The first written record of the islands known as Sullivan’s Island, Isle of Palms and Dewees Island is found in a 1679 grant for mainland property described as abutting the “great marsh” next to the “broken islands.”
Photograph by Ginny Horton
The history of these barrier islands is as broad as the “great marsh” that still separates them from the mainland. Today, the islands are popular residential and vacation locations, yet their allure dates to a time long before the first Europeans set foot on Carolina shores. This history begins with the first to walk their sands, the Native Americans called the Sewee.
THE HUNTING ISLANDS OF THE SEWEE
The name Sewee means “island people,” an apt description since the Sewee regularly canoed out to the barrier islands to hunt and fish. Today, all that remains of these once-great people are the names they left behind, places we know today as Copahee, Wappetaw, Wakendaw, Awendaw, Hobcaw and Shemee (today’s Shem Creek).
For the Sewee, the string of “hunting islands” just off the mainland afforded an endless bounty of food, as well as materials for making implements. Deer hides became buckskin for clothing. Fish bones became sewing needles. Animal bones were honed into knives – even the sharp tail-tip of a horseshoe crab served as an arrow point.
It was the Sewee who met Charleston’s original settlers arriving on the Carolina. When the ship made landfall in March 1670 at Bull’s Island, the island the Sewee called Oneiscau, they eagerly greeted the newcomers, shouting, “bony conraro Angles,” their way of saying, “welcome, good Englishmen,” and “appada,” their word for “peace.”
By the 1690s, as the islands were granted to settlers, the landowners’ names replaced the Sewee names. Oneiscau became Bull’s Island for colonist Stephen Bull. Hawan became Caper’s Island for owner Richard Capers. The island the Sewee called Timicau (today’s Dewees) was known as Bell’s Island for owner John Bell.
Explorer John Lawson stopped at Bell’s Island in 1700, later writing of the island’s “amenities,” which were a far cry from the beautiful homes on Dewees today. Lawson was entertained by a man who tended the livestock kept on the island. “One Side of the Roof of his House was thatch’d with Palmetto leaves,” wrote Lawson, “the other open to the Heavens, thousands of Musketoes, and other troublesome Insects, tormenting both Man and Beast …”
Coastal watches were placed on the islands (usually two men with two Sewee Indians) – on the alert for the greatest threat to the colony at the time, invasion from the Spanish in Florida who still claimed the land. As colonist Joseph Dalton wrote in 1670, “we are settled in the very chaps of the Spaniards.”
It was largely for this reason that in 1674, one of the few men in the colony with military experience, Captain Florence O’Sullivan, was ordered to establish a watch on the island at the harbor’s mouth with a “great gun” to be fired as a warning if enemy vessels were sighted. Almost immediately, the island became known as “O’Sullivan’s Island.”
Little changed on the barrier islands for the first century of colonization, except the names of the owners. By the 1760s, Bell’s Island was owned by the Dewees family who used the wealth of island trees to build brigantines. Isle of Palms, then called Long Island for its length and owned by William Scott, was used for raising livestock. The islands were basically isolated outposts.
Thus, in 1776, when the British under Lord Cornwallis and General Sir Henry Clinton made plans to invade Charles Town, they chose to attack from the islands to the north. Surely, their isolation would ease entry and lead to a quick surrender. They could not have been more wrong.
PALMETTO LOGS AND A DEEP, DEEP INLET
The Battle of Fort Sullivan was an embarrassing defeat for Cornwallis. His powerful invading force was routed by a handful of American patriots in a small, half-finished fort made only of palmetto logs and sand.
In truth, the British should have easily taken the fort. Clinton had landed some 3,000 foot soldiers on Long Island. Offshore were Admiral Sir Peter Parker’s heavily-armed vessels, including nine men-of-war.
Fort Sullivan under Colonel (later General) William Moultrie had only 435 men, a hurriedly-found assortment of cannon and very little gunpowder. Even Moultrie’s commanding officer, General Charles Lee, had dubbed the fort a “slaughter pen” and pushed for its abandonment.
The British plan was this: As the fleet bombarded the fort from the harbor, the soldiers on Long Island would ford Breach Inlet and invade the island from the north.
