The Mysterious Daufuskie - An Early History
The island is called Daufuskie. Words like fascinating, historic, mysterious, eclectic, and beautiful have been streamed together in an effort to capture its magic. With a fascinating history, ghost stories, and an isolated position in history, Daufuskie is one of the most intriguing and beautiful islands on the South Carolina coast. Books have been written and movies have been filmed here, yet it remains relatively untouched by the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
While most documented history about the island begins in the late 1500s, arrowheads found on the island provide evidence that Native American hunting parties visited the island over 9,000 years ago. Prior to arrival of Europeans, numerous Indian tribes inhabited the Low country. Culturally and linguistically these tribes were of Muskogean stock. The name “Daufuskie Island” comes from the Muscogee language and means sharp feather because of the island’s distinctive shape.
DAUFUSKIE’S FIRST SETTLERS
Daufuskie’s First SettlersThe Cusabo, meaning people of the river, occupied Daufuskie well before the seventeenth century. They built log lodges, great sailing canoes, and walled villages. The remains of one can still be seen in a place residents call Rabbit Point. The Cusabo were later pushed out by the Yemassee Indians, allies of the Spanish, who came up from Florida and became a dominant force in the area. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers sailed the Southeastern Coast of North America. By 1565, they had settled in St. Augustine and were moving northward to establish additional colonies. It was during this period of early exploration that Spanish settlers introduced their distinctive Iberian horses to the Southeastern Coast. Today the descendants of these horses are known as Carolina Marsh Tacky. These sturdy, intelligent horses are particularly well adapted to the swampy and marshy Low country Region. Examples of this rare breed can still be found on Daufuskie.In the 1600s, the English also began to explore the southern coast. In 1664, English Captain William Hilton first viewed the island and wrote in his log, “The air is sweet and clear, the country very pleasant and delightful, and we would wish all that want a happy settlement of our English nation, were well transported hither.” The English and Scots soon took his advice and began to settle in the area.
Since the Spanish had claimed all the land from Charleston to St Augustine, they began to resent the growing number of settlers. Soon they enticed the Yemassee warriors to join them in their fight against the “intruders.”In 1684, Spanish soldiers and Yemassee warriors started raiding Scottish settlements in Port Royal. The inevitable clash of cultures culminated with a so-called Yemassee uprising. In 1715, bloody skirmishes between the Yemassee and British scouts took place on the south end of Daufuskie Island giving the area its name – Bloody Point. According to Roger Pinckney, in August of 1715, with news of a planned raid, three small English gunboats lay in waiting on the New River and a contingent of militia hid in the woods about where the Bloody Point Cemetery is today. When the Yemassee war canoes appeared on the Mongin River, the English let loose with canons and rifles. The raid turned into a massacre as native weaponry was overwhelmed by European fire power. Over the course of two years, the raids diminished and the Yemassee influence on the island virtually disappeared except for those who believe that the spirits of the Yemassee warriors still wander the island keeping watch and lamenting the loss of their home.
The dreams of wealth and the promise of religious freedom were two important motivators in bringing prominent European families to America. In 1707, Thomas Cowte received the first land grant on Daufuskie Island. In 1737, King George II awarded a land grant to Captain David Mongin in appreciation for his services on the high seas in controlling Spanish pirates. Prominent families who fled from religious persecution in Europe and eventually settled on Daufuskie included the Mongins and Martinangelos. Both rose to become powerful island plantation owners. As the Revolutionary War began, Daufuskie was becoming an island of plantations with cotton being one of the most coveted crops. Because its identity was largely agricultural, Daufuskie went through the Revolutionary War relatively unscathed despite the resident’s Loyalist sentiments.
The 1700s and 1800s saw Daufuskie Island thrive. Large plantation mansions were built and the production of Sea Island Cotton flourished. Because cotton farming was labor intensive, plantation owners began to bring in large numbers of slaves from the west coast of Africa. The West Africans were resistant to the malaria and yellow fever which drove plantation owners and their families inland for up to six months of the year. As a result, the slaves were isolated from the white community for much of the time. This made it possible for them to retain their African customs and culture. Over time, they became known as the Gullahs or Geechees of the Lowcountry. Just before the Civil War, there were seven plantations on Daufuskie: Haig, Melrose, Oak Ridge, Bloody Point, Mongin, Maryfield and Oakley Hall. They ranged in size from 200 to 1,100 acres. Another well-known mansion was the plantation home at Haig’s Point. It was approximately 7,000 square feet, and was the largest domestic tabby building erected in Coastal South Carolina. Tabby, which was first used by early Spanish settlers, is a type of concrete made by burning oyster shells to create lime, then mixing the lime with water, sand, ash and broken oyster shells. The best preserved, tabby-walled single slave dwellings still standing in Beaufort County can be found today at Haig Point.
The Gullah Culture After the Civil War
After the Civil War, Daufuskie Island’s location protected the Gullah culture from the influence of the bustling world across the water. With the Emancipation Proclamation, a large population of freed slaves, who had previously worked on the island’s plantations, returned to Daufuskie and purchased small tracts of land for themselves and their families or went to work for the large landowners. The Gullah language, a rhythmic blend of Southern English and native African dialects, can still be heard on Daufuskie today just as certain aspects of the Gullah culture can be observed. Look closely and you will notice that the shutters and trim on the doors and windows of many of the homes are painted a pleasant shade of light blue (known as heaven blue) in order to keep the haints (evil spirits) from entering through the heaven protected openings. The Gullahs also believed that a person’s soul and spirit were two different things. After death, the soul went to heaven but the spirit of the deceased remained. That’s why you will discover that most cemeteries on Daufuskie are located near moving water so that the spirit of the departed could more easily travel home to Africa.
The Bustling Years
After the Civil War, in addition to cotton, there was also a demand for wood to build America’s tall ships. The live oak trees, abundant on Daufuskie, were valued for their strength and resistance to rot. Ship builders traveled to Daufuskie and to other parts of the Low country to cut down the oaks, hew them, and deliver them to landings on the coast by oxen and later by railroad that ran the length of the island. It would then be carried by boat or floated to sawmills in Savannah. Old Ironsides’ was constructed with live oak from Daufuskie.Before the boll weevil destroyed all the cotton fields in the early 1900s, the waterways around Daufuskie were busy as boats transported cotton, oysters, timber, pears, pecans, produce and freight to Savannah, Bluffton, Beaufort, and even as far away as Charleston. Sometimes there could be as many as five steamships docked at the public landing or anchored off shore. Daufuskie was bustling. In 1872, to assist ships trying to navigate the shifting shoals of Calibogue Sound, construction of a lighthouse on Haig’s Point began. The 40-foot tower of the lighthouse served mariners traveling around the northern tip of Daufuskie between 1873 to the 1930s.