Natives and Newcomers: A History of the Waccamaw Neck

By Lee Gordon Brockington

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LaBruce-Lemon House, Pawleys IslandPhotograph by Ginny Horton

Traveling in the Pawleys Island area, it’s common to see bumper stickers with “Native” written on them. Ever since Hurricane Hugo accelerated development on the Waccamaw Neck, some residents like to declare their pride in place and reminisce about the old days when everybody knew each other and stopped for their mail at the same time each day at the local post office.

There have always been newcomers along the Waccamaw Neck, and defining a true native might require a hired genealogist who can trace blood from the Waccamaw, Pee Dee, Sampit or Winyah tribes.

And even these tribes migrated to the coast to fish, hunt and harvest as the ocean receded from the middle of present day South Carolina. The sand hills region, extending from Aiken to Columbia to Camden is a sand dune ridge 55 million years old, and the highest points on the Waccamaw Neck itself were sand dunes only 10,000 years ago.

Native Americans moved freely from the opposite sides of the five rivers that flow into Winyah Bay, the third largest estuary on the East Coast. One of these rivers is the Waccamaw – a long tidal river that divides the Neck from the mainland.

Although the Spanish had attempted settlement in the area as early as 1526, it wasn’t until 1670 that a permanent colony named Carolina was established by the English at Charles Towne. From Charles Towne to Beaufort to Georgetown, the settlers established the three oldest cities in what would become one of the wealthiest and most productive farming areas in the world.

Ten baronies, land grants from the English king, were given to his Lords Proprietors to encourage settlement in the new colony. One of the ten, Hobcaw Barony, was resurveyed and sold many times to newcomers who began to find success at money making by the 1760s. Early major exports were naval stores – lumber, pitch and tar for shipbuilding.

Laborers gifted in boat building found a viable industry established in South Carolina and the longleaf pine and live oak forests attracted land speculators, surveyors and farmers. Exports of beef, pork, lumber and barrels created a colonial port of importance in Georgetown. Port officials such as Joseph DuBordieu became prominent businessmen and landowners. Newcomers established rice plantations on all the rivers of Georgetown County and the most successful rice planters bought out the least successful until few small planters remained at the end of the colonial period.

During the early years, the cultural center of the plantation society was the church. The first church parish established in the Pawleys area was Prince George Winyah, followed by All Saints Waccamaw and, up the river, Prince Frederick Pee Dee. All of them were Anglican by denomination and their leaders were elected to political office, established and supported education facilities and were prominent in affairs of state.

The planter families were the first people to spend summers on Pawleys Island as a way to escape the “fevers” or malaria. They knew that they were more likely to contract the illness if they remained on the plantations during the hotter months, although it was not known then that malaria was caused by mosquitoes that thrived there, especially in the stagnant water of rice fields.

Men of the planter class were also officers in the military and owners of fine racehorses. They owned townhouses in Georgetown and Charleston and were founders of many elite social clubs. Annual trips to New England and Europe resulted in valuable art collections. Shops and homes were filled extravagantly with fine china, English silver, hand-crafted furniture and fabrics from all over the world.

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Waccamaw River Ferry – early 1900sCourtesy of Georgetown County Digital Library

According to Dr. George Rogers in A History of Georgetown County, The Allstons (also spelled Alston by some of the family) were the richest of the Georgetown rice planting factions. Early land grants on the Waccamaw River and thoughtful marriages resulted in a family dynasty of distinction. Captain William Alston, who fought with Francis Marion in the American Revolution, entertained President Washington in 1791 at Clifton Plantation and was justly proud when his son, Joseph, married Theodosia, daughter of Vice-President Aaron Burr.

Joseph, a son of privilege, was quoted in Aaron Burr’s memoirs, published in 1836 by Matthew L. Davis: “With regard to our manners; if there is any state which has a claim to superior refinement, it is certainly South Carolina. Generally speaking, we are divided into but two classes, the very rich and the very poor; which if no advantage in a political view, is undoubtedly favourable to a polished state of society.”

