Friday, March 27, 2009

James McPherson: Ranger and Rancher on the Southern Colonial Frontier

Print of Yemassee raid on SC frontier found in Library of Congress collection

James McPherson was a prominent rancher, a militiaman who fought in the Yemassee War, a captain and commander of South Carolina’s Southern Rangers, and a trusted frontiersman who helped in the founding of the Georgia colony. McPherson was actively engaged economically and militarily during the period between 1715 and 1750 and contributed to pushing back the colonial frontier and preparing the region of southern Carolina for future settlement. In addition, he led one of the earliest documented cattle drives from the South Carolina colony to the new colony of Georgia. He was a true harbinger of the men who would follow in subsequent western frontiers.

A watershed event in southwestern South Carolina, as well as in all of South Carolina during the early colonial period was the Yemassee War of 1715. The Yemassee and their Creek allies tired of their continued abuse by Carolina’s deer skin traders launched fierce raids on Good Friday, April 15th. They killed many traders, settlers, and livestock. They burned and ransacked frontier homes and outlying settlements. Stunned survivors of these devastating raids were forced to retreat to the walls of Charles Town. The South Carolina colony seemed to be on the verge of destruction.

The Carolinians fought back. They used a victory on the banks of the Salkehatchie River and another at Port Royal as a springboard to drive all the Yemassee out of the colony and across the Savannah River. The danger, however, was not over. The Yemassee’s powerful allies had included many of the Creek tribes in Georgia and Alabama. Carolina authorities desperately sought security for the shaken British colony. The key was found in forging an alliance with the Cherokee in the Appalachian Mountains. They were traditional enemies of the Creeks. With Carolina’s backing and weapons the Cherokee waged war on the Creeks. South Carolinians regained control over the frontier. The Yemassee retreated to Spanish Florida. There they were encouraged by the Spanish to harass British settlers on their former lands in South Carolina. Yemassee raids across the Savannah River during the next 13 years, 1715-1728, left the lands in southern Carolina unsafe. It won the area between the Savannah River and the Combahee and Salkehatchie Rivers the sobriquet of the “Indian Lands.”

In December 1716 the South Carolina government authorized an act for the appointment of rangers to guard the frontiers. Rangers were volunteers or men drafted from the milita who served a specific number of months patrolling the frontier on horseback. The rangers were mobile troops whose primary mission was to search for Native Americans who entered South Carolina as unwanted guests. If unwanted Native Americans were found on their patrols, the rangers were to demand them to leave and/or then, if all else failed, drive them out by force. A combination of small palisade forts and rangers prevented major attacks and stopped most raids by Native American tribes in the following years. By 1718 the rangers and forts were disbanded and abandoned as the Yemassee threat seemed to diminish. But new raids in 1723 and 1726 brought both the rangers and forts back.

Drawing by Bill Drath from Larry E. Ivers, British Drums on the Southern Frontier

James McPherson, of Scottish descent, who was born in 1688 and had served in the South Carolina militia during the Yemassee War, now appeared prominently upon the stage. McPherson became one of the earliest documented backcountry settlers in the lands that are today near the town of Yemassee and part of or near to Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton, and Jasper counties, South Carolina. He sought his livelihood as a cattle rancher. Ranching, although, it never fully recovered from the Yemassee War, was a quick and easy means to obtain wealth in colonial South Carolina before the arrival of rice and indigo. There was little expense or labor involved. Cattle were left to roam the grasslands and forests eating grasses and other wild foods. They were perfectly suited to the mild climate of the Carolina backcountry and were left to forge for food and fend for themselves during the winter. The cattle were rounded up by a minimum number of slaves. They were then, separated out to be slaughtered or driven to market. Butchered meat was packed in wooden barrels with a brine solution and sold to feed the growing population along the southern Carolina coast and/or shipped as provisions to the large sugar plantations in the British Caribbean. McPherson’s 500 acre cowpen was one of the largest cowpens in the area and was manned by McPherson’s family and slaves. Cowpens were areas that were defined by a combination of natural features such as streams or rivers as well as manmade features such as fences. The waterways and fences designated the area in which cattle could range free. McPherson’s Cowpens at the head of the Combahee River where the Salkehatchie and Little Salkehatchie Rivers converged was at a perfect spot to ship goods to market on the coast.

By 1726, in response to renewed Yemassee raids, a division of Carolina rangers were moved to Saltcatcher’s Fort which had been established on or near McPhersons’ Cowpens on the Salkehatchie River and named after the Saltcatcher Indians, a Yemassee group who had inhabited the spot until driven out in 1715. McPherson was appointed Captain of the rangers. Over time they became known as the Southern Rangers or McPherson’s Rangers. They went on mounted patrols scouring the lands between the stockade of Saltcatcher’s Fort on the headwaters of the Combahee to Fort Prince George on the Savannah River looking for Yemassee raiding parties. Fort Prince George or Palachacola Fort was a fort located on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River across the river from an old Native American town known as Palachacola Town. The site of the fort is in the extreme southwestern portion of Hampton County. It was a strategic point because all Native Americans entering lower South Carolina had to stop at the fort for permission from Charles Town authorities before continuing into South Carolina. A detachment of Carolina rangers who became known as the Palachacola Garrison were assigned to this fort. They patrolled the region north to present day North Augusta and Fort Moore (See previous blog: A Glimpse of the “True” Old West) and east toward the lands patrolled by McPherson’s Rangers.

In 1733 McPherson and the Southern Rangers were ordered south by the South Carolina government to support the founding of the Georgia colony. McPherson’s troops provided safe passage for General James Oglethorpe and the new settlers who established the city of Savannah. Later he was ordered to establish a fort in Georgia on the Ogechee River where two Native American paths crossed in order to protect the new town of Savannah. This fort became known as Fort Argyle. Mcpherson’s Rangers manned the fort and he became a close advisor to Oglethorpe.

By 1735, safely protected by the lands of the new colony of Georgia, South Carolina abandoned the ranger system and withdrew support for its rangers and forts. The colony of Georgia kept McPherson on for two more years as an advisor but in 1736 he returned to ranching in South Carolina. His close ties to the new colony of Georgia provided him with contacts useful to his ranch operation. And in 1736 he drove a herd a cattle, “all the way overland” from South Carolina to the new Scottish settlement of Darien in southern Georgia to provide the settlers there with fresh provisions of milk and meat. It was the first of any such documented long-distance cattle drives in the lower South and the South Carolina Gazette said that it created “joy” among the new Scottish settlers “to find the communication for cattle by land opened.” We wish we knew more about this drive over numerous deep, salty, intercoastal rivers, muddy marshes, and trackless woodlands. It sounds like quite an adventure. A cattle drive, not quite a rival to those cattle drives north by those hardy cowboys of Texas, but still an impressive accomplishment.

McPherson continued to buy cattle and drive them to Georgia to be slaughtered. He would later return to serve the colony of South Carolina as intrigue with Spanish Florida and then later French Louisiana emerged in the 1740’s and 1750’s. He served in revamped versions of the rangers in 1744, 1746, and 1751. McPherson lived more than half of his life as a solider and rancher on the frontier. During his lifetime the frontier shifted north, south, and west of the Carolina colony. McPherson, who was instrumental in that shift, lived to see the end of that era. He died at age 83 in 1771. James McPherson, ranger and rancher, is a suitable hero for southern South Carolina’s colorful frontier past.

Andy Thomas

Works I consulted for this Blog:

Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore, and George Rogers, Jr., The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume I, 1514-1861 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.

Verner W. Crane, The Southern Frontier: 1670-1732 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1929).

Larry E. Ivers, British Drums on the Southern Frontier: The Military Colonization of Georgia, 1733-1749 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1974)

For the cattle drive see: South Carolina Gazette (Charles Town, 1732-75), October 9, 1736 edition.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Battle of Alamance: The “Cultured” East Verses the “Barbarian” West

In America’s frontier history you can find a theme of the eastern establishment battling it out with the expanding western population. Much of this had to do with control and access of local government, taxes, and western lands and resources. It also had to do with the regulation of laws and justice. Two groups with the same name sprang up in South Carolina and North Carolina during the late colonial period to better “regulate” the frontier. Both groups would leave a legacy that would color America's Western Experience.

In South Carolina the problem for the Regulators was a lack of government in the backcountry. All matters dealing with land purchases, licenses and fees, and law and justice was administered from Charleston and the coastal areas of South Carolina. Backcountry residents had to travel quite a ways to take care of and respond to common and daily functions of government. They also found that without local government it was hard to pursue justice against frontier bandits and outlaws who had sprang up in its void. So, the South Carolina Regulators took the law in their own hands and began to administer vigilante justice to better regulate the backcountry. They were some of the first recorded vigilantes in America. Vigilante justice would be found on each subsequent frontier where there was a void of law. Within several years, due to the loud protests of the backcountry population for their daily inconveniences and their ongoing vigilante actions the government in Charleston relented and gave the backcountry new local governments in order to pacify the general population and to build relationships with those elite who would govern them. The South Carolina Regulators disappeared just before the coming of the Revolution.

In North Carolina the Regulators had another focus. Here their concerns were over the corruption found in local government where some elites collected exorbitant and illegal fees to amass their own fortunes. One who was notorious was Edmund Fanning the register of deeds for Orange County and a colonel in the local militia. Residents in the backcountry were also upset that the elite took the very best lands and often held onto it without settling. They were hoping to profit through land speculation. They routinely evicted any squatters. In addition, residents found that the system of taxation bore heavily on westerners. There was a provision in the law that said that payment in kind was prohibited. They could not trade their goods or services to pay public debts. Only hard currency or specie was accepted. The westerners had little specie and many could not pay their taxes or debts and were imprisoned as a result.

