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

Sources used to write this blog:

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Where is Lewis (& Clark) When You Need Them?

It was getting dark and late and Karen and I were arguing on which way to go. We had been searching all that winter afternoon in December 2008 for roads that would take us to an elusive historical marker. We had already travelled our share of lonely two lane roads and winding dirt roads. Both of us had just about had enough. We came to a crossroads and argued on which way to go. In the end, we choose a direction that we later found out took us away from our desired destination.

We were trying to reach a historical marker that stood about a mile from the site of Captain John Marks home. The home’s site sat on a ridge overlooking Millstone Creek, a small rivulet that feeds the Broad River in Georgia. The site is difficult to get to but the marker is within a mile of its location. John Marks was a Revolutionary war veteran and the stepfather to Meriwether Lewis, the famous American explorer. He married Lewis’s mother Lucy in 1780 after her husband died of pneumonia the year before. In 1785-1787, when Lewis was eight or nine years old, he and his mother and siblings came south from Virginia traveling through North and South Carolina to go live with John Marks on the Georgia frontier. They migrated to a spot on the Broad River near today’s Elberton, Georgia in eastern Oglethorpe County. I had read about a marker and seen a picture of the marker (with this guys motorcycle parked in front of it) on an internet site and I had tried to contact the person who had posted it but was unsuccessful. He had given directions to the marker on the website, but they were unclear. That day, Karen and I set out to find it we stopped at a county gas station in the area and asked the guy behind the counter if he could help us find Goose Pond, which was near the place where the marker was erected. He hesitated and then told us that, “the roads are notoriously bad there.” He said he could not help us to find it even though he had lived in the area all his life. Little did I know what he meant by “bad.” Karen and I pressed on for a little while longer, but finally, Karen and I, made our fateful decision at the crossroads and, unsuccessful, we turned back toward Columbia, a two hour plus ride.

Once home, I decided to be "smart" and consult Map Quest on the Internet. On Map Quest the crossroads led in one direction toward Millstone Road which we had travelled and in the other direction, which unbeknown to us at the time, was Goose Pond Road. Today the area is called Goose Pond because there was a pond there where wild goose gathered in colonial times. The area had been ceded by the Creek and Cherokee Indians in 1773. General George Mathews of Augusta County, Virginia had petitioned the Georgia government for land there he had spied after serving in Georgia during the Revolution. He found the soil rich and he also saw many opportunities for making a living. He called for other Virginians to follow him south to Georgia. These Virginians established the prosperous community of Goose Pond for several decades after the Revolution. John Marks heard the call and decided to go south. The young Meriwether Lewis joined him and lived here for several years. Lewis learned to hunt and became an accomplished hunter here. A family friend said of him that, “He acquired in youth hardy habits and a firm construction. He possessed in the highest degree self-possession in danger.”According to Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage, he learned to identify trees, bushes, shrubs, grasses, and various fishes, animals, birds, and insects. It was during this period that he became literate and started to read and write. But this rough, wild region did not have teachers who could give him the education he or his parents desired and so he was sent back to Virginia for that.

I made a second attempt, alone, at finding Goose Pond in January 2009. It was a Saturday that the sky had decided to rain cats and dogs. I hit the road early and battled raindrops all the way to the crossroads. I was happy. I was convinced I was going to see the marker once I turned onto Goose Pond Road. How could I miss it? The paved road faded to muddy dirt. I followed this road for about a mile. The road seemed to get worse as the rain beat down on my Durango. Then, in front of me was the reason that the roads in Goose Pond were “notoriously bad”. In front of me a flood of rushing water had buried the road. It was white, frothy, and angry looking as brown water flowed over the road. Was this a washed out bridge? How deep was it? I considered trying to cross it but kept seeing images of those “brilliant” people who also tried to cross roads with rushing waters in front of them and remembered with a shiver how their vehicles always seemed to be whisked away by the powerful force of the rushing waters. I had to turn around and get back to the main road. Even that seemed tricky. And so, I carefully backed up and turned around the best I could avoiding the rapidly filling ditches on either side of me and once again made my way back to Columbia in a grey, pounding rain.

Meriwether Lewis went on to receive his education in Virginia. He returned to Georgia several times afterward but sometime near 1792, Captain Marks passed away and Lewis moved his mother and all of her children, slaves, animals, and possessions back to Virginia never to return again.

I made one last attempt at finding the elusive marker. It was December 2009. Once again, I was on the dirt road. Karen was with me. It was sunny and dry. Where the waters had run the year before was a crude bridge crossing a rushing creek or steam. Was this Millstone Creek? Once again, we wandered for miles up this dirt road, known as Goose Pond Road, searching for the marker. Once again, like Brigadoon, the maker eluded us. Three strikes and you are out! Where is Lewis (& Clark) when you need them?

So, any lessons learned? Better planning? GPS? Better directions? All of those are true and need be applied but even more, what I really, learned on my trips to Goose Pond was how wild and untamed this country still is. Yes, there are roads. But in this small area of the South you can still see how it could challenge those who settled here. It was even wilder in Lewis’s day. He had a good laboratory to find out about what a frontier was all about. He learned to hunt. He learned to identify plants and animals. There is no doubt this formative time helped him in the challenges that the Lewis and Clark expedition posed. It sure gave me some real insight into his past. I really look forward to visiting, seeing, and blogging about more Lewis and Clark sites. I just hope they are not as hard to find as the elusive marker for John Marks site.

Andy Thomas

Sources used in writing this blog:

Undaunted Courage by Stephen E. Ambrose

Article on Goose Pond in The New Georgia Encyclopedia:

Article on the John Marks site in Athens Banner-Herald: