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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  1. Your immense knowledge of history and the lowcountry amaze me.

  2. OK..I have an ancestor that ran away from being an indentured servant for the Salzburgers in Georgia, and took off into the Congaree and then reappears in 1966. Is there anyway to determine what he might of been doing or records of the forts and settlements in that area at the time. Thanks Lacy Koontz.

  3. There is a book from the 1940's (but still very useful)that talks about early settlements in South Carolina.It is called The Expansion of South Carolina by Robert Meriwether. This might be a useful starting place, looking at the various settlements that sprang up in South Carolina following the 1730's.