Clinton faced two dilemmas. The inlet was not only guarded by a battery of patriot sharpshooters under Colonel William “Danger” Thomson, it was too deep to cross on foot. To Clinton’s “unspeakable mortification,” the channel he’d been told was only 18-inches deep at low tide was actually 7-feet deep. They would need flatboats to cross, which would make them sitting ducks for the sharpshooters.
Before the battle began on the morning of June 28, Moultrie received the last of the gunpowder, with a note from Governor John Rutledge that read, “Do not make too free with your cannon. Cool and do mischief.”
Despite continuous heavy bombardment from the British fleet, Moultrie gave orders to fire only when necessary. An unexpected blessing was that the fort was holding, despite the heavy shelling. When the cannonballs hit the spongy pulp of the palmetto logs, they simply stopped flat, rarely exploding. Others literally sank into the sand.
Meanwhile at Breach Inlet, despite three attempts to cross in flatboats, the British could not get past Thomson’s sharpshooters. As British soldier Will Falconer wrote in a letter to his brother, “they would have killed half of us before we could make our landing good.”
Assuming the absence of return-fire meant the fort was weakening, in late afternoon the British moved the fleet in closer to deliver the coup de grace. Unfamiliar with the waters, some vessels soon went aground on sandbars. When Moultrie finally gave the order to fire at will, the British fleet made easy pickings for Moultrie’s cannoneers. Soon, several vessels were afire. Finally, with the arrival of one of the Lowcountry’s violent late-afternoon thunderstorms, the British had no choice but to retreat. The Battle of Fort Sullivan was won, the first significant American victory of the Revolutionary War and a rallying cry for the nation. Less than a week later, the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia.
THE ANTEBELLUM YEARS
It has been said that time stands still on an island beach. Changes that occurred during the early 1800s might be considered as slow as “island time.”
Long Island remained a working plantation. Now owned by the Swinton family, a small settlement had been erected (in about the same area as today’s business district), with two dwelling houses and the various outbuildings necessary to support the island’s timber and agricultural endeavors.
Sullivan’s Island had become Charleston’s major summering place, giving birth to the small community of Moultrieville at the island’s harbor end. Each year, families flocked to their island cottages and the “salubrious” air that purportedly kept them safe from the mosquito-borne diseases that plagued the warmer months.
By the 1850s, the island also had a fine hotel, the elegant Moultrie House. Located just to the east of Fort Moultrie, it was widely popular for its grand balls, superb dining and moonlight horseback rides on the beach.
This safe, slow and secure world was soon to turn upside down. It began with South Carolina’s secession from the Union on December 20, 1860. Only a few days later, on Christmas night under the cover of darkness, the Federal troops at Fort Moultrie spiked the forts guns and slipped quietly by boat across the harbor channel to Fort Sumter.
In less than three months, Sullivan’s Island was transformed from a place of leisure to a war zone. In the predawn hours of April 12, 1861, the first shots of the Civil War began with the firing on Fort Sumter.
ISLANDS AT WAR
What began in Charleston Harbor exploded across the nation. The war that was supposed to be over in six months dragged on with battles raging at places few even knew existed – Manassas, Antietam, Gettysburg. The Sullivan’s Island beach was lined with heavily armed batteries, from Fort Moultrie at the harbor end to Battery Marshall at Breach Inlet. They faced almost ceaseless bombardments from the Federal fleet offshore, then the most powerful navy ever assembled, including the formidable USS Ironsides.
In 1863, the Confederate navy began secretly working on a radical invention – a completely submersible “fish boat” that could move underwater and attack an enemy vessel completely unseen. On the night of February 17, 1864, fitted with a spar torpedo and under the direction of its captain, Lieutenant George E. Dixon, the CSS Hunley and crew left Breach Inlet and headed stealthily towards the USS Housatonic, next only to the Ironsides in firepower. The Hunley succeeded in sinking the Housatonic, making history as the first submarine to sink an enemy vessel. Yet the submarine also sank, taking the lives of all on board.
By January 1865, the situation in Charleston had become untenable. Sherman had taken Savannah and his troops were tearing through South Carolina.
