Book Excerpt: Behind God’s Back: Gullah Memories

“There is no more agreeable mode of passing a day, and thereby breaking in upon the tedium of a long summer’s residence in Charleston, than taking advantage occasionally of the opportunity now afforded for a weekly excursion on Cooper River.” — John B. Irving, A Day on the Cooper River (1842)

Behind Gods Back Cover ImageThe Cooper River flows along the east side of a peninsula that is the cradle of historic Charleston, South Carolina. The port city, founded in 1670 as a British colony, is not a crossroads like the sprawling inland metro areas of Atlanta, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Rather, Charleston is much smaller by comparison, a place where tourists are charmed by the city’s grace, architecture and colonial and antebellum past. Yet only 12 miles up the Cooper River is another large peninsula and nearby islands richly connected to Charleston by a wealth of untold stories.

On this second peninsula are Cainhoy, Wando and Huger, rural communities surrounded by the Francis Marion National Forest. These were among the earliest areas settled in the Carolina colony after European settlers arrived long ago. Although Native Americans were the first people to live on this land, by the mid-1700s their numbers had dropped to near extinction because of disease, exploitation and war.

The broad Cainhoy peninsula is bounded by the Wando River on the east, the Cooper River on the west, Beresford Creek to the south and the East Branch of the Cooper River on the north. Daniel and St. Thomas islands buffer the peninsula’s southern flank on Beresford Creek and the Wando and Cooper rivers.

The village of Cainhoy, tucked in a bend of the Wando, initially served as a river port that linked inland farms and plantations with Charleston. The Cainhoy peninsula was the site of what is believed to be America’s first creamware pottery factory and the Carolina colony’s earliest brickyards. Along the Wando and Cooper rivers boats and barges transported a variety of commodities to Charleston, making the Cainhoy peninsula and its two island neighbors the colonial equivalent of a modern-day Wal-Mart. The distinctive place name “Cainhoy” surely is derived from the Native American place name of “Kenha,” recorded in 1682 on Joel Gascoyne’s “Map of the Country of Carolina.” But, unfortunately, the meaning of
“Kenha” is lost in time.

Interestingly, “Cainhoy” is also attributed to Cain Walker, a black man who operated a ferry landing on the Wando River after the Civil War. Walker purchased 22 acres along the river in 1880 and began his business. Local lore has it that, when customers arrived at the landing, they’d summon Walker by calling out “Cain, ahoy.” However, Cainhoy was recorded as a place name at least a century before Walker was born.

The original Cainhoy was a small community established no later than 1735. Also known today as the “old village,” it is situated at the end of Cainhoy Village Road on a bluff overlooking the Wando River. One of the earliest land developers in coastal Carolina was Lewis Fogartie, who established just upriver from the old village a summer retreat where Lowcountry planters enjoyed breezy homes built among the pinelands to escape the heat, humidity and mosquitoes. Between 1788 and 1801, Fogartie sold long narrow lots along the Wando River to develop a planned community sometimes called Lewisville but known as “the new village” today. The land north and west of Cainhoy is called Wando, which is the name of a Native American tribe that once inhabited the region. The Wando River is also named after the tribe.

Brickyard  Excavation

Brickyard – Archaeologists recently unearthed a portion of the floor of a brick kiln on the Harper property on the southern edge of the Cainhoy peninsula along Beresford Creek. The brickyard was in operation during the 18th and 19th centuries. Photo courtesy of Brockington and Associates.

In 1673 three land grants totaling 810 acres on Etiwan Island, today’s Daniel Island, were granted to William Thomas, who came from North Cumberland County, Virginia, with his wife, daughter, six indentured servants and two enslaved Africans. “Etiwan” is the name of another local tribe, and “Etiwan” is what the indigenous people called the Cooper River. Until the late 1690s, Daniel and St. Thomas islands were known collectively as “Thomas Island.”

Daniel Island was named after Englishman Robert Daniell, an influential landowner in the area in the early 1700s. Through the years, the island was known as “Daniell” then “Daniels” and now “Daniel.” Before his death in 1718, Daniell served as the colony’s deputy proprietor and deputy governor of the Carolinas.

When French King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, French Protestants, or Huguenots, fled France for fear of maltreatment and execution if they did not convert to Catholicism. Among the early Huguenot settlers to arrive in Carolina was Daniel Huger (pronounced “Hu-gee”). His son Daniel Huger II purchased Limerick Plantation in 1713 at the headwaters of the Cooper River’s east branch, 12 miles northwest of the Cainhoy villages. Today, the crossroads community of Huger is between Limerick and Wando.

The story of these early settlements mirrors the founding of coastal South Carolina. Relatively few European settlers owned and managed the indigo, rice and cotton plantations while thousands of enslaved Africans actually worked the land, tended the crops, cut the trees for lumber and fuel, dug the clay for bricks and pottery and worked as house servants.

While Daniel Island today is overwhelmingly white in population, the nearby Cainhoy peninsula is inhabited primarily by African Americans, many of them descendants of the enslaved people. Today’s residents live in close-knit rural communities throughout the area.

The area around the Cainhoy peninsula today has 22 of these communities, many with wonderfully evocative names. These communities have a combined population of approximately 10,300 people. An exact count is difficult to obtain because no specific Census data is available for these unincorporated areas.

