Thursday, July 29, 2021

Hunting Island, South Carolina


Hunting Island Lighthouse

Beaufort, South Carolina, is a great place to explore history. But there are other things to do in the area. The town sits on one of the sea-islands of South Carolina, so there are a lot of ways to go out and enjoy nature. One place to visit is nearby Hunting Island State Park.

Salt Marsh

Hunting Island is a 5000 acre barrier island, fifteen miles east of Beaufort. It was designated as a state park in 1935. As a result it is one of the last undeveloped islands in the state. The area was originally a hunting preserve for the white plantation owners and businessmen in the area. At that time it could only be arrived at by boat. In 1935, the Civilian Conservation Corps built roads and bridges connecting it to Beaufort. Today, Hunting Island offers campgrounds, a beach with facilities and paved parking, a nature center, and boardwalk paths through the salt marsh and palmetto forest.

One place to make sure to visit is the Hunting Island Lighthouse. The first one was built in 1859, but was burnt down by Confederate forces during the Civil War. The current lighthouse went into operation in 1875 and was active until 1933. The level 2 light was placed atop the 130 foot tall cast-iron tower. When you visit, you can climb the 167 steps to an observation deck that offers views across the sea islands from Beaufort to Hilton Head.

At the southern end of Hunting Island, there is another must see place to visit. Park in the lot near the nature center. Stop in at the center, walk the pier and use the facilities. Then head for the path at the east end of the lot. Walk for about three-quarters of a mile, and cross the bridge, here you will find an amazing beach. It looks almost apocalyptic, like a scene from the end of Planet of the Apes. Up and down the beach, trees are sticking up, half buried in the sand. They look like they have been washed ashore, but it is the opposite that is true. These trees were once part of the palmetto forest that fills the sea islands. But over time, the ocean has moved inland, killing and burying them. 

Nature Preserve Pier

Hunting Island is a great place to explore the natural setting of South Carolina’s coast. Whether you enjoy sitting on a beach, walking through a salt marsh, or a palmetto forest, this park offers a wonderful time and great experiences.

Nuts and Bolts:
Hunting Island is 15 miles east of Beaufort along route US-21.
Entrance fees are $8 - adults/ $5 - SC Seniors/ $4 - children

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Reconstruction Era National Historical Park- Beaufort SC


Beaufort, South Carolina, played a unique role during the Civil War. It was captured by the Union Navy in November 1861, and remained under U.S. control for the rest of conflict. Abolitionists were looking beyond the war towards the end of slavery. Beaufort became a place where many of them came to try and figure out what should happen when the war was over. Thus was born the Port Royal Experiment.

Today Beaufort is home to a unique national park. The Reconstruction Era National Historic Park is alone in being dedicated to an era in history, rather than to a place or specific event. The park is split into three parts, The Visitor’s Center in Beaufort, Penn Center on St. Helena’s Island, and Camp Sexton in the town of Port Royal. Its headquarters are located in the historic section of Beaufort. That is the place to visit and get started in exploring this little known history of the United States.

When the U.S. Navy sailed into Beaufort in November of 1861, the white landowners fled the city. They left behind their mansions and plantations. Most importantly, they also left behind around ten thousand enslaved people. These descendants of the Africans who had been kidnapped and brought to America were now in a kind of limbo. The Emancipation Proclamation had not yet been written or signed, so legally, they were not “free”. At the same time, no one in the U.S. government or military had the desire to maintain slavery. So, they opened up the area to people from the north, who brought ideas about how to integrate these formally enslaved people into the rest of the population. They did this, because they hoped that what happened here would set a precedent for the rest of the south after the war.

The city of Beaufort was the center of the plans and trials of how to carry out bringing the formerly enslaved into the free population of the United States. In town, the mansions and businesses were auctioned off to pay taxes to the local government. Those taxes could only be paid in U.S. dollars, so southerners could not claim them, but northerners could. And they came down with a lot of cash, and ideas. One person who joined the bidding was Robert Smalls, the escaped African American, who came down and bought the house that had once belonged to man who owned him.

Robert Smalls House

Properties in town were not the only ones put up for auction. The plantations were also seized for non-payment of taxes. These were auctioned off in small lots, and given to the formally enslaved people who lived on them. Payments were made as they worked the land, and sold farm goods for cash. This legacy of land ownership by Blacks in the low-country still exists today.

Cope Museum at The Penn Center

A second major aspect of the Port Royal Experiment was education. In 1862, the Penn School was established on St. Helena Island. It was developed to teach the formally enslaved people how to read and write, arithmetic and also to prepare them for higher education. It became the primary school for Black children in the Port Royal area. In the early 20th century, the focus of the school shifted to follow Booker T. Washington’s model of industrial education. Higher level academics were dropped and classes in carpentry, masonry and domestic services were added.

