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Today In Charleston History: December 12

NATIONAL POINSETTIA DAY

1851

Joel Roberts Poinsett died, a Master Mason of Solomon’s Lodge, Charleston.

poinsettPoinsett was one of the most interesting men in South Carolina history. Born in Charleston in 1779, he studied law under Henry William DeSaussure. Poinsett, however, was not interested in becoming a lawyer, and convinced his parents to allow him to go on an extended tour of Europe in 1801.  For the next several years, Poinsett traveled the European continent, from France to Italy traveling through the Alps and Switzerland. He hiked up Mount Etna on the island of Sicily.

In October 1803, Poinsett left Switzerland for Vienna, Austria, and from there journeyed to Munich. In December he received word that his father was dead, and that his sister, Susan, was seriously ill. He immediately secured passage back to Charleston. Poinsett arrived in Charleston early in 1804, months after his father had been laid to rest. Hoping to save his sister’s life, Poinsett took her on a voyage to New York, remembering how his earlier voyage to Lisbon had intensified his recovery. Yet, upon arriving in New York City, Susan Poinsett died. As the sole remaining heir, Poinsett inherited a small fortune in town houses and lots, plantations, bank stock, and “English funds.” The entire Poinsett estate was valued at a hundred thousand dollars or more.

Poinsett traveled to the Russian capital of St. Petersburg in November 1806. Levett Harris, consul of the United States at St. Petersburg, and the highest American official in the country, hoped to introduce Poinsett at court to Czar Alexander. Learning that Poinsett was from South Carolina, the Empress asked him if he would inspect the cotton factories under her patronage. Poinsett and Consul Harris traveled by sleigh to Cronstadt to see the factories. Poinsett made some suggestions on improvement, which the Dowager Empress accepted.

In January, 1807, Czar Alexander and Poinsett dined at the Palace. Czar Alexander attempted to entice Poinsett into the Russian civil or military service. Poinsett was hesitant, which prompted Alexander to advise him to “see the Empire, acquire the language, study the people”, and then decide. Always interested in travel, Poinsett accepted the invitation and left St. Petersburg in March 1807 on a journey through southern Russia. He was accompanied by his English friend Lord Royston and eight others.

JRP-SoW,_SPoinsett and Royston were among the last westerners to see Moscow before its burning in October 1812 by Napoleon’s forces. Poinsett’s company traveled to Baku on the Caspian Sea. He noted that because of the petroleum pits in the region, it had long been a spot of pilgrimage for fire-worshipers. He became one of the earliest U.S. travelers to the Middle East, where, in 1806, the Persian khan showed him a pool of petroleum, which he speculated might someday be used for fuel.

Upon his return to Moscow, a year later, Czar Alexander’s discussed the details of Poinsett’s trip with him and offered him a position as colonel in the Russian Army. However, news had reached Russia of the attack of the H.M.S. Leopard upon the Chesapeake, and war between the United States and Great Britain seemed certain. Poinsett eagerly sought to return to the United States.

Before leaving Russia, Poinsett met one last time with Czar Alexander, who expressed his approval of the energetic measures by the Congress of the United States to resist the maritime pretensions of Britain. The Czar declared that Russia and the United States should maintain the same policy of respect. Poinsett again met with Foreign Minister Count Romanzoff where the Russian disclosed to Poinsett that the Czar ardently desired to have a minister from the United States at the Russian Court.

 In 1809  Pres. James Madison appointed Poinsett as Consul in General to Chile and Argentina. Poinsett was to investigate the prospects of the revolutionists, in their struggle for independence from Spain. He returned to Charleston on May 28, 1815.

poinsettia

In 1820, Poinsett won a seat in the United States House of Representatives for the Charleston district. As a congressman, Poinsett continued to call for internal improvements, but he also advocated the maintenance of a strong army and navy. He was appointed the first American minister to Mexico in 1825, and became embroiled in the country’s political turmoil until his recall in 1830. It was during this time that he visited the area south of Mexico City around Taxco del Alarcon, where he was introduced to a Mexican plant  called “Flor de Noche Buena” (Christmas Eve flower).  Poinsett, an avid amateur botanist, sent samples of the plant home to the States and by 1836 the plant was most widely known as the “poinsettia.”

In 1830, Poinsett returned to South Carolina  to again serve in the South Carolina state legislature, from 1830 to 1831. An avowed strong Unionist, his correspondence with Pres. Andrew Jackson during the Nullification Crisis kept the president abreast of the evolving situation in their home state, helping Jackson to craft policy. In 1833, Poinsett married the widow Mary Izard Pringle (1780-1857), daughter of Ralph and Elizabeth (Stead) Izard.

Poinsett-statue

Poinsett statue in Greenville, SC

Poinsett served as Secretary of War from March 7, 1837 to March 5, 1841 and presided over the continuing removal of Indians west of the Mississippi and over the Seminole War; reduced the fragmentation of the Army by concentrating elements at central locations; equipped the light batteries of artillery regiments as authorized by the 1821 army organization act.

In 1840 he a co-founder of the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts in 1840, a group of politicians advocating for the use of the “Smithson bequest” for a national museum that would showcase relics of the country and its leaders, celebrate American technology and document the national resources of North America. The group was defeated in its efforts, as other groups wanted scientists, rather than political leaders, guiding the fortunes of what would become the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1841 he retired to his plantation at Georgetown died of tuberculosis, hastened by an attack of pneumonia, in Stateburg, South Carolina in 1851, and is buried at the Church of the Holy Cross Episcopal Cemetery.

Poinsett Bridge in Traveler's Rest, SC

Poinsett Bridge in Traveler’s Rest, SC

 

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