The Jewel of the Lowcountry

There is a place abounding in wildlife and natural beauty, with rivers, streams, marshes, and islands, where daily life revolves around the ebb and flow of the tides. Its a road less traveled into one of our country’s last unspoiled places, rich in folklore, history, and spectacular beauty. These pages capture the very essence of this place we affectionately call the Lowcountry.

While the tide surges twice daily to every corner of Beaufort County, it continues to insulate and distinguish this area from other counties within the state. It is this very isolation that has forged Beaufort’s strong and unique character. The tide’s bounty is legendary. Shrimp, oysters, and crabs have sustained this area for generations, elevating Beaufort County to prominence making it the “Jewel of the Lowcountry.”

As early as 4000 B.C. native Indians were living in the Lowcountry. A walk through the forest preserve in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island reveals an old “Indian shell ring” which is the remains of one such early settlement.

Written history began about 500 years ago with the discovery of the area by the Spanish. Beaufort County was one of the earliest landings on the North American continent, second only to St. Augustine.

Because the seaport of Beaufort is located at the head of one of the largest natural harbors along the Atlantic coast, it was an ideal spot for the Spanish and French explorers to land. These French explorers visited this area long before the English arrived. In 1562, Captain Jean Ribaut and his Frenchmen entered the sound which he named Port Royal. They settled near the present town of Port Royal. However, when Ribaut returned to France for reinforcements, the soldiers who were left behind revolted, built themselves a ship and sailed for France the next year.

The Spanish then built a fort on Parris Island and called the new settlement there Santa Elena. It was about 1576, under attack from Native Americans, that Santa Elena was abandoned. Archaeologists have determined the location to be on what is now the Parris Island Golf Course.

In 1587, England’s Elizabeth I sent Sir Francis Drake to drive the Spanish out. They were successful and South Carolina was again left to the Indians. In 1711, Beaufort was established by the British and became the second oldest town in South Carolina, after Charleston. Both Beaufort County and its county seat of Beaufort were named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort, one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina.

Beaufort is a grand old Southern town who has maintained her magical charms of yesteryear. She’s come through mighty wars, hurricanes, and earthquakes, and like many women with grit and determination, has emerged in all her finery, stronger than ever.

Walking beside the river, I feel the peacefulness that is Beaufort. The feeling continues on a stroll down shady streets in the Old Point, where stately homes exude a charm and elegance of a bygone era. This cozy town has not always known life so serene. Walking past the Berners Barnwell Sams house I notice the original slaves quarters now converted to apartments. There is a blacksmith shop,  a cookhouse, and a laundry, but also I see it as the hospital it became during the Northern occupation. As I look up I can imagine a wounded Civil War soldier being carried inside.

Without a doubt, the most famous house is Tidalholm, the setting for movies like The Big Chill and The Great Santini, based on Beaufort resident Pat Conroy’s books. Situated on the easternmost point in town with lawns sloping down to the river, its location is breathtaking. This was the summer home for the Fripp family, who built it in 1856 to escape the heat and mosquitoes plaguing them on their St. Helena Island plantation. Edgar’s brother, James, owned the house at the time of the War.

Upon his return, he found the house on the auction block being sold for taxes. According to the story told to me by Nancy Ricker Rhett, he was unable to raise the money and stood in the crowd with tears running down his cheeks. A Frenchman, sympathetic to the Southern cause, purchased the house, then presented the deed to Mr. Fripp. The Frenchman returned to France before Mr. Fripp could repay him. The family has a letter from the Frenchman documenting the story.

As the years went by, the home was used as a guest house for writers, artists and other notables who wintered there in luxury. In those days one “dressed” for dinner, gathered for cocktails on the porch or in the drawing rooms and dined on a superb gourmet meal that could last for hours. Today it is a private home.

St. Helena’s Episcopal Church, established in 1712, is one of the most picturesque in the country. Construction began in 1724 using ballast brick from England which was covered with stucco. It was used as a hospital during the Civil War, and flat tombstones were placed across pews to serve as operating tables. Looking closely at the base of the church near the back gate, I discover the grave of one of Beaufort’s founders, Col. “Tuscarora” Jack Barnwell. Captain Thomas Nairne was the original leader of the English settlement, but Barnwell took over after Nairne was killed by Indians. A walk inside reveals Capt. John Bull’s silver communion service given in 1734 to the church in memory of his wife who was killed by the Yemassee Indians. I am told that it still is used on special occasions.

The Baptist Church of Beaufort also served as a hospital during the Civil War, or the “Wah,” as locals call it. Records show that in 1857, slave membership there was 3,317 while whites numbered just 182. It’s a stunning example of Greek Revival Period architecture, featuring highly ornate and exquisite plasterwork inside, all done by skilled slaves.

