Thursday, March 17, 2011

“Paddy” Works to Link the West to South Carolina

Thousands of Irish immigrants, escaping the poverty of Ireland, came to America in the 19th century seeking a better way of life. Many of these immigrants drifted West to build railroads and other massive engineering projects such as canals and bridges. Some of these men and their families also came South as free laborers or as indentured servants. Several large engineering projects in Antebellum South Carolina are monuments to these Irish workers.

The 1820’s was a period in which Americans sought to create internal improvements in their transportation and communication system. It was no different in South Carolina. Many in Charleston desired to tap the wealth of the West. They dreamed of a series of canals to connect the Mississippi River with the waterways of South Carolina and subsequently the city of Charleston. To accomplish this feat a plan was drawn up and the first canals were to be built in South Carolina to improve its own transportation system from the backcountry to the coast. It was an age of “canal fever.”

Two of the projects to accomplish this goal were the Landsford Canal and the Columbia Canal. The Landsford Canal , near Lancaster, South Carolina, was designed by the architect Robert Mills and it was located on the Catawba River and bypassed the rocks and shoals of the main river channel. It was to provide a direct route to upstate settlements and towns on the fall line and beyond to the city of Charlestown. Construction began in the 1820’s. African slave labor was used but slaves were valuable in this plantation economy and it was cheaper to use Irish-Americans workers. In addition, some of these Irishmen were skilled in the process of cutting stone and building canals. They were recruited from the northern states to build the 2 mile long canal. They used mostly physical strength and animal power with some explosives to build it. The canal was not a financial success and by 1840 had been superseded by the new technology of railroads.

Another canal that also employed Irishmen was the Columbia Canal. It was started in 1824 and was also designed by Robert Mills. Its goal was to again make it easier to transport goods from the backcountry to Charleston and back. It took more than $209,000 to build it. Irish indentured servants were employed on this project. Hundreds of these men died in building it due to disease and accidents and a memorial was dedicated to them on the site of the canal in 2008. It too failed in its original purpose. Later in 1891 this canal was rebuilt and extended to supply drinking water to the city of Columbia and surrounding areas and was also used to generate electricity as the 20th century dawned in the Capitol City of the Palmetto State. Today the memorial to the Irish workers is at the edge of the old canal and is shaped like the letter "I" for Ireland.

Irishmen also appear on South Carolina’s northwestern mountain frontier. This time they are employed by a railroad. They were there to build the Blue Ridge railroad and a series of tunnels through the mountains of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee. The railroad’s terminus was Cincinnati, Ohio. Once again investors from Charleston were involved. They hoped this railroad from Charleston to the Ohio River Valley would tap the wealth of that growing region. The railroad construction was begun in the 1850’s. In 1856 the tunnel at Stumphouse Mountain was begun. It was to be one of the longest railroad tunnels in the United States. The George Collyer Company from London ended up as the eventual contractor for the project. They contracted Irish workers for the job and transported them to the area. These Irishmen created a town on top of Stumphouse Mountain called Tunnel Town.

Tunnel Town had stores, saloons, a post office, a school, a boarding house, 3 blacksmith’s shops and a Catholic church. It also had daily stagecoach service. At the foot of Issaquena Falls and close by the town was Wagener’s Powder Mill. The mill had been opened by a German immigrant to supply black powder for blasting for the workers. The height of Tunnel Town’s population was 1,282 people. Father Jeremiah Joseph O’Connell arrived from Ireland to offer spiritual guidance to the town. He was dismayed by the drunkenness and lawlessness he found in Tunnel Town. It was said that there were more saloons than churches. Father O’Connell used his influence to get the railroad to fire anyone that did not remain sober. He built a Catholic church and dedicated it to St. Patrick. He also established a school for the education of the workers' families.

The work was hard. The men worked 12 hours a day and 6 days a week. They mostly used sledgehammers and hand drills to create the tunnel. Drilling was slow. One foot per hour per hole was the rule. Black powder, the predecessor to dynamite, was used to blast the blue granite rock. Working on the railroad and tunnel proved dangerous work. Death was not uncommon as reported by the local Keowee Courier newspaper. Some workers slipped and fell to their death in shafts, some were crushed by cave-ins, others died from such things as premature powder explosions, or by being scaled by the steam of a locomotive.

