MORRIS ISLAND — There's a lot more to this isolated ocean stretch of sand than a dredging impoundment that the Army Corps of Engineers plans to clear and burn over the next two months to dispose of more dredging.
'Fier ball' origin of Morris Island Lighthouse
An iron basket set ablaze on a platform alerted vessels to a channel into Charleston Harbor — that was the first Morris Island lighthouse.
The channel skirted the island. The 'fier ball' was said to be made of pitch and oakum, oil resin and a tar-soaked fiber that sailors used to waterseal their vessels. It was lit in 1673, shortly after Charles Towne was first settled, according to Lighthousefriends.com.
The “lighthouse” evidently was crude enough that within a few years King George III ordered a more formal tower be built. That one stood 43 feet high.
- Bo Petersen
Morris Island is one of the more storied places in the history-rich Lowcountry. Besides being the bloody ground where the 54th Massachusetts made history in the Civil War, it's the site of one of the first lighthouses in the New World and a “treasure island” said to be haunted by a pirate.
The ghost of Morris Island
Tired, drunken pirates beached on Morris Island to hide from a United States Navy ship, that's how the story goes.
The captain and crew were trying to get away after looting a Spanish galleon of gold, silver and jewelled religious icons, according to Terrance Zepke in Ghosts of the Carolina Coasts. They didn't make it, beaten in a bloody battle after the Navy caught up with them. The loot, though, was nowhere to be found. That set off a horde of treasure hunters who apparently raked over the island, until a group of soldiers from nearby Fort Moultrie tried their own hunt.
“As the men inadvertently came close to the treasure, they saw an immense man in pirate garb standing with his hands on his hips and a shimmering silver sword at his side,” Zepke writes. When one of them approached the pirate, an earthquake erupted, killing him. The others fled.
- Bo Petersen
The most curious tale, though, just might be in its name. It involves three islands that sifted into one, Revolutionary War heroes and villains, and a Scottish clan so particular about its heritage that it is putting together a DNA data base to determine just which Morrison its members descended from.
In Colonial times, the island was the middle of three small barrier islands split by creeks. To its north was Cummins Island, which is today's Cummings Point. To its south was Middle Bay Island, where today's lighthouse sits offshore.
Morris Island in the middle was called Morrison's Island early on, and its current name is widely thought to be a shortened version. Shortening names was a common thing in the Lowcountry: Mathis Ferry Road in Mount Pleasant came from Matthew Ferry, said historian Edwin Holcombe Jr., a Charleston native.
But the island's name origin is a little more at loose ends.
According to the South Carolina Historical Society, based on research by Agnes Baldwin, the property was conveyed to a man named John Morris in October of 1767. Morris was the comptroller of His Majesty's Customs for the Port and Harbor of Charleston — in other words, a big royal deal.
The island was an active farm, and the deed included 20 cattle, horses, hogs, goats, poultry and tools.
By 1781, with the American Revolution virtually a victory and Loyalists roundly disenfranchised, a Maj. John Morrison owned the island. Two years later, though, Morrison sold the island to pay debts.
Meanwhile, under one name or another, a single island had formed by the 19th century after the creeks silted in.
In Memoirs of the American Revolution, published in 1821, former South Carolina Gov. John Drayton refers to the expanse as Morris' Island.
Holcombe is an historian for, and chairman of, the Clan Morrison Society of North America, the Scottish heritage group performing the DNA project. Only about 10 percent of Morrisons actually come from the Hebrides archipelago off the Scottish coast that is considered its homeplace, he said. Most are Celtic.
Holcombe was not aware of any Morrisons in Charleston before 1825, he said, and was excited to learn the family name might be a piece of the Morris Island heritage. He plans to continue researching.
Reach Bo Petersen at 937-5744, @bopete on twitter or Bo Petersen Reporting on Facebook.
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