Monday, March 09, 2015

The Infamous Joseph Crews

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, acquainting us with the notorious Joseph Crews
Joseph Crews' grave in
Laurens (SC) City Cemetery,
not with the rest of the family


The infamous Joseph Crews was the brother of Thomas B. Crews, the editor of the Laurensville Herald. He was also a state legislator, and the owner of a steam‑powered saw and grist mill in Clinton. After the war, Crews led Radical Republican agendas in Laurens County to help elevate the freed slaves in society and subjugate the white Democrats. But Joseph Crews was no liberal‑ minded man with a great vision a vision of equality for all. He "had been a Negro trader [i.e., a slave trader], and had been accused of grave crimes," and was involved in the infamous Greenville, Columbia, and Laurens Railroad fraud.[1] In fact, Crews was notorious as a slave trader before the war, kidnapping slaves and Indians in the Gulf States and selling them in the Carolinas and Virginia, the price increasing as they moved north.
          George Patterson grew up at Kilgore's Bridge on the Enoree River and had been born a slave of Joe Patterson. In the 1930s, George Patterson gave a Works Progress Administration interview mentioning his father’s connection to Joe Crews. Patterson’s mother was an Irish woman working for the Patterson family, not legally a slave, but she was married "by his 'Marster'" to his father, a full blooded Indian, who was sold to his master by Joe Crews, "the biggest slave trader in the country." Crews had stolen him "when he was a young buck" somewhere in Mississippi along with some other Indians and sold him into slavery with the "niggers." He "drove them just like cattle and would stop at various plantations and sell the Indians and niggers into slavery."2
          During the war Crews avoided the draft, stayed at home, and cheated on a private scale, which lent him no great amount of respect from Laurens County veterans. In 1870, Joseph Crews served simultaneously as a lieutenant colonel of militia, head of the county election commission, and a candidate for the state house of representatives. John Leland, principal of the Laurensville Female College at the time, contends he made more money on the black citizens than he did on the black slaves, but "'to give the devil his due,' Joe has been known to perform some acts of real kindness, and even of charity."[3] Crews “was a man of mediocre ability but of considerable influence in the legislature. He had failed in business before the war, . . . [and] was a good‑hearted fellow," but his integrity was not respected.[4] Crews would go on to become a member of the state legislature. In several important committee appointments, he would become known as the most radical member of the General Assembly. Crews would also eventually be appointed ranking officer of the state militia.[5]


[1]           Thornwell Jacobs, The Life of William Plumer Jacobs (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1918), 89. Crews was also a master intimidator. Dr. William Jacobs of Clinton, SC, in lamenting loudly the death of the railroad, received a letter from Joe Crews in early 1871 that as Jacobs was a young man he might live to see the railroad built back.
[2]           George Patterson, in Slave Narratives, (II, i, 226‑229), interviewed on May 27, 1937, edited by R.V. Williams. When he was set free, he and his father stayed with Joe Patterson to bring in the crop that year 1865, and then went to Spartanburg.”Patterson continued a lively interview: "I've never seen a moving picture. Once a man offered to give me a ticket to a movie, but I told him to give me a plug of tobacco instead." He said that when colored preachers "are educated they learn to steal everything a man has, if they can." Patterson continued his interview, "You remember Joe Crews and Jim Young‑‑what they did in this state? Well, they tried to lead all the niggers after the war was over. I was the one who got Jim Young away from the whites. I carried him to Greenville, but he got back somehow, and was killed. Joe Crews was killed, too. The Ku Klux was after them hot, but I carried Jim Young away from them." In the woods, Patterson said of years past, there were wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and wild hogs with six inch tusks. Cattle ran wild and were dangerous at all times. (II, i, 230), May 31, 1937: When there was a surplus of apples and peaches they made brandy, a surplus of corn or rye‑‑whiskey, 40 cents a gallon. Butter 5 cents/lb., Eggs 6 cents/doz., Hens 10 cents, Salt deer $50/barrel. Plenty of wild turkeys, ducks, wild geese on the River. Turkeys, he said, tear up gardens and planted seed.
[3]           Leland, 52, 70. His sometime partner in crime, Young J. Owens, chairman of the county Republican committee, had deserted to the enemy early in the war.
[4]           Simkins and Woody, 93, 204,128.

[5]           Benjamin Ginsberg, Moses of South Carolina: A Jewish Scalawag during Radical Reconstruction (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 102.