Today, 1,617 feet of the tunnel is exposed. The state spent more than a million dollars on the railroad and the tunnel. Only about 2/3’s of the tunnel was completed. Some sections in the interior are now flooded. Work on it was abandoned in 1859. Then came Civil War and the idea of this proposed railroad never again saw the light of day. The tunnel at Stumphouse Mountain is now a South Carolina state park. The tunnel , a constant 56 degrees year round, was used for a time in the 1940’s and 1950’s by Clemson University to make its famous Blue Cheese. This operation has since moved to the Clemson campus which is nearby. There is little on the top of the mountain to indicate the presence of Tunnel Town today.

From the Wateree to the Capitol City and from the Capitol City to the Blue Ridge of the Keowee, “Paddy” was at work in 19th century South Carolina as he was on all the subsequent frontiers of America. Happy Saint Patrick’s Day and Erin Go Braugh!

Andy Thomas

Sources Used to Write this Blog:

1) Landsford Canal:

2) Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel:

“Columbia pays tribute to Irish laborers who built canal,” Adam Bean, The Rock Hill Herald, September 8, 2008:

Oconee Heritage Center Website:

The Historical Marker Database Website:

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Jean Couture: The Forgotten Coureur De Bois of South Carolina

Rivers became the “road to empire” in North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. The Lewis and Clark expedition was focused on finding an east to west water route to the Pacific. In countless other examples of the uses of rivers to move and transport men and materials or trade goods the picture is clear of their importance and their strategic value in nation-building.

By the year 1700 the competition between the English and French in North America was heating up. The French discoveries of La Salle and Tonti had revealed the Mississippi River Basin. It was believed that control of this river could be of great importance to trade and a key to control of the entire North American continent. Both European powers wanted to project their influence and power among the native peoples living on the Mississippi and on rivers that connected with it. The Ohio was one of those rivers and would become the flashpoint for the future French and Indian War. To a lesser extent the Tennessee River was also recognized as important to control since it flowed through the Cherokee lands, home to a major southeastern tribe, and then converged with the Ohio River which in turn led to the Mississippi River. Soon, thanks to the efforts of a Frenchman named Jean Couture, it was discovered that the Savannah River was a short portage away from the Tennessee River and could lead to a useful water route to the West for the English traders from the colony of South Carolina. To these Englishmen the Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route held the potential to be a “road to empire” or an unwanted invasion route for a hostile power.

The man who discovered this route was later known as a coureur de bois and because he was involved with the famous expeditions of La Salle and Tonti we have information on him that we do not normally have on many other courerus de bois. Jean Couture was born in Rouen in the Normandy region of France and his occupation was listed as a carpenter. We do not know his date of birth. At some point he migrated to Canada and became involved in the fur trade. Couture was a trapper who was a veteran of one of La Salle’s early expeditions. In 1684 La Salle had identified this man who had accompanied him as a resident of Canada. Two years later in 1686, Couture followed the Italian explorer Henri de Tonti, who was in the employ of the French, down the Mississippi in an unsuccessful attempt to join up with La Salle. On the return journey Tonti appointed Couture as a commandant and ordered him and four other Frenchmen to build a post at the mouth of the Arkansas River which would later be known as Arkansas Post. This post was to serve as a way station between the French Illinois country and La Salle’s projected French colony in Louisiana. It would also help to maintain a trade alliance with the Arkansas tribes and help to protect them from raids from English-allied Iroquois. In July 1687, the survivors of La Salle’s ill-fated expedition found Couture at this frontier post. After learning of La Salle’s death, Couture made his way to Fort Saint Louis in the Illinois country to await the return of Tonti and inform him of La Salle’s death. Because of these events Couture appears most prominently in the French records.

Several years later his name reappears in the colonial records for the English colony of South Carolina. It seems that he had deserted from his military service to New France and become a coureur de bois, a “runner of the woods”, who illegally and without the permission of the French authorities, went into business for himself trading furs to the English colonists and others. Desertion from New France by men like Couture was not uncommon. It was illegal to engage in unlicensed trading. English prices for furs, however, paid more than French prices and this tempted some like Couture to carry their furs to the English or to even desert to the English colonies. Couture appears to have been a deserter and he may have also been looked upon as a traitor for his cooperation with the English. His far-flung exploits had gained him a reputation among Englishmen who called him the “greatest Trader and Traveller amongst the Indians for more than Twenty years.” His reputation attracted attention and he became involved in two schemes that if successful would have profited the English at the expense of the French.