One of the reasons for collecting such high taxes was the building of Tryon Palace in New Bern on the coast. It was built between 1767 and 1770 for the royal governor of North Carolina: William Tyron. Today it is known as Tyron Palace. It was a very elegant Georgian structure with a sense of opulence and grandeur. It was also to be North Carolina’s first permanent capitol. But the 1000’s of pounds needed to build it had impacted relations between those on the coast and those on the backcountry frontier.

Not able to find relief from a corrupt government and excessive taxes by peaceful means the situation deteriorated into violence. The Regulators defiantly refused to pay what they saw as illegal fees and high, unfair taxes. They terrorized those who tried to administer the law by arresting people who could not pay in specie or pay at all and they disrupted court proceedings. By 1770 a group of mostly Scotch-Irish farmers calling themselves the Regulators descended on Orange County courthouse in Hillsborough, North Carolina and beat up several officers of the court and wrecked Edmund Fanning’s house. The North Carolina government on the coast, hearing of these actions, passed the Riot Act and proclaimed that actions of protest and violence were punishable by death. The Regulators then counter threatened to march on New Bern. This threat, however, led to Governor Tryon advancing into the backcountry with eastern militia made up of almost 1,000 men. He would face a disorganized Regulator force of nearly 2,000.

On May 16th, 1771 on the banks of the Alamance River about eight miles south of today’s Burlington, North Carolina, the Regulators rejected Governor Tryon’s request to disperse peacefully. The rebellion was immediately crushed. Over 300 Regulators were killed and the rest were scattered as they fled for safety. Only 9 militia men were killed and 61 wounded. Tyron took 15 prisoners and hung them to illustrate a point about the power of royal and eastern government and its control. Many Regulators who stayed were offered pardons by the governor in exchange for an oath of allegiance to the royal government. After this, reforms were made to combat the corruption in royal government in the backcountry. Fees and Taxes were also reduced. This helped to bring a period of peace before the Revolution.

Some of the Regulators chose to leave North Carolina. They chose to flee across the mountains and beyond the Proclamation Line of 1763 to eastern Tennessee where they could live their lives not encumbered by royal or eastern government. Some historians have pointed out that this conflict between royal prerogative and local prerogative as a precursor to the American Revolution And in fact, some of these men, formerly known as Regulators would shortly be known as the Overmountain Men, and would be the ones who re-crossed the mountains during the American Revolution and contributed to the Patriot Victory at the Battle of Kings Mountain.

The struggle between the tidewater and the Piedmont is an old theme in American history. Easterners tended to view Westerners as uncivilized backwoodsmen. Easterners also thought they had the legal and moral responsibility to ensure the West was settled in a orderly fashion. Many believed it was also their right to exploit the West and Westerners. Westerners resented these beliefs. They wanted local government and believed they knew best how to run their own affairs. They also hated absentee landowners who forbid settlement on their lands as they hoped to make money in land speculation. Likewise for others who hoped to exploit their hard work. Westerners really just wanted the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor without being exploited by elites whether they were eastern dandies or royal officials. The Battle of Alamance and its aftermath was the first of many calls in American history to flee to the West to seek liberty, freedom, and fortunes on the wild western frontier.

The work I consulted in helping me to write this blog was:

Middleton, Richard. Colonial America: A History 1585-1776, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Inc, 1992; second edition 1996, pp. 460-462.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Old Hickory Secures the Louisiana Purchase

The War of 1812 was mostly fought in the East. But the biggest American victory of the war took place in the West: New Orleans. The Battle of New Orleans should never really have taken place since a peace treaty between America and Britain had been signed 15 days earlier in Ghent, Belgium. News of it, however, had not yet reached the Crescent City and the surrounding lands of Louisiana by January 8th.

It was on January 8th, 1814 that British forces assaulted the Americans in an attempt to take New Orleans. Before that date the two sides maneuvered themselves for the battle. Admiral Alexander Cochran sailed in with a British force of more than 50 ships and almost 10,000 troops. These troops were led by Edward Pakenham. South Carolina’s own frontier backwoodsman, General Andrew Jackson arrived in the city in late fall 1814 after a resounding victory over the Creek Indians at Horseshoe Bend in Alabama. Old Hickory immediately took control of the American forces and began to create and shore up the defenses for the city.

After several skirmishes, Jackson built a fortified position from mud, wood, and cotton bales at Chalmette Plantation, just three miles from New Orleans. Jackson manned his position with a thin line of defenders made up of American troops, New Orleans Creole militia, Kentucky and Tennessee frontiersmen, former Haitian slaves, and pirates. There was almost 4,000 men facing nearly 8,000 British troops.

The British assault began at dawn on January 8th and they had hoped to use the morning fog to their advantage. But the assault was delayed until well after dawn and the fog lifted to reveal the British advancing on an open field toward the American fortification. The British had also hoped to get over the fortification wall with ladders but in the confusion of the morning the ladders had been forgotten.

The British were mowed down in the open field and never really made a dent in the American position. Pakenham was mortally wounded in the assault. His successor called retreat and the British hurried off the field leaving more than 2,000 soldiers killed, wounded, or captured. The Americans had 71 casualties with 13 dead, 39 wounded, and 19 missing. The victory was complete. Within a week the large British force had withdrawn and sailed to Biloxi. It was here that the British learned of the new peace treaty that ended the War of 1812. They promptly packed up and sailed for home.

So what did this battle that should have never been fought mean? It meant that Britain had to abide by the terms of the peace treaty. They had been turned back from New Orleans and so Americans had in a sense secured the Louisiana Purchase. The Mississippi River was now a safe, American artery of trade. American products shipped down Old Man River from all along its course had a free port of entry and an unblocked outlet to the wider world. This important natural resource was not controlled by any foreign government. This meant that the way was cleared for new migration and settlement along the Mississippi, as well as beyond in the West. There was a new sense of nationalism kindled in the breasts of Americans. Pride that they had once again defeated Britian. And Americans had a new hero. He was a man born on the South Carolina backwoods frontier who had a new western sense of focus. He was Andrew Jackson and he would first be elected president in 1828, and then again in 1832. After he served his terms as President he would become an advisor to later Presidents. In this capacity he would call for the annexation of Texas and give other advice on matters dealing with the West. On the 25th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans he would lay the cornerstone for what would later be called Jackson Square in that city. There a famous statue of him on horseback would be placed and become a landmark in the Crescent City.

I visited the Chalmette Battlefield by steam paddle boat in the spring of 1999 when I was in New Orleans for a conference. It was a nice, sunny day. On August 29, 2005, however, Hurricane Katrina brought no smiles to New Orleans or anywhere near it. Chalmette Battlefield was partially flooded and the visitor’s center was destroyed by the hurricane. Since then, the park has been reopened. It is an important national site dedicated to a place where Old Hickory stood tall and made sure that Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase would remain American.

Andy Thomas

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Fleur de Lis Waves Off English Westward Expansion

The English traders from Charles Town were a bold sort and they spread out from the South Carolina port city to cover what was then the wide and wild southwestern frontier (Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas). They were seeking deerskins and Native American slaves for their trading ventures. They sought to trade English goods among the various Native American tribes they encountered. Early on, they pushed their way to the Mississippi and even as far West as the Arkansas River. As they established trading partners they sought to cement alliances with them and push British influence and expansion into these areas of the old West. By 1690 they had established trading posts among the Alabamas, a Creek tribe that would one day give its name to a new American state. They traded guns and ammunition, as well as beads and axes for deerskins and slaves. But in 1702, the French, who had already extensively explored this area, established the colony of Louisiana with its first capitol in Mobile. So began a struggle in the South, also marked in other parts of North America, between the English and the French for control of the Continent.

The English influence among the Creeks remained strong for some years afterward, but things soon changed. In 1715 the Yemassee and their Creek allies rebelled against the English traders and their trading abuses. This was a serious blow to the Carolina colony, English trade, and English westward expansion. All English traders, living among the Creeks were killed at the start of the war. The Alabamas and other Creeks now needed a new trading partner to supply them with guns, ammunition, and other trade goods. In the turmoil that followed, the French, took advantage of this time to step in and take control of the trade with the Alabamas and the other Creek tribes and to also advance their own dreams of empire building.

In 1717 they built Fort Toulouse on the Coosa River on a high bluff controlling the river. The site is currently about ten miles north of the present day city of Montgomery. The fort was situated where the Coosa and the Tallapoosa come together to form the head of the Alabama River. This outpost was right in the middle of the Alabamas. It was only 5 days by boat on the Alabama River to Mobile. On the other hand, it was almost 500 miles and 27 days by land to Charles Town. The French strategically positioned the fort on a major intersection of the Lower Path. The Lower Path, a major Indian trading path, branched to the northwest to the Chickasaws and branched to the west to the Choctaws. With the establishment of Fort Toulouse the English were never again able to hold onto or effectively control or make alliances with the Creeks, Choctaws, or Chickasaws. They also worried about the influence of the French on winning the Creeks as a solid ally with enough support among them to march on the Carolina colony. This fort would be a thorn in the side of the English. Fort Toulouse effectively checked English expansion into the Old Southwest until 1763 and the end of the French and Indian War.