It doesn’t take long to feel the connection here between the people, their land, the river, and their history. Simple pleasures and stories are everywhere and life becomes an adventure to be explored and discovered each day. Being still for a moment, I can hear the Spanish mission bells, and sense the presence of slaves in the vast fields of St. Helena Island picking cotton and dreaming of better days.

Continuing a walk-up Craven Street, I see “The Castle,” more formally known as the Joseph Johnson House. Built-in 1850, stories around town say it is haunted by the ghost of Jean Ribaut’s dwarf drummer boy. Occupants will never quite say for sure whether they’ve seen the ghost or felt his presence, but a childhood friend of Nancy Ricker Rhett’s was locked in the basement for four hours. Nancy says, “Ask her!”

In November of 1861, the first major naval battle of the War Between the States was fought, the Battle of Port Royal. Two Confederate forts, Beauregard and Walker, were on either side of Port Royal Sound. Yankee ships circled and shelled the forts in what black folks call “the day of the big gun shoot.” The Yankees won. Beaufortonians fled in “The Grand Skedaddle,” even leaving food on the table in their haste. They grabbed only those valuables they could carry, buried some in the back yard and fled with their house slaves. Their field hands remained on the islands, more isolated than ever. In a way, this was a blessing, for it kept their Gullah culture intact.

Owners of “The Castle” buried their valuable crystal, china, and silver under the dirt floor of the wash house before they fled. The home was used as a hospital and the washhouse became a morgue. After the war, the owners returned and dug up all their valuables intact; no one wanted to disturb the dead.

As I drive away from town past heavily wooded areas, I can almost see Francis Marion deep within, planning his next encounter with the British. At the plantation gates along the winding roads, I picture a team of trotting horses drawing a carriage beneath the graceful branches of moss-laden live oaks.

Cultivation of cotton, rice, and indigo in the 17th and 18th centuries brought great wealth to Beaufort, which was already rich in many ways. Its waters teem with fish, oysters, crab, and shrimp, and the soil was rich for cultivation. Many were needed to work the land, so as the slave trade grew from the coast of Africa, so did the black population of the area. Our African-Americans here created their own language, a mix of Elizabethan English and African. It’s called Gullah and subsequently, so is their culture — unique to this area and in all the world.

Prior to the Civil War, Beaufort was one of the wealthiest towns in the United States and was commonly regarded as the Newport of the South by wealthy planters who built grand summer homes here. It was here that breezes were cooler and social life abounded.

With a wealth of servants to handle the housework, the residents of these grand homes enjoyed busy social lives, attending balls, the races, and lovely dinner parties. The Hunting Club, too, offered hours of relaxation for the men who religiously enforced the club’s rule that no man go home sober.

While the Civil War was raging throughout the South, Beaufort was spared because General Sherman’s troops had occupied the town. Rather than destroy Beaufort, they turned churches and homes into offices, morgues, and hospitals. Although she was spared, her prosperity came to a sudden halt. During reconstruction, the economy was nonexistent. Carpet baggers and scalawags ravaged the town. Confederate money was hardly worth saving, and many of the grand homes were sold for taxes, which few could raise.

It was not until the late 60s that tourists began to discover Beaufort’s magic. Buildings were painted and restored as the town began to realize they had something very special. And special it is.

After the period of reconstruction, Beaufort began to recover a little. Mining for phosphate brought some prosperity. But the Great Storm of 1893 literally drowned all that, along with thousands of people. Then cotton farming was wiped out by the boll weevil in early 1919. World War I came along, then the Great Depression. World War II saw the expansion of the military in our area, bringing some economic relief.

The Beaufort of today has tranquility that is at variance with its past. Six historical flags have waved over its gentle terrain. The great water oaks saw the British set up their naval operations during the American Revolution and gazed down on young men who came to settle “honor” at the notorious dueling spots of the day. These are the same woods where the Spanish mission bells tolled and echoed the voices of slaves at work in the fields. This is where the Yemassee Indians made their camp and sat by the water’s edge to eat snails and oysters.

To walk through this town with its woods and gardens is to step into history. It’s a place for patient viewing, to feel the richness of the past and imbibe in nature in all its splendor. To rush is to deprive oneself of a spiritual awareness that’s here for the inhaling.

Over sixty-eight large islands lie just off the coast of Beaufort, and more than two hundred smaller islands, at least a half-acre in size, speckle the salty tidal marshes. As the tide flows in and out, the tens of thousands of acres are visible at ebb tide and at high tide become invisible. This area has been called the Sea Islands since Europeans first set foot here almost five centuries ago. From the air, these islands appear to be sparkling little jewels as the water splashes against the marsh grass.

These islands are part of the great Sea Island complex that extends from the Santee Delta, north of Charleston, over one hundred miles south to the Savannah River. The largest island, Port Royal, so named by Jean Ribaut, supports the town of Beaufort on its easternmost tip. Other large islands include Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Hunting, Fripp, St. Helena, and Ladys.