The first scheme was a complete failure. Some South Carolina investors had heard myths of ancient Spanish mines in the Appalachian Mountains and wanted Couture to help them discover these mines and their deposits of precious metals such as silver. Though, Couture had his own story to tell and claimed that there was a gold mine somewhere in the region, all attempts to locate these mines or precious metals failed.

The second scheme succeeded in the short term but failed in the long run. It was an attempt to develop and expand the English deer skin and fur trade to the Mississippi River and beyond by way of a water route. This trade brought in enormous profits to the Carolina colony and was used to cement alliances with Indian tribes and project territorial power. Before Couture the only known way to the west was a long and challenging land route skirting the Appalachian Mountains to the south. In 1700 Jean Couture led a party of Englishmen up the Tennessee River to the Ohio and then onto the Mississippi River. These men hoped to divert a large proportion of the waterborne Western trade in furs from New France to the colony of South Carolina. These traders carried presents of ammunition and merchandise to establish trade with the Mississippi tribes and others they met along the way. They also carried papers from the South Carolina Governor Joseph Blake claiming the Mississippi country as a part of the territory of England. By February 1700 the party reached the mouth of the Arkansas River where Couture had years ago built a post. The Carolinians recruited the local Quapaw Indians to raid a rival group for slaves and deerskins and set out for Charles Town with their booty. The word was spread far and wide that the English had found an east to west water route to the heart of the continent.

This weighed heavily on the French during the next several years. What if other coureurs de bois traded their furs for the better prices in Charles Town? This could disrupt the economic foundations of France’s New World settlements. The route also threatened France’s line of communication along the Mississippi between the older and more established Canadian lands and the newly established colony in the Mississippi region. In 1701 the first royal governor of Louisiana, Pierre le Moyne de Iberville, ordered a reverse journey of the Tennessee River. Four Frenchmen took up the challenge. These coureurs de bois found a portage of a league and a half (no more than 5 miles) between the westward and eastward flowing rivers of the Little Tennessee and the Savannah. The Frenchmen reported after returning to Louisiana that they had discovered Couture’s route which included this portage near the Cherokee Valley Towns in Tennessee and that it easily linked the Little Tennessee River with the Savannah River drainage system.
By this route these men descended the Savannah River to the Atlantic Ocean and then followed the coast north to Charles Town where they met with Governor James Moore and discussed a trading pact. They negotiated the opening of trade for themselves and 15 others of their fellows back in the Mississippi country. They then made their way back again following the same water route and arrived in Biloxi, Mississippi were they reported back to Iberville. The journey was a trip of some 400 leagues.

This short term success of opening an Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route fell apart over the next several years. Three causes insured that this route never became the “road to empire” for Englishmen. They included the French establishment of Louisiana, the creation of Catholic Indian missions, and the 1715 Yemasee War. The establishment of the French colony in Louisiana and the establishment of Catholic missions created Indians friendly to the French cause and retarded the attempts of the Carolina traders to divert the Western trade. Biloxi, Mobile, and New Orleans were much closer to trade with than with Charles Town. And then, in 1715, a major realignment of tribes and a shift in fortunes of empire occurred with the Yemasee War that devastated the Carolina colony and sheared off many of its far-flung trade connections and allies. For the first time the Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route held both the lure of profit and also the uneasy prospect of a French or French-allied Native American invasion. For the next 40 plus years this tension would remain until the French and Indian War decided the language that most Europeans would speak in North America: English. With the English colonies secure the importance of the Ohio-Tennessee-Savannah water route was greatly diminished. The legend of the brave coureur de bois, Jean Couture, who travelled the vast wilderness of colonial North America was also forgotten.