Profits from plantations were reinvested in more land, both for timber and agriculture, and in more slaves. Purchased easily at auctions in Charleston and Georgetown, slaves were a part of nearly every activity in the life of a slave owner and served as skilled machinists, mechanics, maids, drivers, sawyers, carpenters, cowboys, hunters, butlers and cooks, as well as laborers.

The necessity of slaves to sustain the Southern lifestyle made the Georgetown district’s population 90 percent black by the height of rice production. Until the Atlantic slave trade was closed in 1808, many captured Africans brought with them an extensive knowledge about the cultivation of rice, which was a major factor in the success of rice planting in South Carolina. Rice was a crop that required a great deal of attention and was very susceptible to weather, pests and salt water. Yet the tidal waters of the Carolina Lowcountry proved to be an ideal location for it to thrive.

At first, rice cultivation was attempted in upland fields, where man battled with native grasses and weeds. Moving the crop to inland swamps proved much more successful. Earlier than once believed, cypress, gum and tupelo swamps adjacent to tidal rivers were cleared to create flat fields that could be flooded with an incoming tide, all due to an intricate system of canals, gates and banks. In Suzanne Linder’s An Atlas of Rice Plantations of Georgetown County and the Santee Delta, she finds “tidal rice lands” listed in early real estate indentures of the 1740s. By 1850, Georgetown grew more rice than any other place in the world except the area around Calcutta, India.

At the close of the American Civil War, 3,000 slaves on the Waccamaw Neck were freed on the same day. Some moved away, but many stayed to earn wages working the same jobs they had performed before for free. The unavailability of enslaved labor made rice planting much less profitable. That, along with several years of hurricanes that led to failed crops and competition from Western states, contributed to the final demise of the reign of Carolina Gold – the sought-after rice that had created wealth beyond belief in the Waccamaw Neck area.

New laborers came in the second half of the 19th century. Railroad workers laid logging railroads and a freight line that stretched from Wilmington to Savannah. Logging railroads enabled lumber mills to move operations to Georgetown County, including the Atlantic Lumber Company. They denuded areas of longleaf and loblolly pine, oak, cedar and especially the black and bald cypress that had escaped eradication when swamps were cleared for rice production. Hundreds of board-feet of lumber were exported from the port at Georgetown.

Georgetown’s port experienced its most profitable year in 1905, the same year that a New Yorker bought 11 former rice plantations at the southern tip of the Waccamaw Neck, but not to farm or harvest timber. Bernard Baruch came to hunt ducks, hundreds a day as the ducks spent the winters in the coastal rice fields.

Many millionaires, leaders of industry and politics, first became aware of the waterfowl after Washington D.C. newspapers covered the story of an 1894 near-death experience. President Grover Cleveland “nearly drowned to death” in the pluff mud as he stepped out of a small boat and made his way slowly and clumsily to a duck blind. His hunting guide, Sawney Caines, had to “grab a holt” to the leader of the free world and yank him out of his waders, mired in the mud. The headlines attracted the attention of millionaires who had been hunting in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, and Baruch led the way in a succession of purchases by other individuals who wanted plantations to use as winter residences.

Besides the Baruchs, the Vanderbilts, duPonts, Huttons, Huntingtons, Dodges, Kimbels, Guggenheims, Luces and others bought South Carolina coastal retreats and entertained world leaders, congressmen, Broadway and Hollywood moguls, journalists, musicians and military officers. These newcomers, described as part of “the second Northern invasion,” contributed to the local economy by building homes, employing local laborers and supervisors and supporting hospitals, churches, banks and businesses.

