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Georgetown County's natural beauty intertwined with its history

Back on June 13, 1777, a young Frenchman by the name of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, came to America at North Island near Georgetown.

He and Johann DeKalb and about a dozen other French officers had made the journey from France to America to offer their swords in her fight for freedom.

While he was guest of Major Benjamin Huger at his plantation on North Island, Lafayette was reportedly so taken with the beauty of this part of coastal South Carolina that he termed the area “the border land of God.” A local community called DeBordieu shares that story and uses that name as its name of DeBordieu Colony.

Those Tidelands that Lafayette and his men meandered through in search of a pilot to take them to Charleston were already productive with indigo and rice. Both were major crops in South Carolina and in Georgetown County.

The enslaved workers who planted the crops, tended them over many years and created the indigo and rice plantations brought their skills from Africa and the West Indies to Georgetown County.

Today, there are more than a dozen golf courses that are built on lands that at one time had been Indigo or rice plantations.

More than 100,000 acres of land are protected in Georgetown County. Many of those acres include remnants of those plantations.

Getting out into the natural world is among the many attractions of Georgetown.

Here are descriptions of some of the special places in Georgetown County that can help you enjoy your time in nature.

Winyah Bay

Winyah Bay at Georgetown is formed where the Great and Little Pee Dee, the Black, the Waccamaw and Sampit rivers come together. Further south of Georgetown, the North Santee and South Santee rivers form the Santee Delta, which was also home to many of those old rice plantations.

Collectively, the ebb and flow of rivers, the Atlantic Ocean and the tides played a major role in making Georgetown a major rice producing area, an economic and political influence that extended well beyond its borders, and established much in the way of Southern culture. That Southern culture is made up of many elements.

The stereotypical Southern lifestyle embraces many aspects of life. Among the important elements or other traditions are the society and the lifestyle of the Gullah Geechee people.

They have provided the backbone of that wealth for the white plantation owners. While a few of the old plantations do produce some rice, that culture and that economy are long gone.

Besides the golf courses already mentioned, many of the protected lands and privately owned lands — the Tidelands — are vitally important for the ecology, the environment, fishing, hunting and boating, camping and kayaking and so much more.

Recreation options 

Georgetown County has four regional recreation centers and a number of other parks, ball fields, tennis courts, disc golf, walking and exercise trails, and nature trails and beach access points.

Within Georgetown County there are more than 20 publicly-owned boat landings. There are also several private marinas that offer access to Winyah Bay, to the ocean and to the many rivers and creeks that comprise the Tidelands.

Learn more about the county Parks and Recreation Department — www.georgetowncountysc.org/235/Parks-Recreation

In the city of Georgetown itself, the Carol Ashmore Campbell Marine Complex is on the Sampit River by the Sylvan Rosen (Maryville) Bridge. It’s the site of a number of fishing tournaments during the year. It's also a spot where the general public can put in their boats on the Sampit River. From there they can access many other rivers.

Also in Georgetown is East Bay Park and boat landing. There are several lanes for launching boats, docks, a playground area, tennis courts, walking and hiking trails, a dog park and a disc golf area.

The old Bobby Alford Recreation Center after repurposing will expand recreational activities at this park. Adjacent to East Bay Park is Morgan Park, named in honor of a former mayor of Georgetown, William Doyle Morgan. This park has picnic areas, a walking trail and a pathway leads to the banks of the Sampit River and Winyah Bay.

Historically, an American fortification — Fort Winyah — was built around 1812, somewhere in the vicinity of Morgan Park, to help in the defense of the Port of Georgetown. President Thomas Jefferson had earlier said that it was important to help protect America's coastline.

About 14 miles away by water is North Island. That's where the Georgetown Light or the North Island Light was built in 1811. It's the oldest continuously operating lighthouse in South Carolina. Illumination is no longer from a whale oil lantern or a later Fresnel lens. Instead, it uses lights powered by solar energy.

North Island is a part of the Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center Heritage Preserve. The late Tom Yawkey and his wife Jean established that preserve with a gift to South Carolina of more than 20,000 acres. Later purchases have increased the size of the Yawkey Center Preserve to about 24,000 acres. That land includes North Island, South Island, Cat Island and several smaller islands.

This protected land is available for the public by way of South Island Landing off US Highway 17, south of Georgetown. There are free tours of the island put on by staff of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.

You can learn more information about these tours and the Yawkey Center at its Facebook page — facebook.com/yawkeywildlifecenter or its website — bityl.co/BS9O

Hopsewee Plantation

Heading south from Georgetown as you reach the North Santee River, Hopsewee Plantation would be on your right. That was the birthplace and early home of Thomas Lynch Jr., one of South Carolina's signers of the Declaration of Independence.

The Lynch family was vitally important in South Carolina in those colonial and Revolutionary War years. Hopsewee Plantation is privately owned by Frank and Raejean Beattie. They have a conservation easement on the house and grounds. The property is open for tours.

There are a couple of old slave cabins on the property and there's the River Oak Cottage Tea Room that can provide a Colonial-era tea or any of a variety of meals. Hopsewee is undergoing expansion for programming and facilities with a future goal of having craftspeople demonstrating various skills and lifestyles of the day.

While Hopsewee does plan to continue with existing programs, the owners and the program directors are looking to expand into other areas of history and culture. They want to also provide information about the Gullah culture in greater detail, and the Indian or Native American peoples who came to Georgetown County thousands of years before the European settlers arrived.

Pawleys Island's origins

Heading north above Georgetown, there are two sites that date to the early part of the 1500s.