Andy Thomas
Sources used in the blog:

The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians Through the Revolutionary Era by Tom Hatley

“The Tennessee River as the Road to Carolina: The Beginnings of Exploration and Trade” by Verner W. Crane, Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 3, No. 1 (June 1916), pp. 3-18.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Old Hickory and the Cast Iron Man Shape Both Dixie and Manifest Destiny

Andrew Jackson State Park near Lancaster, South Carolina

Two famous Americans born on South Carolina’s rough and ready frontier would have a hand in shaping the history of the American West. One was the populist American hero of the Battle of New Orleans. The other was the fiery demagogue of Nullification and State’s Rights. Both served in some of the highest offices in the land and both served in the same administration. But Andrew Jackson, known as Old Hickory, and John C. Calhoun, known as the Cast Iron Man, departed ways as the 19th century neared its midpoint. Their split served as an omen for the issue of slavery and its ultimate divisive nature for the American Republic. Their careers, however, also embraced such frontier and western issues as indian removal and Manifest Destiny.

Young Andrew Jackson Statue at Andrew Jackson State Park near Lancaster, SC

Andrew Jackson, who was to become the 7th President of the United States, was born in 1767 in the Waxhaw region on the border between the two Carolinas. Jackson, himself, claimed he had been born in a little cabin in South Carolina just south of the border and considered himself a South Carolinian. His parents were Scotch-Irish and were recent immigrants. Jackson was taught to read and write in a frontier school. He received his education in other matters by experience. When the American Revolution broke out, Jackson, aged 13, volunteered along with his brothers and served as a courier for the Patriot forces under Colonel William Richardson Davie. He and one of his brothers participated in the Battle of Hanging Rock. Both young Jacksons were captured by the British and held as prisoners of war. They nearly starved to death. An infamous incident occurred during this young lad's desperate time. A British officer told Jackson to lick and clean his boots with his tongue. Jackson refused and the angry man slashed Jackson with his sword cutting his hand and head and leaving deep scars. Emotionally Jackson had scars too. He developed an intense hatred for the British and even more so when his brother died from smallpox during his imprisonment. Jackson, helped by his mother, was released but she also succumbed to the deadly disease. By age 14, Andrew Jackson was an orphan.

Andrew Jackson stands up to British Officier

After his release in 1781, Jackson moved west to North Carolina and then Tennessee. He taught school and studied and practiced frontier law. Jackson soon became a planter and merchant as well as a speculator of Western lands. He grew cotton and he owned slaves. He built a home, called the Hermitage, near Nashville, Tennessee. He also served as an officer in the local militia. This militia was called up to fight during both the Creek War and the subsequent War of 1812. Jackson became a national hero by defeating the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 (See my blog entry: The Battle of Horseshoe Bend: Hidden Gem in the Story of the Saga of the American West, August 4, 2009) and later the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815 (See my blog entry: Old Hickory Secures the Louisiana Purchase, March 19, 2009). He went on to serve as a United States senator from Tennessee and ran twice for the United States Presidency before being elected in 1828. As President he served 2 terms. He was the first President born of immigrant parents and he was the first President from the frontier and the West. His victories at Horseshoe Bend and New Orleans opened and secured the West for American expansion and settlement. In addition, Jackson was heavily involved with Indian Affairs and set in motion the removal of more than 45,000 Native Americans living in the East. By means of the Indian Removal Act (1830) he was authorized to negotiate treaties for tribal lands and make payments to Native Americans for lands in the East in exchange for lands in the West beyond the United States borders. He directed that tribes such as the Cherokee and Creeks should be moved west of the Mississippi River and settled on the vast, “deserted” lands of the West. His first Vice President was John C. Calhoun.

John C. Calhoun, who was to become the 7th Vice President of the United States, was born in 1782 in the backcountry of South Carolina. His parents were also Scotch-Irish. He had to quit his studies at an early age to maintain the family farm after his father became ill. Later he was able to earn a degree at Yale College and graduated Phi Beta Kappa. He studied law and then became a lawyer in South Carolina in 1807. Calhoun had a quick mind and was a brilliant orator and was elected to the United States Senate from South Carolina in 1810. He served from 1810 to 1817 and led the charge, along with other War Hawks, to declare war on Great Britain in 1812. He also was an ardent nationalist during this time and sponsored many bills to improve the nation’s standing by supporting industry and building internal improvements.