The outpost served several purposes. It was a diplomatic post for carrying on relations with the Alabamas and the Creeks. Because the post was small and did not expand very much the Creeks were happy to let it survive among them for their own reasons which were mainly trade and neutrality. After the Yemassee War the Creeks sought to stay neutral in the conflict between the English and the French. They hoped to play the two European powers against each other. Several years after the war they once again allowed the English to trade with them but also kept the English honest by allowing the French to trade with them from Fort Toulouse. The Creeks would not make any alliances that gave either European nation a strategic advantage and so, therefore manipulated both by taking a neutral stand. This in turn ensured their continued strength and survival until after the French and Indian War when they could no longer pit the French against the English.

The outpost also served as a missionary outpost. First Capuchin friars and then Jesuits used the post to evangelize the Alabamas and their Creek allies. But more importantly, it served as a trading post and an alternative to English traders. English trade goods at the time were cheaper and of better quality than the French goods. But the Creeks did not want to limit themselves to these goods because of their stance of neutrality. So, they traded their deerskins with French traders from Mobile and then finally, after 1718, French traders from the new and growing port of New Orleans.

Fort Toulouse was a small fort. It was also isolated, and poorly supplied. At first only about 20 to 30 French soldiers manned the outpost. After 1748, it expanded to include the families of these soldiers as well as others. Around 1751 about 140 French men, women, and children lived in and around the fort with about 40 of these serving as soldiers at the fort. This would be the case until 1763. In 1763, with the end of the French and Indian War, the fort was abandoned as part of the treaty negotiations. It would remain so until 1814. During the period of the War of 1812 the crumbling fort was rebuilt and re-named Fort Jackson in honor of General Andrew Jackson who had defeated the Creeks at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in 1814 and who had ordered forts to be built to secure the surrounding countryside. It was here also in 1814 that the Treaty of Fort Jackson was signed and the Creeks surrendered more than a half of all their lands to the Americans and became no longer an obstacle or threat to American settlers and American Westward Expansion. Without the French, and now without even the protection of some English diplomats who had sought to halt expansion with such pre-Revolutionary War efforts as the Proclamation of 1763, the Creeks had no choice but to comply with these American demands. By 1817 Fort Jackson was also abandoned and the area around it slowly reverted to nature. There the site of both French and American forts remained hidden until rediscovered in 1986.

I visited the site of the fort on a late summer’s day in 1998. By then a reconstructed version of Fort Toulouse has been built near the original site. I looked down at the peaceful Coosa River as the wind rustled the trees and the sun began its descent from the sky. I closed me eyes and imagined the Fleur de Lis floating gracefully in that warm summer air so many centuries before. The French flag floating over Fort Toulouse signaled France’s determination to stand firm in these lands and this stance had, for a while, temporarily halted and waved off the early tide of English and American westward expansion.

The best book on this subject and the work that I consulted is:

Thomas, Daniel H. Fort Toulouse: The French Outpost at the Alabamas on the Coosa, 1960, 1989: Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama.

Andy Thomas

Architect of Manifest Destiny: Maps, Flowers, and a National Scientific Institute

At Christmas time we are all familiar with his namesake: the Poinsettia. This beautiful tropical, red flower is named after the man who brought it home from Mexico to grow in his home state of South Carolina in 1828. Joel Roberts Poinsett (1779-1851) is almost forgotten other than that note in history. But he was much more than an amateur botanist and promoter of this flower. He served as the first United States minister to Mexico and later as the United States Secretary of War with President Martin Van Buren. He was also a mentor to fellow southerner and western explorer John C. Fremont. His thoughts on race and civilization served as a foundation for what would later be called Manifest Destiny. He expanded the size of the United States Topographic Bureau and supported explorations to better map the West. And because of his interest in natural history he helped to found the predecessor to the Smithsonian.

Poinsett, a statesman, physician, and amateur botanist was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1779. He was schooled in Connecticut and then later in Europe. He was very well-educated and very well-travelled before his return to the United States. He served his own state of South Carolina as state representative and as an United States Congressional Representative. He was then appointed special envoy to Mexico in 1822-23 because of his experiences in South America observing and offering assistance to various revolutionaries who hoped to overthrow Spanish rule and establish republican style governments. It was in Mexico, as an interested naturalist and observer, that he wrote Notes on Mexico (1822), one of several popular and official descriptions of this country. Because of his considered expertise he was later appointed as the first United States Minister to Mexico in 1825 and held that post until 1830. He continued to champion republican styled government in Mexico along with certain racial and imperialist views of Mexico and its relationship to the United States. These views would color later relations among these two countries and Poinsett was not favorably viewed by some Mexicans who rightly feared American expansion at the expense of Mexico.