Around 1520 or 1521 Spanish explorers came ashore in what we call today Pawleys Island. Ship’s captains encountered members of the Chicora or Waccamaw Indian People.

They gave some gifts to some of the Indians and convinced them to bring more aboard ship the next day. Sadly, the ship's captains then weighed anchor and set sail back to Hispaniola with about 150 Indians on board.

When they reached Hispaniola, the man who had given the ship's captain the task of exploring the coast of what is today South Carolina, and other areas — Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón — disavowed their actions of capturing or kidnapping the Indians. He even went to the Spanish court and got a legal order that the Indians were not to be enslaved. De Ayllón assumed responsibility for the Indians until such time as they could be returned to their homeland.

One of the captives was given the name of Francisco de Chicora. He was baptized, converted to Christianity and learned Spanish.

De Ayllón took Francisco de Chicora to Spain, where he spoke and was interviewed by two Spanish historians. Later De Ayllón and Francisco de Chicora returned to Hispaniola. The Spaniard had gotten permission to settle this new land.

In 1526 he mounted an expedition that came to North Carolina where some soldiers and horses were offloaded from the ships. They made their way south along what is today the Waccamaw River. In the meantime, the ships headed south.

While the exact location is not known, in September or October 1526 some 600 soldiers, settlers, craftspeople, priests and Friars and about 100 slaves from the Caribbean established a settlement near Georgetown, called San Miguel de Gualdape.

Paul Quattelbaum in his 1956 book, “The Land called Chicora,” wrote that he believed the settlement was approximately where Bernard Baruch’s Hobcaw House is located on Hobcaw Barony. That's across Winyah Bay from the City of Georgetown.

Disease, mutiny, rebellion and desertions reduced the population to about 150 people after a few months. The remaining people built a boat in South Carolina — the first European boat built in continental America — and returned to Hispaniola.

Hobcaw Barony

Hobcaw Barony, owned by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation, encompasses 16,000 acres of pine forest, maritime forest and tidelands and old rice plantations. Part of the Hobcaw Barony property contains the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Belle Baruch established her foundation as a privately-owned property that would serve as a physical learning laboratory for the colleges and universities of South Carolina. The University of South Carolina and Clemson University both have institutes on the property. Francis Marion University and Coastal Carolina University also have a presence.

Many other colleges and universities utilize the land for education and research. On top of all of that, there are many programs available for the public. The nature center at the entrance to Hobcaw Barony is open during business hours and is free to the public. You may visit the website or check at the nature Discovery Center for schedules of the many programs — hobcawbarony.org.

Both the USC and Clemson Institutes also offer their own programming. Many of these programs go out on the property where people can experience the natural world and learn about the many research projects that have been underway for decades.

Brookgreen and Huntington

Continuing further north along US Highway 17, Brookgreen Gardens and Huntington Beach State Park are in the area between Litchfield and Murrells Inlet.

Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased the land and established Brookgreen Gardens in 1930 and 1931. It is owned by a private foundation but it's open to the public. It's long been one of the largest collections of outdoor statuary in the country. It also has a series of programs, exhibits, and guest lectures. There are tours of cemeteries on the property and tours of some of the tidelands of the four plantations that make up today's Brookgreen Gardens.

Sandy Island

Bordering on a part of Brookgreen Gardens is Sandy Island.

That 12,000 acre property is largely owned by The Nature Conservancy, and is part of the Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge. There are perhaps 75 people who still live on the island in the Gullah Geechee community that dates back to pre-Civil War days, when there were several rice plantations on the island.

After emancipation, some of the former enslaved people were able to buy lands and establish their community. About 9,000 of the acres of the property are part of the refuge.

The Waccamaw National Wildlife Refuge has its offices and an education center along US Highway 701 North in the Yauhanna community of Georgetown County.

The refuge has a target acquisition area of more than 50,000 acres. Currently about 35,000 acres have been acquired as part of the property. Up in Horry County, there is the Cox Lake Recreation Area as part of the refuge. There are many thousands of acres of land available for outdoor activities that can include hunting, boating and fishing.

You can check with the refuge website for details on these activities — fws.gov/refuge/waccamaw

The Education Center and headquarters for the refuge has long had a history of providing programming for various schools. The COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed some of those public activities.

The refuge lands themselves, however, are open year-round and are available for public use.

A recent acquisition by the refuge is Hasty Point Plantation. Refuge manager Craig Sasser and his staff and volunteers are looking to develop programming and features at Hasty Point Plantation. Sasser has said that he does look to add to some of the lands that are currently being used to grow rice to help demonstrate that historic rice culture. Details are being worked on to establish a variety of programs and events for the future.

Rocky Point Community Forest

The Rocky Point Community Forest is jointly owned by Georgetown County and the Winyah Rivers Alliance. The 660-acre property fronts on the Black River with access off Choppee Road, not far from the Choppee Regional Recreation Center.

Currently, Rocky Point Community Forest has a boat landing and kayak launch, a picnic area and two established nature trails. Extensive planning continues to make Rocky Point Community Forest into a part of a planned Black River Water Trail and Park Network.

That will be a partnership with the South Carolina Parks Recreation and Tourism department, Rocky Point, privately owned Cypress Preserve and other areas. Ultimately, this will be a 70-mile-long stretch of various properties that travel from Kingstree in Williamsburg County to Rocky Point in Georgetown County. Of course, folks can also continue along the Black River and come into Winyah Bay at Georgetown.

As mentioned earlier, throughout Georgetown County there are a multitude of parks and boat landings. The City of Georgetown also has several parks and “pocket” parks.