Aiken County residents learn about 1730s settlement through artifacts
AIKEN — Not much remains to mark the existence of New Windsor Township, which was located in southwestern Aiken County. Modern maps don’t even show its location, but the region covered 20,000 acres in an area bounded by the Savannah River, Horse Creek, Hollow Creek and Town Creek.
Jackie Bartley became fascinated by New Windsor’s story years ago after discovering artifacts on her 330 acres of Beech Island property. In the turned up soil of a soybean field, she found buttons, musket balls, pipe fragments and pieces of pottery, china and glass. Early settlers had left them behind in the 1700s.
“Who were these people? Why were they here?” Bartley wondered as she sifted through her collection of odds and ends.
Her husband, Benny, also got interested in New Windsor and gathered more information from documents such as wills and land plats. But Bartley’s curiosity still wasn’t satisfied.
“I wanted to know the whole story,” she said.
Bartley contacted archaeologists and showed them her relics, hoping the scientists would become interested. And they did. For several years in the 1990s, the Savannah River Archaeological Research Program conducted a series of excavations on Bartley’s land. They uncovered the remains of a house, barn, privy and other structures along with more artifacts, including tools.
The site studied by the scientists was a farmstead owned by three brothers from Switzerland — Leonard, Michael and Ulrich Meyer — who had arrived in New Windsor in 1737.
New Windsor was part of a plan by South Carolina’s colonial government to establish 11 settlements known as townships. The purpose of the townships was to protect the rich Lowcountry plantations from Indian attacks and Spanish invaders from Florida. Residents were expected to fight the enemies and keep them away from the coast.
Government officials recruited settlers from Europe with the promise of land and pamphlets containing glorious descriptions of the frontier and its abundant opportunities.
“They got those people out here to take the arrows,” said Bartley, who is the president of the Beech Island Historical Society.
New Windsor included Fort Moore, which had been constructed in 1715 on a tall bluff overlooking the Savannah River. The plan for the region called for 200 town lots to be laid out and for the rest of the land to be allotted to settlers in 75- to 100-acre parcels.
However, the town of New Windsor, as envisioned, never developed.
“Most of the settlers didn’t want to live in town,” Bartley said. “The people at the fort nearby were always carrying on and fighting, and the Swiss settlers were nice Protestant people who didn’t drink.”
There also were other problems. Many of the settlers became sick and died. Promised supplies didn’t arrive and there was a shortage of good farmland. In addition, James Oglethorpe founded Fort Augusta directly across the Savannah River from New Windsor and offered attractive incentives that lured settlers and traders away from South Carolina.
A scattering of small farms remained, but New Windsor never thrived or grew into a rich metropolis. The Swiss settlers’ children, unable to find suitable mates of their own heritage, married into English-speaking families and many moved away.
“There are people all over the country who are their descendants and we email back and forth with them,” said Bartley, whose ancestors include the Meyers and other New Windsor Swiss settlers.
“I’m descended from John Tobler’s wife, Anna Zellweger,” she said. “I possibly could be related to the (Academy Award-winning) actress Renee Zellweger way, way, way back.”