Tuesday, March 10, 2009

An Early Frontier in South Carolina

Once South Carolina’s tidewater frontier had been pierced by planters and slaves, the next subsequent frontier (depleted of most Native Americans for decades) began to be filled up with settlers from the Old World and the New. They arrived here between 1730-1775. Germans, Swiss, and Irish swarmed into the Backcountry enticed by inducements to settle in such places as Purrysburg, Orangeburg, and Williamsburg. In addition, Scotch-Irish, Germans, North Carolinians, and Virginians came south from Philadelphia on the Great Wagon Road looking for new lands and livelihoods. This frontier, named the Backcountry, included the place where I had been born and spent most of my life Fairfax, South Carolina. Fairfax is in Allendale County which is the newest created county in the state: 1919. Most people would not see Allendale County, South Carolina as a frontier land. However, in the colonial period and beyond Allendale County had been a part of the Old Barnwell District and its currently defined boundaries sit on the edge of the Lowcountry in a transitional geographical zone. In its northern reaches the land gives way from low lands and swamps to low hills and rises. During the colonial period this place, minus the Native Americans, was as wild and unsettled as other subsequent frontiers.

One early settler can attest to this lost frontier. Tarleton Brown and his family came to the area in 1769 when it was still sparsely settled. His family moved from Albemarle County, Virginia the same place where Thomas Jefferson and Lewis Clark were born and lived. Brown gives us a snapshot of his youth along the Savannah River. His home was on a small creek near the present day crossing of the Savannah River by Highway 301. Across the river was Burton’s Ferry, a well-known gateway to Georgia and the West. The location of his home was close to the present town of Allendale on the South Carolina side of the river. His memoirs give us a good feel for what the area was like during the frontier era. Notice here in the following excerpt from his memoirs the importance of cattle and horses, staples of western culture. The horses were perhaps renegade and may be traced to an earlier period of this frontier when packhorses carried deer skins and other items in the wide-spread Indian trade between Charles Town and the lands to the Southwest (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas).

Excerpt from Tarleton Brown‘s Memiors:

My father, William Brown, was a planter in Albemarle County, Virginia, where I was born on the 5th day of April 1757. Flattering inducements being held forth to settlers in the rich region of South Carolina contiguous to the Savannah River; and my uncle, Bartlet Brown, having already moved and settled himself two miles above Matthew’s Bluff, on the Savannah River; my father brought out some Negroes, and left them with his brother to make a crop; and in 1769, a year afterwards, my father and family, consisting of eleven persons, emigrated to this country and settled on Brier’s Creek, opposite to Burton’s Ferry. We found the country in the vicinity very thinly inhabited. Our own shelter for several weeks to protect us from the weather was a bark tent, which served for our use until we could erect a rude dwelling of logs.

Having cleared a piece of land, we planted, and found the soil to be exceedingly fertile in the river swamp, producing abundant crops. The country was literally infested with wild beasts, which were very annoying to the inhabitants - killing the stock and destroying crops - and were so bold, daring, and ravenous, that they would come into our yards, and before our doors take our sheep and poultry. Indeed, it was dangerous to venture out at night beyond the precincts of our yards unarmed. We used every device to exterminate them, and ultimately effected our object by setting traps and poisoned bait.

The forest abounded with all kinds of game, particularly deer and turkeys - the former were almost as gentle as cattle. I have seen fifty together, in a day’s ride in the woods. The latter we saw were innumerable, and so very fat that I have often run them down on horseback. The range for the cattle was excellent; it was a very common thing to see two hundred in a gang in the large ponds. In any month in the year beeves in the finest order for butchering might be obtained from the forest. It was customary then to have large pens or enclosures for cattle under the particular charge or direction of some person or persons; I was informed by one of those who kept a pen at Kings Creek, that there had been marked that spring seven hundred calves. Our produce for market was beef, pork,staves, and shingles. There was but little corn planted in that section then; and indeed,there was scarcely any inducements to plant more than sufficed for our own consumption,there being but few mills in the country, and consequently very little demand for the article.

From the fact of the new and unsettled state of the country, it may readily be inferred that the roads were very inferior; in truth, they were not much better than common bridle paths; and I feel confident in asserting that there were not, in the whole Barnwell District, any conveyances superior to carts or common wood slides. There were a great many wild horses running at large in the forest when we first settled in the district, a number of which were caught and sold by various individuals, who pursued exclusively the business for a livelihood.” (Memoirs of Tarleton Brown: A Captain in the Revolutionary Army, published posthumously in 1862, reprinted in 1999, Barnwell,South Carolina: Barnwell County Museum and Historical Board, pp.1-2).

Here the snapshot of the past ends. We have more questions and wish it could have given us more details. But what is included in this written record is a tantalizing picture of South Carolina’s colonial frontier period.

Andy Thomas

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