John C. Calhoun
Calhoun was appointed as Secretary of War under President James Madison in 1817. He served in this position until 1825. One of his responsibilities was for the management of Indian affairs. He tried to make the Indian department more efficient and to centralize it. Congress frustrated Calhoun in these attempts. Calhoun, in turn, even though he was overstepping his mandate as Secretary of War, decided to use his power to create the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1824. He worked during this period to negotiate and ratify treaties with various Indian tribes. He succeeded in having 38 treaties passed during his tenure. He also had an opportunity to work with William Clark during this time. Clark served as the Superintendent of Indian Affairs for Missouri. He and Calhoun corresponded about many of the Native Americans found in the still new Louisiana Purchase. Calhoun was adamant to maintain that Native Americans groups did not represent nations as did traditional European Powers. Treaties were written to reflect that belief and were one of the factors that supported and led to Indian removal in the East and massive migration of European Americans onto the Great Plains and beyond.

Calhoun was elected to the Vice Presidency in 1824. He served first under John Adams and then, with the election of Andrew Jackson, he served with him over the next 8 years. What began as a cordial relationship between these two South Carolinians quickly unraveled under the strain of the Nullification Crisis of 1828-1832 and in the clash of beliefs between these two men. Calhoun opposed the Tariff of 1828 and frustrated that it was not repealed he wrote the famous South Carolina Exposition and Protest in which he forwarded his theory of nullification—the right of a state to reject laws and legislation found objectionable to its interests. Jackson, who strongly believed in a powerful central government, did not support that position and the feelings between the two men grew antagonistic. At a 1830 Jefferson Day Dinner Calhoun proposed a toast with the words: “The Union, next to our liberty, most dear.” Jackson responded with his toast of “Our federal union, it must be preserved.”

By 1831 the break between the two men was final. Then along came the Nullification Crisis. In the Nullification Crisis, South Carolina, using Calhoun’s logic, repealed the national tariff and in fact declared it null and void and all other such federal laws that went against the state of South Carolina’s interests. In response, Jackson was empowered by Congress to enforce all federal legislation with the Force Bill. South Carolina then nullified the Force Bill. Senator Henry Clay worked behind the scenes in trying to cool things down by seeking a compromise on the tariff. He eventually got the Congress to pass the Compromise Tariff of 1833.

President Andrew Jackson

During the crisis, Jackson had vowed to send troops to South Carolina to enforce any federal law that was enacted. South Carolina backed down but Calhoun never forgot it and went on to build support in the south for his theory of nullification and state’s rights. Calhoun had resigned over these issues with Jackson in 1832. He returned to his Ft. Hill Plantation in today's Clemson, South Carolina and once again became a Senator for the state, serving until his death in 1850. Jackson retired to Nashville after his presidency and lived at The Hermitage until he died in 1845.

The Hermitage near Nashville, Tennessee
Meanwhile, Calhoun opposed both the abolition of slavery and the attempts to limit the spread of slavery to the West. Calhoun was eager to annex the Republic of Texas, as were other Southerners. Texas was a slave country and would help Calhoun’s cause. Calhoun devised a joint resolution of the House of Congress to amend rules on the vote for accepting Texas as a state by election through a simple majority. This worked to counter Northern attempts to block the acceptance of the Lone Star Republic and Texas joined the Union in 1846. War with Mexico soon followed. Strangely Calhoun opposed the war, fearing the annexation of millions of "colored" Mexicans and all that would mean to the system of slavery in the South. He participated in the debate over Texas which led to the Compromise of 1850. Calhoun also disagreed with the Compromise of 1850 because it limited the spread of slavery and would upset the representative balance of southern and northern states. This was his last battle. Calhoun died in 1850. His support for slavery and states’ rights went on to influence the South and subsequent events that led to the Civil War.

Fort Hill Plantation in Clemson, South Carolina

Both Jackson and Calhoun had been born on the South Carolina frontier. Both however, had come to have competing visions of America. Calhoun looked to the East while Jackson looked to the West. Jackson saw a strong federal government employed in removing Indians and settling the west. Calhoun saw a method to assert state’s rights and to preserve his home state’s system of slavery either with or without annexation of western lands. This issue was to boil until the outbreak of the Civil War. Both Jackson and Calhoun’s legacy, however also had much bearing on the frontier and the west including both the issues of American expansion and Indian removal. Both of these issues led to the later period of Manifest Destiny and the clash between native peoples and Europeans and the spread of American culture to the West.