In the Wando area are St. Thomas Island, or “The Ferry”; Pinefield; Yellow House; Jack Primus; Honey Hill; and Cainhoy, or “The Village.” Huger-area communities are Brown Hill; Hamlin Corner; Charity Church Road; Baldwin Corner; Richardson Corner; Red Hill; French Quarter Creek; New Hope; Quinby Creek; Smith; Steed Creek; Moore’s Corner; Old Joe, or Duffy’s Corner; Grant Hill; Kelly; and Greenbay.

These predominantly black communities have preserved an African based culture called Gullah. As most people know today, Gullah evokes numerous descriptions. Its handmade sweetgrass baskets and cast nets,
praise houses, rousing spirituals and syncopated clapping, rice and greens and beans and yams, family land passed down from one generation to the next. Gullah is a distinct and fertile language too that rolls easily off the tongue, a blend of mostly English and African words spoken in rich Caribbean tones.

Gullah crafts, worship, songs and cuisine are rooted with the people who were captured in West Africa and brought to North America in chains more than four centuries ago. Amazingly, their rich and distinctive culture survived primarily along the isolated sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida.

Rivers, creeks and marshes have separated coastal Gullah communities from the mainland, creating isolated pockets where people retained their African ways. Development along the coast, a changing economy and population shifts eventually led many Gullah people to join mainstream America. Changes threaten the continuation of the Gullah way of life. This unique culture and language within the American experience wasn’t always so popular. Outsiders once ridiculed Gullah speech as broken English and Gullah folkways as backward. Protection of the culture, however, is now the law of the land.

South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn is the author of H.R. 694: Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act. Passed by Congress in 2006, the law is designed to enhance the preservation and interpretation of Gullah/Geechee culture. It created the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor along the coastal lowlands in the four states. (In Georgia and Florida, people of African descent prefer the term Geechee to describe themselves and their culture.) The corridor is the first one in the nation set aside to
preserve the heritage and culture of African Americans. The law established a 25-member commission to oversee preservation activities of Gullah/Geechee culture and bring attention to it.

As a result, places such as the Cainhoy peninsula are now at the center of attention. Since Emancipation, Gullah people of the Cainhoy area have scratched out a living through subsistence farming, timbering, fishing and doing domestic work. Some operated moonshine stills deep within the cover of the thick forest.

Until now, the remarkable history of Gullah people on the Cainhoy peninsula and St. Thomas and Daniel islands was passed along orally but seldom compiled and written down. That’s because Gullah people had been enslaved, literally and figuratively. Most could not read or write. Few were allowed formal educations. Until Emancipation in the 1860s, most people of African heritage didn’t even have surnames. Yet by digging through historical records and newspaper accounts and speaking to longtime residents of the area, the story of the lives of people mortared to this land in a tabby of blood, sweat and tears is now being told in an ordered fashion.

By the early 20th century, millionaires from elsewhere had purchased and consolidated many Southern plantations. They included businessman, publisher, diplomat, horseman and philanthropist Harry Frank Guggenheim of New York. In the early 1930s Guggenheim bought more than 10,000 acres on the Cainhoy peninsula for use as a winter home. He named his plantation “Cain Hoy.”

Between 1946 and 1955, Guggenheim made two purchases to acquire the 4,000-acre Daniel Island, where his herd of Hereford cattle grazed. At that time, the Cainhoy peninsula and nearby islands were out-of-the-way places that required long drives or river travel. In more recent times, two paved roads provided circuitous routes to this area at the southern end of Berkeley County. A drive to Daniel Island from Charleston, just 3.5 miles upriver, could take 40 minutes.

This began to change dramatically after the June 1992 opening of the Mark Clark Expressway (Interstate Highway 526), which cuts across St. Thomas and Daniel islands.1 Two months later, an interchange opened, allowing traffic to flow north on Clements Ferry Road to Wando, Cainhoy and Huger and south to St. Thomas and Daniel islands. In 1999 a second exit opened on Daniel Island.

Prior to the expressway, Clements Ferry was a lonely road that stopped at the southern tip of St. Thomas Island. Now a seven-mile stretch of it from the expressway to Cainhoy is lined with new businesses, gas stations, entrances to subdivisions and four traffic lights. The names of some new
developments pay homage to Richard Beresford, one of the area’s wealthiest landowners in the 1700s.

Jack Primus, Yellow House, Wando, Cainhoy and St. Thomas Island are the communities closest to the development. But Daniel Island has been altered the most. In 1991 the city of Charleston annexed Daniel Island, although it remains in Berkeley County. Farms and hunting grounds quickly disappeared to make room for upscale communities and commercial enterprises, the relocated Bishop England high school, soccer and tennis stadiums and more traffic lights. A series of subsequent annexations also brought Guggenheim’s Cain Hoy Plantation into the city.

The threads of this quilt tie together memories of black resistance during Reconstruction, a pioneering nurse midwife from Charleston, a community that banded together to build a school, black entrepreneurs whose boats and buses carried workers to Charleston and the midnight movement of men making moonshine to feed their families. This story has recollections of murders and a court fight over land that ripped a family apart.

This story of a place once isolated and described by the locals as “Behind God’s Back” begins with the voices of two men: One who grew up in the Jack Primus community and stayed to raise his family, farm and chauffeur Guggenheim; the other who, as a boy, boarded the ferry at Daniel Island and moved to Charleston where he worked hard for the rest of his long life and became a world-class blacksmith.

This is Part 1 of a 3-Part Excerpt Series. You can read Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This