Isle of Palms was once a plantation

Isle of Palms was once a plantation

In my recent research on Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms, I discovered a whole new batch of what I call “hooey boy” history, not the least of which was finding out about the early history of Isle of Palms. Much has been written about the island after it was settled as a resort in 1898. But very little has been known about the island prior to that, back when it was called Long Island for its exceptional length (eight miles.)

First a bit of background: in the late 1600s, almost all the barrier islands north of Charleston except for Sullivan’s Island, which was owned by the state, were granted to various individuals. Dewees, Capers and Bull’s islands eventually became working plantations. Dewees became known as a shipbuilding center at one point; both Capers and Bull’s Islands had substantial rice fields. It made sense to me that Long Island (Isle of Palms) would likely have been granted out during that same period and settled as well.

So I went on a search. Indeed, a Long island was granted out in 1696 to a man named Thomas Holton. Ah, but digging deeper I found that this Long Island was not “our” Isle of Palms but an island with the same name just south of the harbor, between Folly Island and James Island. Holton held other properties in that area, as well.

To find Long Island’s original grant I think I’ve searched every record at the S.C. Department of Archives and History and at the RMC office, not to mention early proprietary records. But to no avail. The grant may be lost forever. Or I may simply have missed it and the grant will eventually come to light. Still, from what I found in my research about what was happening on the island in subsequent years, I feel pretty confident that someone had a grant for the island early on and its ownership was passed down through family connections.

And the families? The answer comes in why there is still a Scott Creek and Swinton Creek winding their way through the marshes behind the island. In 1784, William Scott placed an advertisement in the Charleston newspaper requesting that people refrain from hunting on his lands on Long and Goat Islands because he had placed livestock on these lands. (This may even be how Goat Island originally got its name.) When William Scott’s daughter married into the Swinton family in the late 1700s, both Goat and Long islands became Swinton family landholdings and would remain so until they sold the islands in the 1890s. The Swintons held ownership for over a century.

During the period of the Swinton ownership a rather substantial plantation settlement was established on Long Island, complete with two houses, a slaves’ quarter and various outbuildings. The location was about where the business district is now and can readily be seen on various maps of the island of the mid-1800s.

In 1831, Long Island was put up for sale and an advertisement was placed in local newspapers. Since the Swinton’s continued to retain ownership, the sale was apparently stopped. But the advertisement told volumes about what may have been happening on the island at the time.

The advertisement noted that the island was “well timbered with Live Oak, for ship building, and is said to contain more than any island on the coast. It is also thickly wooded with different kinds of Oak used for firewood, and well covered with that valuable article, the palmetto, for wharf building. The high lands are well adapted to the culture of Sea Island cotton, provisions, and sugar cane; and the valleys are calculated to produce rice. On the premises are two comfortable dwellings, both of which have been built within the last seven years, and all the necessary buildings of a well settled plantation, comfortable negro houses, with brick chimneys.”

Indeed, the island’s abundance of trees made it particularly valuable land. Timber was not only needed to build the houses in Charleston but in the days when the only heating came from fireplaces and the only way to cook was on a wood stove, firewood was a prime commodity. Various woods were also obviously important to shipbuilding, especially the durable oak trees. Moreover, the spongy trunk of the palmetto tree was the preferred wood used for the pilings of piers and wharves because of its resistance against salt water and marine worms.

As for growing rice on the island, I feel sure it was at least attempted. As Awendaw historian Tim Penninger said, “Rice was such a valuable commodity back then people would have tried growing it in their kitchen sinks if they could have.” Moreover, not all rice was grown on rivers but could be grown inland, the fields flooded by truly ingenious ways of moving water from freshwater reservoirs, ponds created specifically for this purpose. That there was such a pond on the island is known from a later bit of history I found. One of the first things they did when they created the new resort called Isle of Palms in 1898 was drain and fill a “lagoon” near where the Hotel Seashore was being erected. This very possibly might have been an earlier reserve pond.

Another commodity I believe they likely attempted on the island was indigo. In 1787, William Scott advertised for an overseer on his sea island familiar with the cultivation of indigo. Like rice, indigo was an esteemed crop in the late 1700s. The plant grew easily in the Lowcountry’s sandy soil and the blue dye created from the plant was one of the Charleston’s most valuable exports.

The other prized commodity the island had in huge, inexhaustible quantities were oysters, enjoyed as much in the 18th and 19th centuries as they are today. Various members of the Swinton family, especially in the later years of the 1800s, listed their occupation on the census as “oystermen.” When the Swinton family sold Goat Island in 1894, it was to Captain Henry Merritt, one of the foremost oyster cultivators in the region. By the way, when Merritt died in 1916, his obituary stated that he was buried on Goat Island. There was also a “substantial” old plantation house on Goat Island at the time. One wonders where it was and what happened to it. And where Mr. Merritt’s grave might be.

We do know what happened to the old Swinton plantation settlement on the Isle of Palms. It was consumed by the building of the spectacular resort created in 1898, when Long Island was no more but given the alluring new name, “Isle of Palms.”

It is fascinating history all the way around. Hooey-boy.

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