Darrah Hall

During the Great Migration and World War II, many African Americans left the low-country, heading for places that offered better jobs, and some safety from racial terrorism. This dropped the school-age population in the area. In 1948, the Penn School was re-designated as the Penn Community Service Center. It became a center of community and political organizing. I was a place where integrated groups of people could meet without being disrupted or coming under attack. It was used as a retreat and place of planning by many civil rights groups including the SCLC and Martin Luther King Jr. In 2006, the Penn Center became part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

Retreat Pier

Butler Building

The Brick Church

The third aspect of the Port Royal Experiment was the creation of African American troops to fight in the Union Army. One place where this happened was at Camp Sexton, in what is today Port Royal. Thousands of freed Black men were recruited, and brought to Camp Sexton to train to enter the military as soon as they were allowed. Camp Sexton is also where the first place in the south where the Emancipation Proclamation was read. On January 1 1863,  ten thousand freed Blacks came to Camp Sexton, to hear the reading and celebrate their freedom.

The Small Chapel

Camp Sexton

The work done by the Port Royal Experiment should have laid the groundwork for the Reconstruction Era. Pardons by Lincoln and Johnson, followed by a weakened federal presence allowed the old plantation class to regain power, using terror such as the KKK to keep African-American voters from the polls. We will never know what might have happened if the things that worked in the Port Royal Experiment had been applied throughout the country.

Nuts and Bolts

The Reconstruction Era NHP is free. It offers tours of Beaufort, Darrah Hall at Penn Center and Camp Sexton. Check their web site for schedule.

The Penn Center and its Cope Museum charges $10 to enter.

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Beaufort SC

 The Low Country of South Carolina is a unique place in the United States. It is an area of islands and deltas along the sea coast. Its geography is beautiful and its history is rich, and Beaufort SC is a great place to stay when you come to explore the area.

Beaufort sits on Port Royal Island, near the mouth of the river of the same name. It developed in the pre-civil war era as a center of sea cotton and rice plantations. The plantations, and the enslaved people who worked on them, were spread out among the sea islands in the area, but the owners lived in town. The mansions of Beaufort is where they raised their families and did their business.

During the Civil War, Beaufort fell to the Union Navy, with barely a shot being fired. Union ships entered the Port Royal River in November 1861, quickly took out the two small forts defending it, and sailed into town. The white slave owners quickly fled. Their homes were taken over by the U.S. Navy, and were used to house officers and as hospitals. Beaufort remained in hands of United States for the remainder of the war. This meant that it never came under attack, and even Sherman’s march refrained from destroying it. So the historic waterfront still has many of the homes and churches that were present before the war.

Walking is definitely the way to explore historic Beaufort. I suggest taking a walking tour to get your bearings and to be introduced to the town’s history. One excellent choice is Janet’s Walking History Tour. Janet is friendly and very knowledgable. The tour started at the marina, where there is day long parking available. 

Live Oaks with Spanish Moss

Beaufort Marina

After giving us a history of area, we walked a couple of blocks over to the Rhett House Inn. This beautiful building was built in 1820, as the home to plantation owner Thomas Smith Rhett. When Rhett fled Beaufort, the house was taken over and used as a hospital. During the war, Rhett family was was unable to pay the taxes on the house, which had to be payed in U.S. dollars, and the house was sold to new owners. Over the next 120 years it was a private home, an inn and the local offices of the ALCOA Corp. as they developed a local resort. In 1986 it was bought again and converted back into an Inn and restaurant.

Rhett House Inn

On the porch of the Inn

In the main sitting room

After leaving the Rhett House Inn, we walked to the Parish Church of St. Helena, an Anglican Church that was built in 1824. The church’s graveyard is host to the remains of Civil War heroes and Confederate Soldiers. The interior is reminiscent of New England congregationalist churches.

From the church, we traveled to the Tabernacle Baptist Church, one of two churches for for blacks in historic Beaufort. The church also the grave site for Robert Smalls. Smalls, born enslaved, may be best known for organizing and carrying out the theft of a ship loaded with supplies and cannons meant for the Confederate army, sailing it through the CSA check points and delivering it to the Union Navy. He also served as on of the first Black Congressmen. He led a fascinating life.

Robert Smalls Memorial

Tabernacle Baptist Church

We continued east along Craven Street, and saw many more historic houses, with Janet giving us their history as we went along. We finished up by Bay Street, where there are excellent restaurants and shops. 

Live Oak

Janet with a treat for a local

The Armory, now a Visitor's Center

The issue of tax payments was used by the U.S. government as a way to redistribute land throughout the area, especially to formally enslaved people among the islands. It was part of something called the Port Royal Experiment. But more on that next week.

Nuts and Bolts
Janet’s Walking History Tour are offered once a day, Monday- Saturday. The cost is $25/person.