On February 18, the last troops left Sullivan’s Island, joining the Confederate troops evacuating the city. By April, the war was finally over but Charleston was in ruins, physically and financially.
Rebuilding was slow at first, especially on the islands. Yet when it happened, the changes to the islands were considerable. By the 1870s, people were returning to Sullivan’s Island for the summer. They not only rebuilt their cottages at Moultrieville, but created an entirely new community in the center of the island called Atlanticville, with a new hotel replacing the bombed-out Moultrie House called the New Brighton, located on the front beach at Station 22. In 1896, it was reopened under new ownership as the Atlantic Beach Hotel.
WILDERNESS TO SEASIDE RESORT
The changes occurring on Long Island were nearly miraculous. In 1897, the Swinton family sold the island to a group of investors under the guidance of Dr. Joseph S. Lawrence, a man of remarkable foresight. Through Lawrence’s energy and brilliance, the former wilderness island was transformed into one of the most popular resorts on the Eastern Seaboard with a new, exotic-sounding name – Isle of Palms.
Perhaps the most extraordinary story behind the island’s transformation is how quickly everything was accomplished. Actual work started in February 1898. Incredibly, the resort had its grand opening in late July, fewer than six months later.
In this short time span, the company purchased the New York ferryboat Commodore Perry to use for the ferry service they were creating to bring people from Charleston to Mount Pleasant. They built a state-of-the-art electric trolley system linking Mount Pleasant and the islands – which also required building the first bridge to span Breach Inlet, a feat considered impossible at the time given the inlet’s strong currents.
On the island itself, roads were laid out and a bevy of workers erected a dance pavilion, boardwalk, bathhouses and the grand Hotel Seashore on the beachfront near the former plantation settlement.
From the grand opening onward, literally thousands of people flocked to Isle of Palms each day, so much so that within a week after the resort’s grand opening, the ferry and trolley lines had to increase the number of trips on their schedules.
In the first month of operation, the new “Seashore Railroad” carried an astounding 60,000 passengers from Charleston to Isle of Palms and back again. Almost overnight, Isle of Palms gained the reputation as one of the best resorts on the East Coast, rivaling Atlantic City and Coney Island, then in their heyday.
To compete with these and other resorts, Dr. Lawrence knew that Isle of Palms would also need amusements.
As was typical of this man who did nothing by halves, Lawrence went straight to the big resorts and bought out their best – the Ferris wheel from Atlantic City and the steeplechase and carousel from Coney Island.
A truly original aspect of Lawrence’s plan was to create a resort that served ordinary folk, not only the well-to-do. Prior to this time, those who didn’t own or have access to a summer cottage or boarding house had nowhere to go to spend a day at the beach. Lawrence purposely set out to build a resort where even day trippers could enjoy the sun and surf.
Following the Dewees family ownership, the island went through a succession of owners, most of whom used the island primarily for growing cotton, raising livestock, its timber and, just as the Sewee had done centuries before, as a place for fishing and hunting. In 1898 when John Murphy came into ownership, he used the island for growing artichokes, raising pigs and harvesting oysters.
In 1924, the island was purchased by wealthy New Yorker, Coulter D. Huyler (Huyler’s candy company was at that time the largest chocolate maker in the United States) and used as a winter retreat. Huyler also owned Caper’s Island just to the north.
The next owner was R.S. Reynolds, who owned both Caper’s and Dewees from 1956 until 1972, when an investor partnership acquired the islands. They sold Caper’s to the state of South Carolina, and it is now a protected heritage preserve. Dewees was used only by a few of the investor families (the Royalls, Kennedys and others) who had vacation retreats on the south end of the island.
Following Hurricane Hugo in 1989, the investors brought in John Knott to create a luxury residential community that would preserve the island’s unique natural attributes. With the key theme of “living in harmony with nature,” the island was laid out to accommodate 150 building lots with building codes that guaranteed “a small footprint” and very little clearing of natural vegetation. Today, Dewees continues this protection of the island’s vegetation and wildlife. There is no bridge to the island; it is reached only by ferry. There are no cars on the island, and thoughtful limitations on the building of docks kept the natural vistas unsullied. All of these things continue to make Dewees one of the most unique islands in America.