Daufuskie’s Island History




The Mysterious Daufuskie

The island is called Daufuskie.  It is a place that defies description.  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 about it.  Movies have been filmed here.  Popular rock musician, John Mellencamp, and famous hockey player, Mario Lemieux, have made their homes there.  Yet it remains relatively untouched by the hustle and bustle of every-day life.

While most documented history about the island begins in the late 1500’s, 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 Lowcountry.  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.

Its First Settlers

The Cusabo, 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 on the Webb Tract 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 1500’s, 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 Lowcountry region.  Examples of this rare breed can still be found on Daufuskie.

In the 1600’s, 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 Scotts soon took his advice and began to settle in the area.

Early Conflicts

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.

As the story goes, after continuous raids by the Yemassee, the British had had enough.  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 Mongen 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.

British Dominance

The dreams of wealth and the promise of religious freedom were two important motivators in bringing prominent European families to American.  The English crown began to award land grants to the more deserving.  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 in spite of the resident’s Loyalist sentiments.

Post-Revolutionary War

The 1700’s and 1800’s 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 eleven plantations on Daufuskie: Haig, Melrose, Oak Ridge, Bloody Point, Mongin, Maryfield and Oakley Hall.  They ranged in size from 200 to 1100 acres and were self-contained.  Almost everything they needed was raised, produced or made on the island.  One of the most prestigious was the original 1848 Melrose Mansion (built on the same site as its modern namesake community) which had acres upon acres of roses, flower gardens, fruit orchards, and every luxury for the affluent of that time.  Families from all over came by boat to visit this mansion.

Another well-known mansion was the plantation home at Haig’s Point.  It was approximately 7000 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 photograph is the remains of tabby slave quarters at Haig Point on Daufuskie Island.

The Civil War Era

Early in the Civil War, Union soldiers occupied most of the area’s islands.  The fear of conflict and the presence of approximately 1600 troops on Daufuskie caused white plantation owners and their slaves to flee leaving behind property which was eventually confiscated as abandoned.

As the war went on, Daufuskie became critical in the Union’s plan to take Fort Pulaski, which protected the Savannah River through which supplies were being transported to the Confederates.

From Daufuskie, the Union soldiers planned to cut a path across the tidal lands to allow movement of troops and materials to key locations but the ground was so boggy that timbers had to be laid down to make this possible.  Many trees were harvested on Daufuskie and even large plantation homes were dismantled for the wood.

Finally, having moved men and munitions over “corduroy” roads to key locations, Fort Pulaski was cut off from its supplies.  Just after sunrise on April 10, 1862, a Union commander summoned Fort Pulaski to surrender.  When the request was refused, the gun fire commenced.   One day later, the white flag of surrender was hoisted over the fort and the troops on Daufuskie, who had been watching the bombardment from the hill top on the Mongin Creek plantation and from the tops of the willow trees near the Mongin mansion at Blood Point, celebrated with a religious service followed by a big feast.

The Gullah Culture After the Civil War

After the civil war, Daufuskie’s island 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.  They brought back with them their Gullah language and culture.

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.  Burial customs sometimes include leaving the deceased’s favorite household articles on the grave in case they should be needed.

The Bustling Years on Daufuskie

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 Lowcountry 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 must have been strange to hear the shrill whistle of a locomotive as it transported the timber to the south end of the island where it would be carried by boat or floated to sawmills in Savannah.  Old Ironsides’ was constructed with Daufuskie’s live oak.

Before the Boll Weevil destroyed all the cotton fields in the early 1900’s, the waterways around Daufuskie were busy as boats transported cotton, oysters, timber, pears, pecans, produce and freight between island and mainland – either to Savannah, Bluffton, or 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.

Patrick Comer and his wife, Bridget, were the first keepers of the Haig’s Point lighthouse.  The Comers and their daughters, Mary Ellen and Maggie, moved to Daufuskie in 1873 and tended to its structure for 18 years.  A lighthouse legend, says that, during the time that Maggie lived there, she fell in love with a handsome naval engineer who had come to make changes to the lighthouse.  Notes from his diary revealed that the pair had quickly fallen in love, but something unexpected happened and he left suddenly and never returned.  It is said that Maggie soon died of a broken heart and that her ghost still resides in the lighthouse waiting for her lover to return.