Andy Thomas

Sources Used to Write this Blog:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Spirit of the American Frontier

Alcohol was an important element in the settling of the frontier and the American West. Alcohol served to cement alliances between European nations and Native Americans, as well as serving as a conduit for trade. It served to relieve pain, boredom, and thirst on many different American frontiers. It also led to extreme violence and early death for some. Although rum and brandy were the initial beverages available on the earliest frontiers, it did not take long for liquor made from corn to become the "spirit" of the American frontier.

Why corn? Corn was ubiquitous in America. It grew everywhere and was a major component in the diet of Native Americans, colonists, and their African slaves. Native Americans probably fermented some types of beverages from native fruits and plants like all other indigenous peoples throughout the world. Though evidence is scant, a weak type of corn beer may have been part of the diet of many Native American tribes. Some tribes may have had no types of fermented beverages which may explain why they were quickly addicted to West Indian Rum and French Brandy. Even if they did have some types of alcoholic drinks, they were quickly abandoned after the discovery of the stronger, better-tasting European spirits including spirits made with corn.

Another factor in why corn was a favorite had to do with logistics. Corn was not an easy product to haul to market from the frontier. Instead of taking 10 carts of corn to market, the early American settler could convert his product to alcohol and send one cart of whiskey to the market and make considerable profit. And so, early colonists began to experiment with corn to see if they could produce a good tasting alcoholic beverage with it that helped to provide a drinking potable for the colonists who did not have a fresh, clean water supply.

In a 1682 travel narrative Thomas Ashe described an early forerunner to American corn-based distillations when he wrote that the South Carolina settlers “have lately invented a way of making it good sound Beer, but it’s strong and heady: By Maceration, when duly fermented, a strong Spirit like Brandy may be drawn off from it, by help of an Alembick.” An Alembick was an early type of still. This method of distilling the beverage along with the further refinements of adding additional grains such as rye, wheat, and barley would eventually give way to the American Bourbon industry that was to cast its shadow from its origins in Bourbon County, Kentucky to the shores of the Pacific.

It was the Scotch-Irish who also brought their own experience and technologies to America that helped to spark a revolution in American distilling. Many frontiersmen took this spark to the frontier. And in the late 1700’s, American settlers in the “dark and bloody” lands of Kaintuck set about turning their corn into whiskey for sale in distant markets. One of them, Reverend Elijah Craig, was an independent Baptist preacher who had spent some time in a South Carolina jail because he did not have an Episcopal ordination from the Anglican establishment. Craig, moved to Bourbon County to practice his religion freely. He owned a corn mill there. One day a fire broke out and charred the inside of some of his oak barrels which he used to age and ship his corn whiskey. Not wanting to be wasteful he used the barrels to ship his product to New Orleans. After the long trip the whiskey had mellowed to a smoother and richer flavor. People started calling this product Bourbon because it was from Bourbon County, Kentucky. The end result was it became an American frontier favorite.

When I visited Kentucky earlier this year I visited the Woodford Distillery. The history of the distillery began in 1812 and the distillery building (1834) is one of the oldest buildings of nine working distiliries in Kentucky and the site is now a National Historic Landmark. Today a super-premium bourbon named Woodford Reseeve is produced there. It is the official bourbon of the Kentucky Derby.

The smell of "corn beer" before it is distilled is wonderful

Mint Juleps are made from bourbon, sugar and mint leaves. The Mint Julep is thought of as the classic Southern American cocktail and naturally it is made with Bourbon Whiskey. It is also the drink of the ultimate horse race: the Kentucky Derby. The Mint Julep's origins are from the Middle East where “julab” the Arab word for rose water became julep in most western languages. The drink’s ancestors appeared in England during the 1400’s as concoctions of sugar, water, and herbs or plants. These were used in non-alcoholic combinations mainly for medicinal purposes. Later alcohol was added. Rum, whiskey, and brandy were favorites. This drink was brought to the American colonies. Instead of rum and brandy, corn whiskey was used. There was also the adaptation in the colonies of adding mint leaves to the drink. Good bourbon soon followed, replacing the corn whiskey and became its main ingredient. In 1845, a South Carolinian named William Heyward Trapier reintroduced juleps to the students attending Oxford University in England when he found out they were unfamiliar with them. Since then, Oxford University has toasted has name and celebrated “Mint Julep Day” on June 1st every year.

Bourbon is still made today at places like Woodford Reserve in traditional small batches. I encourage you to sometime soon imbibe on the spirit of America’s frontier.

