In 1734, a group of landed gentry founded the South Carolina Jockey Club, still going strong as the SC Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. The climate, geographic accessibility and copious open space made the Palmetto State a natural home to the industry.
Fifty-seven years later, with the Revolutionary War hero George Washington in his second year as President, 20 ‘sporting gentlemen’ of the club purchased a tract of land where Hampton Park now resides and developed it into America’s first horse racing track, the Washington Race Course, named in honor of the President. “The Father of Our Country” had visited the track the year before.
Following the 1802 running of the premier event at the racecourse, the Jockey Club Purse, General John McPherson, an officer in South Carolina’s Francis Marion Brigade in the Revolutionary War and a State Senator, commissioned the design of a trophy for the winner. One of the nation’s wealthiest men at the time, McPherson owned six plantations and nearly 500 slaves. He died, along with his daughter, four years later in a shipwreck.
The McPherson Cup was finished in London in 1803 and is described in auction information as a silver trophy featuring a “cat finial atop (a) leaf-decorated domed cover supported on (a) uniform body with (a) conforming design flanked by entwined serpent handles, adorned with applied plaquette depicting (a) racing scene, engraved with (the) McPherson crest and arms, raised on (a) pedestal base with ball feet.”
The trophy was engraved with the name of the 1802 race winner, Roxana and presented at the following year’s race in what was then called “Charlestown.” Hallmarks of the Wilson Fountain foundry can be found on the base of the pedestal.
That trophy is on display at the Gibbes Museum, on loan from John Rivers, a descendant of McPherson, who purchased the trophy to preserve Lowcountry history.
“I bought it at auction and it came through Wade Hampton and the Lowndes Family of Lowndes Grove fame,” Rivers said. “It belonged to my great grandmother, Caroline Hampton Lowndes Mullaley and other descendants of Arthur Middleton,” a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and son of Middleton Plantation’s namesake.
Rivers has been collecting artifacts of Charleston’s early days and now owns a collection with more than 250 historically significant items dating from the late 1600s. “I started my museum with the earliest known signed piece of furniture” a 1733 writing desk. “I said ‘wait a minute, that’s our history; what the heck is it doing in Winston Salem North Carolina? I felt we weren’t paying enough attention to our own history as we should have at the time,” he said.
Rivers also owns the only Charleston-made guns known to exist and a dressing table that crossed the Atlantic six times and survived three fires before returning to the Holy City, according to a 2015 article in ChiefExecutive.net.
These centuries-old objects reflect a Charleston that teemed with the contrasting oppression of slavery and incomparable affluence of white landowners. “From 1740-1846 nine of the 10 wealthiest people in America lived in Charleston,” Rivers notes. “We lose sight of that and how important they were in helping shape the future of our country.”
The trophy is part of The Penkhus Collection of British Sporting Art, which includes homages to early steeplechase races, now on display at the Gibbes Museum.