World War I brought employment to South Carolina ports and an increase in activity in road building and timber harvesting. The road connecting the cities of the East Coast had been a Native American trail that was widened during the colonial era and named King’s Highway. By the 1920s, the rise of the automobile made the small coastal highway a thoroughfare for travelers who spent summers in New York and winters in Miami. In time, gas stations, motor courts, restaurants and stores followed, and the highway, which was straightened and paved, was renamed U.S. Highway 17. By 1935, in the midst of the Great Depression, a bridge was built to connect the Waccamaw Neck with the mainland that made it easier for people to travel and commute to jobs and education.

Also in 1935, the Lafayette Pavilion opened on Pawleys Island with big name entertainers performing to crowds of 300-500 on the weekends. Visitors from Wilmington to Charleston made the trip to dance and drink at the pavilion, and many stayed at the adjacent oceanfront Lafayette Court. Even in the midst of the Great Depression, tourists traveling Highway 17 stopped at the relatively new Hammock Shops, which offered nursery plants, pottery, hooked rugs and the still famous Pawleys Island rope hammock. Marlow’s Store, located just south of the Hammock Shops, was a general store with a meat market, dry goods, local caviar and groceries on credit.

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Hurricane Hugo destruction, 1989Courtesy of Georgetown County Digital Library

In 1937, International Paper Company opened a mill in Georgetown and brought hundreds of new employees, as well as a number of parallel industries. During World War II, the paper mill was the world’s largest kraft paper mill in the world. Also during the war, Myrtle Beach Air Base trained B-25 bomber pilots and the Army Air Corps had “crash boat crews” stationed in Murrells Inlet to assist in rescue and recovery. After 1945, many military men found permanent work in the place they found so beautiful. This in conjunction with Hurricane Hazel in 1954, which reduced forests to ruins and destroyed houses, created a surge in the construction of homes, motels and restaurants.

Tourism was the next commercial boom in the Waccamaw Neck, and in the 1960s, efforts to capitalize on this were aimed at automobile owners and sport fishermen. Head boat operators took paying customers out on full- and half-day charters and seafood restaurants, like Morse’s Oyster Roast, Nance’s and Anchor Inn were built. The Intracoastal Waterway also helped by enabling seasonal visitors to arrive by boat.

The unhurried, beautiful, relaxing Pawleys Island area became a vacation mecca, and for many families in South Carolina and other states summer just wasn’t over until they had stayed a week at “the beach.” Many beach houses, built at North and South Litchfield Beaches, Litchfield by the Sea, Pawleys Island and DeBordieu, have been rented for decades to the same family who look forward to celebrating their own traditions of swimming, crabbing, biking, kayaking and playing golf.

In 1989, when Hurricane Hugo hit Georgetown County, the population was large enough to warrant some concern about evacuation and sheltering those left homeless after the historic storm. Federal money and insurance changed the face of the islands and the Waccamaw Neck. Entire rows of houses simply disappeared, along with their inhabitants, and new houses were built using imported plants and trees in their landscaping. At first no one noticed as “con-damn-miniums” were built and large houses went up on the beaches, complete with two kitchens, three floors, four-car garages and doorbells by locked doors. Central heat and air conditioning in beach houses meant fewer people on porches, but heating and air companies proliferated. Grocery stores and support industries appeared in the 1990s, and by 2000, International Paper’s record of employment was surpassed, as the Georgetown County School District became the county’s largest employer.

The Waccamaw Neck has experienced great change over the centuries, and the contributions of each generation of men and women who were newcomers at one time have shaped the culture.

So while “Natives” have definitely seen the landscape change (for better or worse), they have also benefited from the economic growth, conveniences, schools, libraries and improved facilities that progress has manifested. And although newcomers who acclimate by volunteering and contributing to the community won’t ever be natives, they will be locals.

Lee Gordon Brockington is a native South Carolinian, but a newcomer to the Waccamaw Neck 30 years ago. A senior interpreter at Hobcaw Barony and resident of Pawleys Island, she is also an author, editor or contributor to six books on Waccamaw Neck history.

2018-01-19T11:44:59+00:00