GG Aunt, Georgianna Heriot was married to Joseph DeReef. I’m interested in more information on her family.

  5. I woull like to know more on the family members that went to Bermuda and the Bahamas. When they returned to SC what areas did they return…. was is Charleston or other areas? A large part of the Dereef family is in the Georgetown SC area.
    I live in California.

  6. We are working diligently in Charleston, SC to save Dereef Court and the legacy of the individuals who contributed to this community. If you are interested in our fight, I encourage you to learn more about the history and proposed alternative to a planned development community.

    Please visit the Preservation Society of Charleston’s website . I also ask you to sign the petition at to demonstrate support and show the City of Charleston we care about our neighborhoods.

  7. I found proof on one family member from Africa. His name was Alfred. He died at the old age of approx. 97. His name was Alfred Dereef. The paperwork stated the name of the place in Africa, but was hard to read.
    I am doing my DNA test from Ancestry.Com and hope they can tell me something that I don’t already know.

  8. The DeReef’s were somehow connected with my family. I know that one of them accompanied my greatgdandmother’s cousin to open her Freedmen’s bank account. She also had a cousin named Mary DeReef living with her at one time. I am interested in the person who’s great g aunt was a Heriot. My great grandmother was a Heriot. I would like to get more information on that family.

  9. I would be interested in hearing from anyone connected to Joseph or Richard E. Dereef of Charleston. I am researching Joseph’s line as he is connected to my husbands family of Charleston. Please contact me at

  10. Any info on Joseph DeReef would be greatly appreciated. Does anyone know the name of their parents? I belive his father’s name is Francis and he was born in Spain. Thanks, Bill A.

  11. Just know more about the Fowler from south Carolina that came to the Bahamas. Fowler is not a popular name here but the are two streets named Fowler Street on a 21 x 7 miles island of New Providence. What’s more is Nassau was once called Charlestown after Charleston SC. We even have a Meeting street and Chapel street.

  12. Hi, my name is Ryan Whirty. I know this is out of left field (pun possibly intended), but I’m a journalist and historian who’s working on a project about a “colored” baseball team in Charleston in the 1880s in which the DeReefs were very involved. I’m trying to find any information, documents, etc., that could explore the family’s connectcion to this team and their thoughts about baseball. If anyone might be able to help, feel free to email me at Thanks!

  13. Hello my name is Christine Kendust Stem I am a direct descendant of the DeReef’s
    and am looking for family members, I am on MYHERITAGE and my Email is “Lucas’ are direct descendants of the DeReef’s and McCarthy’s, very interested in any information on my family heritage…
    Thank you in advance 😊

  14. How other do I start a message here, other than Hi Family! Joseph DeReef was my 3rd great-grandfather. I am late in coming across this page but am nonetheless thrilled to have found it! Through my research on the DeReef family I have come to know Edlin, Billy Armstrong, Christine Stem, and Cecile. As it turns out, Billy Armstrong is my 2nd cousin and Christine Stem is my 3rd cousin. Edlin and Cecile are also my cousins but I haven’t finalized those connections to see to what cousin placement they currently fall.

    @Peggy Macleod…I can confirm that I have been given the same information about Francis DeReef. I also know, that their son Richard filed suit against the state of South Carolina to secure the right to claim his Native American heritage from his mother. Native Americans practice the matrilineal heritage associations as part of their laws and being a separate nation under the US Federal government, their laws are to be honored. With that being said, he won the case and from then on continued to claim his ethnicity as Indian. It is also noted as such on his 1870 Census. I have yet to find an 1870 Census for Joseph DeReef and can’t for the life of me figure out to where he may have disappeared since he did not pass away until 7 years after that Census. Peggy, you mentioned pictures of Francis’ sons, Richard and Joseph. While I have seen photographs of Richard, I am dying to see a picture of my great-great-great-grandfather and would love to compare notes on the family history. Billy, Christine, and I are descendants of Joseph’s daughter Gracia Claudia DeReef. We have always been told that Joseph named her after his mother, also named Gracia. Other histories I have read indicate that not much was known about Joseph and Richard’s mother except that her name was Gracia. Meanwhile, because of their darker complexions and difficulties within the mulatto society, they were adamant about holding onto their Native American heritage and the rights associated with Native Americans, as limited as they were. As a result, Richard married Isabella Fowler (also of Native American descent and listed on the Cherokee Dawes Rolls). I have always been told that Joseph also married a Native American woman, Mary Marshall. I currently have in my possession, a picture of an older female Native American ancestor for whom I have no name. Nothing is written on the picture and she is dressed in Native American style. I suspect this may be Gracia’s mother, Mary Marshall. Peggy, I hope you are notified of new posts on this thread and are willing to email me. I would love to find out my relationship to you in the family and share the stories we both have had passed down to us. There may be more clues to discover. My email is Hugs to all of my DeReef family! 😀

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