It was during this time that he brought back the red flower known to the Aztecs as Cuetlaxochitl (meaning "skin flower.”) The flower had a connection to Christmas traditions in Mexico since the 16th century. There was a legend of a little, poor girl who received a visit from an angel at Christmas. The angel guided her to pick roadside weeds and place them before a church alter as a gift for baby Jesus. The weeds were then transformed into beautiful red flowers. These flowers, from the legend, became a traditional part of Christmas in Mexico. By 1836, they had also become a staple of American Christmas traditions, thanks to Joel Poinsett who grew them in his greenhouses in Charleston and then distributed them to friends and others.

Several Years after he returned from Mexico, Poinsett was picked by President Martin Van Buren as his Secretary of War (1837-41). Here he pushed for policies of continued Indian removal from the East and presided over the Seminole War in Florida. He also called for the expansion of the United States Topographic Bureau. He said that, “We are still lamentably ignorant of the geography and resources of our country.” This expanded institution would impel him to send explorations to the West to seek new mineral and natural resources and to create new accurate maps. One of the young men he had mentored, John C. Fremont, would become one of the greatest of western explorers. He helped Fremont, a fellow Southerner, to get a job mapping the Southern Appalachian Mountains for a proposed railroad from Charleston to Cincinnati. (The railroad was never built but one of the tunnels was started. Stumphouse Tunnel is an abandoned, partially finished railroad tunnel blasted into the mountains just above Clemson University.). With this experience in mapping rugged terrain and his patron, Fremont was later helped to find work with the Army Corps of Engineers to survey the Upper Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. His accurate mapping on this expedition and other western ones helped to produce maps which were carried by thousands of settlers and others on their rush to the West and in their fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

Poinsett, ever interested in natural science, asked for these expeditions to bring back new plants and animal specimens when encountered. This also led him, in 1840, to found the National Institute for the Promotion of Science and the Useful Arts. This was to be the forerunner to what would become the Smithsonian. Although, a South Carolinian, Poinsett was a devoted unionist with ever an eye on how to help the United States become one of the great civilized nations of the world. He passed away in 1851 and is buried at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg, Sumter County, South Carolina. His importance lies in many areas. His name is forever connected with Christmas and the red, Aztec flower we call the Poinsettia. However, his importance is much more than that. He was one of the earliest of the architect’s for Manifest Destiny. He colored the relationship between Mexico and the United States, a relationship that would eventually lead to the annexation of Texas and a war with Mexico. He expanded the United States Topographic Bureau and called on expeditions to map the West. He was a mentor to the great western explorer, John C. Fremont who would carry out much of that mapping. And he helped to found one of the great scientific and museum complexes in the world: the Smithsonian. When you think about, it’s a wonder we don’t know more about Poinsett, other than how his last name graces the most famous of all Christmas flowers.

See articles I consulted for this blog:

Freed, Feather Crawford. “Joel Poinsett: Agent of Empire, Patron of Science” (2008): Hidden Transcripts:

Volpe, Vernon L. “The Origins of the Fremont Expeditions: John J. Abert and the Scientific Exploration of the Trans-Mississippi West.” The Historian, (January 1, 2000): Phi Alpha Theta, History Honor Society, Inc. Gale Group: Farmington Hills, Michigan

Andy Thomas

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

Sunday, March 8, 2009

South Carolina’s Iron Horse Treks to the West

I recently visited the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia (January, 2009). It is a very nice museum with a diverse focus on history, natural science, and culture as relates to the state of South Carolina. I recommend it to you when you visit the capitol city. Plan to take at least 2 to 3 hours to tour its halls and exhibits.

One of the exhibits on display is a replica of The Best Friend of Charleston. The Best Friend of Charleston was the name of one of the world’s first operating and profitable steam locomotives. By the late 1820’s, with the growth of the port of Savannah many of the products from the backcountry once shipped to Charleston were now being shipped to Savannah. Charleston’s business leaders needed to recapture this vital trade. So they looked around for the latest in technology to do so and they found it in the steam locomotive. In 1827 these men chartered the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company. And on Christmas day 1830, the Best Friend made its first trip. The Charleston Courier newspaper describes the first trip as thus:

"The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space...leaving all the world behind. On the return we reached Sans-Souci in quick and double quick time, stopped to take up a recruiting party-darted forth like a live rocket, scattering sparks and flames on either side-passed over three salt creeks hop, step and jump, and landed us all safe at the Lines before any of us had time to determine whether or not it was prudent to be scared."

This train became the first locomotive to establish regularly scheduled passenger service in America. Tracks were laid west and in 1833 South Carolina had the longest railroad track in the world from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina. This was a little river port on the Savannah River across from the city of Augusta. The distance between Hamburg and Charleston was 136 miles. At Hamburg products from the backcountry and the West could be shipped to Charleston rather than down the Savannah River to the port city of Savannah.