Andy Thomas

Sources used:
The South Carolina quotation is from Narratives of Early Carolina, edited by Alexander S. Salley, 1911

Bourbon Whiskey:

Woodford Distillery:

Mint Julep:

Friday, May 14, 2010

See the West without leaving the South

I recently took a trip to the Booth Western Art Museum. It is a spectacular little jewel of an art museum in Cartersville, Georgia. It is the second largest art museum in the state of Georgia behind the High Museum in Atlanta. It has works of art and sculpture from some of the most famous artists who have depicted the American West. There are paintings and sculptures from such famous artists as George Catlin, Albert Bierstadt, Charles Russell, Fredrick Remington, and Thomas Moran on display there. There is also a section devoted to Civil War and Presidential paintings and portraits. Another section is devoted to poster art created for Western movies. Modern contemporary Western art, scupture, and Native American art and artifacts are also on display.

This museum is the only one of its kind in the South. It is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution. If you are traveling to Atlanta some time soon, check it out. It is only about 45 minutes away and it really is a treat be able to see the West in the South.

Andy Thomas

See the Museum website at:

A Siesta Costs Mexico the Land of Texas

Sorry for the hiatus. I hope to post several new blogs over the next month.

The resent oil spill tragedy in the Gulf reminded me of a trip I took to West Texas in May 2004 with my brother Jim. We visited the Guadalupe Mountains, Big Bend, and White Sands. On the way back home we stopped in Houston, Texas to visit the site of the Battle of San Jacinto. As we approached the site the smell of petroleum assaulted our noses. The battle site sits near massive fuel storage tanks and refineries on the low, flat, grassy Texas lowlands. This region of Texas has always been a major player in our country’s oil industry as well as many other industries since becoming a part of the United States. The Gulf spill is a tragedy and it remains to be seen how this will impact Texas and the other areas of the Gulf. The same could have been said of Texas itself. Before becoming a state, Texas existed as an independent republic. This “Lone Star” republic won its independence from Mexico. That independence was won in 1836 at the Battle of San Jacinto which sits very close to the Gulf shores of Texas. But no one then knew Texas would become a state and a key state at that.

One of the heroes of winning Texas independence was John Coker. John Coker was originally from South Carolina. He had been born in 1789 in Laurens County, South Carolina and he moved to Texas in 1834 with his father to settle on lands in Stephen F. Austin’s colonies. He was a blacksmith and joined the Texas army in 1836.

In April 1836, General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, conqueror of the Alamo, made a tactical mistake as he chased General Sam Houston’s army in hopes of battling it and destroying it. Santa Anna was far ahead of his supply lines and he wandered into the maze of waterways and bayous along the Texas coast. On April 21, 1836 the two armies stood close to each other near the site of San Jacinto. They both stood on a maze of lands cut by rivers and waterways. One of the nearest was Vince’s Bayou over which a bridge existed that both armies would have to use to retreat or reinforce.

General Sam Houston

A comrade of John Coker’s, Young Perry Alsbury reported that Coker mused while on horseback looking out at the bridge over Vince’s Bayou, "Boys, before many hours we will have one of the damndest, bloodiest fights that ever was fought and I believe it would be a good plan to go and burn that bridge so as not only to impede the advance of reinforcements of the enemy, but it will cut off all chance of retreat of either party.” This remark was taken by his commander Deaf Smith to Houston. Houston agreed to send Smith and a 6 man team, including Coker, to destroy the bridge and cut off escape or reinforcements for both armies. Coker and his companions burned the bridge.

Surrender of Santa Anna

Meanwhile, Santa Anna and his men retreated to their afternoon siesta, thinking that the battle that would occur here would take place at dawn during the following day. And Santa Anna failed to post sentries. This intelligence was taken back to Sam Houston. Houston’s generals, however, urged him to wait to attack the Mexicans the following day. But Houston would have none of it. When news of the destroyed bridge reached the Texas army, Houston led his men in a surprise charge forward against the unprepared Mexican troops. In 18 minutes the battle was over. The Mexican army had been routed to the shouts of “Remember Goliad” or “Remember the Alamo.” 700 Mexican soldiers had died and 730 were captured. This battle assured the independence of Texas. Only 9 Texas soldiers were killed. The next day, Santa Anna was captured and made to agree to a peace treaty and Texas became a Republic. A little siesta had cost Mexico the lands of Texas.