A more plausible explanation would be that the ghost is Mrs.Comer who miraculously escaped from a watery grave but was never the same thereafter. According to the Savannah Morning News, just one year after moving to the lighthouse, her first permanent home, Bridgett and her helper capsized on Grenadine Shoal during a storm.  Both were thrown into the sea, but managed to get back into the boat.  With everything on board gone and having no oars they drifted out to sea.   After almost two days without food, water or shelter, Mrs. Comer and the dead body of her helper were finally rescued by United States steamer Alanthus bound for Florida.  The injuries she received as she struggled to stay with the boat were so severe that she never was the same again.  Some say that it is Bridgett’s ghost who refuses to leave the home she loved so dearly.

Passengers sailing by at night occasionally report seeing the shadow of a woman in the tower window – even when the lighthouse is not occupied.  Haig Point residents and guests staying in the lighthouse tell stories of lights going on and off, doors locking on their own, and empty chairs rocking.  If you happen to visit Haig Point, drop in at the lighthouse.  Maybe you’ll encounter two  ghosts instead of just one.

Oyster Industry – Hope and Demise

From the 1880’s until the 1950’s, the oyster industry flourished on Daufuskie.  By the turn of the century there would be an average of 2,000 people working on the island.  It is reported that even the Tsar of Russia preferred ‘Daufuski Oysters.’ This brand name (without the ‘e’) was used by Maggioni and Company to market its oysters world-wide.  Pollution from the Savannah River contaminated the island’s oyster beds in the 1950’s and virtually ended the oyster industry.   Now this label is all that remains to remind one of a once thriving business.

Even with this prospering economy, the Gullah people remained a closely knit, caring community virtually unaffected by the outside world.  island women depended on midwives to help with the delivery of their babies until the late 1950’s.  The most famous of the midwives was Sarah Grant.  For over 37 years, she welcomed into the world more than 130 babies without losing a one.  Her husband, on the other hand, ushered them out.  He was the island’s undertaker.

Praise houses, where Christianity is celebrated with a profound fervor were also used as classrooms.  In 1913, a one-room White School for white children was opened on the island.  It was not until the 1930’s that the Maryfields school was built for black children. This two-room school house, where Pat Conroy once taught, is famous for being the setting of his well-known  book, The Water is Wide.

In the 1950s, industrial waste from Savannah polluted the Savannah River and forced the closure of the area’s oyster beds.  With little or no employment opportunity, islanders moved away leaving behind a rich legacy of Gullah history.  A census taken in 2007 indicated that the population had dwindled to a total of just 429 full-time residents.

Daufuskie Today

Electricity came to the island in 1953.  Telephones followed in 1972.  These brought instant connection to the world at large and word about this island paradise began to spread.   In the 1980’s developers started planning to make Daufuskie Island a residential destination.  Developments were planned for Bloody Point, Melrose, Haig Point, and Oakridge.

In 1986, International Paper began its development of Haig Point by making headlines when it rescued the historic Strachan Mansion from impending demolition as part of a St. Simons housing development and moved it to Haig Point.   The mansion had been built as a summer retreat in 1910 by F.D.M. Strachan, St. Simon’s first millionaire who made his fortune transporting cotton and timber from Georgia to eager overseas markets.  At that time, the Strachan compound at St. Simons included the mansion with a detached kitchen, two servant buildings, a large cistern the children used as a swimming pool, two Spanish-American War cannons aimed at Jekyll Island, and a two-story carriage house.  It took two barges three days to move this once elegant mansion to Haig Point where it was restored to its original magnificence and today provides luxurious lodging for over-night guests of Haig Point members.

The island is now split into five residential areas: Haig Point, Melrose, Oak Ridge, Bloody Point, and a section of unincorporated land where residents live in a variety of accommodations, from trailers to beautiful waterfront homes with private docks.

The unincorporated section of the island was designated as a federal Historic District in the early 1980s.  Here you will find excellent examples of original Gullah homes and you will meet descendants of the Gullah people living on land which has been in their families since just after the Civil War.

Despite progress and development, the Historic District and its Gullah culture have virtually remained unchanged.  Every year native islanders get together in a sort of homecoming celebration called  Daufuskie Day.   In 1976 when Francis Jones, Principal of the Mary Fields School, established Daufuskie Day, her intent was to create an event that would preserve the native island Gullah culture and create a legacy honoring native islanders.  Highlights of the event include food and craft vendors selling indigenous products, sweet grass basket sewers performing demonstrations and selling their baskets, Gullah storytellers sharing their tales in Gullah, and musicians performing African, Gospel and Negro spiritual music.

It is heartwarming to see the joy-filled faces of those who return to the island annually for this celebration.  It’s clear that Daufuskie is still considered “home” to many who have long since moved away.

The entire island is on the National Register of Historic Places