The new train and rail road re-established Charleston’s trade and brought added prosperity. Of course, trains were very important to the development of the West, especially the great cattle drives to get beef to the city of Chicago and other growing Northern and Midwestern cities. These later railroads also helped to tie the country together as they did both in reality and in symbol such as the golden spike that married East and West at Promontory Point, Utah in 1869. As the 1840’s arrived, the South was very soon supplanted by this technology throughout the other parts of America. But for a brief shinning moment, South Carolina’s Iron Horse The Best Friend of Charleston made weekly treks to the West and back taking both passengers and trade items. It helped to revolutionize America’s transportation modes and was a harbinger of what would follow in the decades to come in building, developing, and tying the West to the rest of America.

Andy Thomas

Thursday, March 5, 2009

A Glimpse of the “True” Old West

I recently had a glimpse of the “True” Old West. On a fog-shrouded day just after Christmas (December 26, 2008) I looked out on the brown muddy waters of the Savannah River and the lands of Georgia which were beyond. I stood in Aiken County where present-day South Carolina Highway 28 crosses into Augusta, Georgia. Here, at a place named Beech Island, had been one of the most important Indian trading towns and the site of one of the most important frontier forts in South Carolina history.

On a bluff more than 100 feet above the Savannah River, Savanna Town grew to be one of the nexuses of trade between Native Americans and Englishmen from Charles Town. The town had been established by a band of the Shawnee known as the Savanna. They would eventually give their name to the river below. Since 1674, Charles Town traders had established a trading post here. Trading stores operated by competing merchants and traders were located in Savanna Town and this became a staging area for the long distance deer skin trade. Deer skins, just like beaver and other pelts, became quite the height of fashion in England and Europe. Deer skins were shipped out by the thousands from Charles Town during this time and many merchants, who served as middlemen, made their fortunes on this trade. The traders themselves were mostly of a more rough and untamed nature.

Trade goods from Charles Town were loaded and sent on packhorse and mule caravans to the West via established Indian trading paths. The traders established trading ties with the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw Indians. These English traders sometimes traveled as far west as the Mississippi and Arkansas Rivers searching for new trading partners. Just like Lewis and Clark served Jefferson and the new United States, some of the more cultured and educated traders served as the ambassadors for colonial South Carolina and the English government. They corresponded with the governor about trade prospects, the sentiment of Indians to various colonial actions, and tried to learn about the schemes of the French in Louisiana to capture the trade and to hurt the Carolina colony and the British empire.

The trader’s packhorses and mules returned from the West loaded with valuable deer skins that would be sent by the Savannah River to Charles Town via the inland passage through the coastal islands and then by ship to England. During the colonial period, when possible, freight was almost entirely shipped by waterways and oceans. But there were also other, more older, means. Before the establishment of the fort, Native Americans used an overland route from here to Charles Town. They would travel east and south until they found the South Fork of the Edisto River. Then they would cross the Edisto River just below Four Hole Swamp. From here it was on to Dorchester, another important trading post, and then finally on to the metropolis of the colony: Charles Town.

South Carolina’s major Indian war, the Yemassee War, precipitated by the trader’s abuses of the Indians took place in 1715. In 1716 a fort was build on the bluff at Savanna Town to command the great western trading paths that started on the other side of the river and to provide protection to tidewater South Carolina from the West (both Native Americans and the French).

Fort Moore had a barracks that could hold 100 men. It also had various other structures that supported its function. It would remain an important frontier bastion for the next fifty years until the newly established colony of Georgia (1733) became more settled and the frontier and West had moved further away. My visit here was made in early morning fog. Standing there on the bluff where town and fort had sat so many centuries before, as the fog cleared, I could see the brown flowing river below and had a glimpse of the banks of Georgia and what at one time was the “True” Old West.

Andy Thomas

Sunday, March 1, 2009

There's Something About Mountains

There’s something about mountains. They are majestic and strong as they stand tall against a blue, cloudless sky in spring and summer and yet, they are also serene and ethereal as their peaks fade in and out of the grey mists of fall and winter. One of my strongest memories from childhood was a summer vacation I took with my parents to Kings Mountain National Park in my home state of South Carolina, and then on to the Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina and Tennessee. Seeing mountains for the first time was a revelation to me. It changed my perception of the world. As a child I lived in what’s called the Lowcountry of South Carolina. It’s the swampy coastal plain of the state where the brown, sluggish Savannah River forms the natural and political barrier to Georgia in the west and southwest and where the foamy embrace of the Atlantic Ocean meets the land to the east and southeast. Most horizons in the Lowcountry are obscured by the low lay of the land and boxed in by a thick covering of oaks, scrub, and pines.