John Coker settled in Bexar County in 1841 and ended up founding the Coker community in San Antonio on lands granted him as a veteran. He died on January 4, 1861. Today the site of the battlefield has a monument and a museum worth the stop. The white tower monument rises high above the Texas low lands. The museum has a fascinating collection of documents and artifacts telling the story of Texas independence. It was an independence important to the history of the United States. You just have to get past the smell of oil on your visit.

Andy Thomas

Sources Used to Write This Blog:

Wikipedia articles on John Coker and the Battle of San Jacinto. See:

The Handbook of Texas Online articles on John Coker and the Battle of San Jacinto. See:

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

South Carolina's First Frontier River Town

In 1697 the South Carolina frontier was only a couple of miles outside the gates of the English settlement of Charles Town. In that year a group of Massachusetts Puritan settlers and missionaries led by the Reverend Joseph Lord founded the town of Dorchester on the banks of the Ashley River. It was more than 20 miles from Charles Town and helped to push back the Carolina frontier to the north and the west. The new town was laid out like a New England town with small lots that were distributed by a lottery system. A Puritan Congregational church was built and it was called the Old White Meeting House. The Puritans used the name of their old congregation in Massachusetts, Dorchester, to name their new town. Native Americans, who had established an overland trade path from the Middle and Upper Savannah River regions before these newcomers arrived, used the site, at the practical head of navigable waters on the Ashley River, as a jumping off point to make the river-bound trip to Charles Town. They called the site of the Dorchester settlement Boo-shoo-ee whose meaning is now lost to history.

The location of Dorchester on the frontier brought it both prosperity and hardship. Because of the commerce with Native Americans and plantation owners the river easily sustained the town for many decades. It became the hub for the early Indian trade. Native Americans and traders used the town to make transactions, usually by barter, and to move deerskins as well as themselves to and from the frontier and Charles Town. A wharf was built to accommodate canoes, and boats from the coast that brought in such products as rice and trade goods and shipped out such products as cane baskets and deerskins. A boat, known as a common boat and used for the Indian trade was used by the townspeople. This was a large canoe or periauger rowed by 7 or 8 slaves. It could carry as many as 500 to 700 deerskins to Charles Town. Later Fort Moore on the Savannah River, near current day North Augusta, and other towns that sprang up in the backcountry in the years that followed would drain away the deerskin trade, but for a long time Dorchester served as a main trade nexus and gateway to the Carolina frontier.

Rice cultivation also became an important means of enterprise in the 1730’s and 1740’s in Dorchester and surrounding areas. Because of this, indigo production, and the production of naval stores, more and more slaves came to live at Dorchester. In fact Africans outnumbered Europeans at least 3 to 1 by the 1750’s. These large numbers were hard to control and many slaves here ran off as evidenced by newspaper ads found in local colonial newspapers.

By 1752 the New England Puritan settlers had been overrun by other settlers who were mostly Anglican. In addition, these settlers' and the newcomer’s needs for large tracts of land to grow both rice and indigo were limited by the small lot system in the town. Most of the Puritans left the area to establish another town in Georgia. Many others left, but the town continued to flourish for several more decades with traders, planters, artisans, and slaves. An English traveler described Dorchester in 1774 as “a pretty good sized town.”It was during this time of prosperity that a large Anglican church, known as St George Parish Church was built. The solid brick tower of that church remains today.

With the danger of the French and Indian war, the British government built a powder magazine and a tabby wall fort to protect the magazine in Dorchester in 1757. The fort overlooked the river and was meant to stop either a French or Native American invasion force from using the Ashley River to attack Charles Town from behind. The remains of the fort are impressive and can still be seen today.

The Revolutionary War also created havoc for the town. The fort was turned into a military depot for the patriots. Fighters like Francis Marion operated from the fort and town throughout the war. Several skirmishes took place near the town. The British captured the fort for a while and occupied it until they were defeated and run out by Colonel Wade Hampton and General Nathanael Greene. Because of the devastation and turmoil of the war as well as the inexorable shift of the frontier to the north and west the town never recovered after the Revolutionary War. You can visit what remains today at Old Dorchester State Park to see reminders of what was South Carolina's first frontier river town.

Andy Thomas

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