There is a lot to love about the Lowcountry but to see mountains floating on clouds and wide sweeping vistas from their heights was, and still is, exciting to me. As a little boy I was entranced by my trip to the Smoky Mountains. My horizons were broadened and changed. Even though some of the mountains I glimpsed were north and east of where I lived on the coastal plain, they still stood for something romantic and exciting in my young mind. They stood for the frontier. They stood for the West. One of my favorite television shows as a boy was Daniel Boone, still being shown on a local channel in afternoon reruns. Daniel Boone was set on the Trans-Appalachian frontier. But like Gunsmoke or Bonanza, two other television programs of my youth, its stories had some of the same elements as they had. It had frontiersmen, indians, and mountains. And in reality and myth, Boone trod these southern mountains when they were both wild and unexplored. On our family vacation we also visited Cherokee, North Carolina where the eastern band of the Cherokee nation is located. My brother and I had our picture taken with a Cherokee “chief” (dressed not in Cherokee style but in the imitation of some western chief). Daniel Boone had dealt with the Cherokee and other Native American tribes in his time. Here was the homeland of the Cherokee. At the time, because of my association of Daniel Boone and the Cherokee with other western television series, I thought of the Smokey Mountains as the start of the West. And the connection of mountains and the West was strong in my mind. And from it would spring an attraction to see and learn more about the West.

From time to time in my life I have found the West calling to me like a siren. I wanted to see, to learn, and to explore its treasures. I felt it calling when I attended Clemson University and could see the blue hazy peaks of the Southern Appalachians from the window of my 6th floor dorm room. It felt it calling when I took a history course on the American West and began to have a new understanding of frontiers and the West. I explored the question of where the West began. I concluded it began where the Atlantic Ocean touched the shores of the New World and where the first visitors from the Old World met the strangeness of North America. I then began to understand the overlapping of subsequent frontiers that led from the eastern shores to the western ocean. This was exciting. It meant that even my part of the Lowcountry had been a part of the frontier and the Old West for some time during South Carolina’s colonial period. This led me to a Masters in history at Winthrop University with a focus on South Carolina’s colonial period. My thesis dealt with how the British colonial governor of South Carolina, James Glen, dealt with the Cherokee during his appointment.

My understanding and appreciation for the frontier and the West changed as I learned more about it and then finally got to visit areas of the Southwest and Far West. I felt it calling when my wife and I took our honeymoon in Arizona and Utah. Now, I was far beyond the Appalachian Mountains. Here was the West of red deserts and yarning canyon lands. Here was the West of vistas that stretched my mind and heart. Here was the West of the Navajo and the Hopi. A new sense of wonder and enchantment was kindled in me. I felt the West calling again when my youngest brother and I took a trip west to see parts of west Texas and southern New Mexico. We hiked into the majestic desert islands of the Guadalupe Mountains, were amazed by the glaring expanse of White Sands, and knew by the feel of the heat and the play of the light and shadows that Big Ben National Park was in the “true” West. I was in love now with mountains, deserts, and canyons, as well as the world of Native Americans. I felt it calling in the books of Tony Hillerman. These works were set in the Four Corners’ world of the Navajo and touched by a sense of the western world’s nature and ethos. I am sad he has passed away and I wish he could open that world again with one more story set in that timeless desert place.

I felt it calling when I read Out West by Dayton Duncan and his trip to retrace the route of Lewis and Clark. This was my Kerouac before I read On the Road. When I did read Kerouac’s classic, it also kindled in me the same lust Out West did to wander and see what was beyond my low, flat, confining Lowcountry horizons. I wanted to see the Plains, the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest that Dayton Duncan had described. I was drawn into the Lewis and Clark story and with maps folded out on my kitchen table I imagined and drew out my own journey west following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. I too wanted to cross the country like Kerouac. I too wanted to stand at Lemhi Pass like Duncan and Lewis and Clark before him. Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage and then Ken Burns documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition soon followed and did nothing but heighten my desire to go West.

I felt it calling again in San Antonio, with the damp feel of the River Walk, the fiery taste of chilies, and the cooling tartness of Grande Margaritas. Here was the Alamo that had held the cool courage of Travis, Bowie, and Crocket. I felt it calling me as I went on trips to San Diego and San Francisco. These cities sat at the end of the trail on the golden shores of the Pacific Ocean. These beautiful metropolises were exciting. They were western and they still felt imbued by frontier culture. And yet, I had flown to both and I realized that I had missed the journey overland. I missed seeing the changes in the land and the changes in the horizons. I began to realize I had to take the ultimate road trip West (as well as other smaller journeys). I had to go West by car exploring the changes in horizons as I moved along just as Lewis and Clark noted those changes. In planning and making these western journeys I wanted to take the time to explore the history and culture of the American West. I wanted to also explore the connections between the West, the frontier, and my homeland of the South (especially South Carolina).

So, I have created this website for that purpose. As I take trips, read, and explore these journeys and connections I will update this site and try to add my own insights, understanding, and pictures of where I have gone, what I have seen, and what I know. I am ready for this journey, both real and imaginary. Ahead of me are the mountains of my youth. And for me there’s always something about mountains.

Andy Thomas