Headstones & History – Exploring Palmetto Bluff
The Lowcountry is filled with such a rich history, from the good to the bad, and everywhere in between. I am always amazed at the artifacts from the past that are still unearthed throughout the region, specifically right in our backyards here in Bluffton. Many famous Civil War battles were waged right here on the land that modern Bluffton locals now call home, and the area is also rife with Indian artifacts dating even further back to the 1700s.
In the late 1800s, Bluffton was a high-profile headquarters of the Confederate “rebels” and was eventually attacked by Union forces who bombarded and burned it to the ground almost completely in June of 1863. It would take nearly a hundred years for the town to fully recover.
It is hard to imagine that such a cataclysmic event ever took place when looking around at the vibrant, bustling community, filled with shops, restaurants and elaborate homes. Though not all of its residents realize it, this land has quite a story to tell.
Recently, I had the pleasure of joining in with the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy (PBC) for a free educational tour. We explored some of the landmarks from this era gone by, more specifically, historical cemeteries on the property dating back to the Civil War era.
Palmetto Bluff Conservancy
The PBC is a non-profit organization. It was ultimately created to ensure a conservation vision for the 20,000 acres of land that it is perched upon, housing one of the most wealthy and sought after living communities in the region. It is not hard to realize why. The natural beauty of the land in Palmetto Bluff is unmatched in its glory. That is probably why so many celebrities (eh hem, Justin Bieber, for one) have sought it out for weddings and milestone events over the years.
Impressively, PBC employs an entire team of seasoned archeologists, for good reason, once you uncover the deep history of the surrounding land. We had the pleasure of taking this historical tour with two of the staff archaeologists, Dr. Mary Socci and Katie Epps, both of whom are absolutely brimming with enthusiastic knowledge on the history of the region.
I arrived at the location rather early, per my usual, so I decided to take a stroll through a greenway situated along banks of the intricately woven marshlands and waterways of the May River. The inviting tree line was filled with the most enormous and majestic live oaks I have witnessed in the area. Wherever you roam in Palmetto Bluff, you have the feeling of being royalty, or perhaps wandering through a life-sized postcard. There is something about the sights and sounds that beckons you to walk a little slower and breathe a little deeper.
When the clock struck ‘time to go,’ the small group convened in the gorgeous, wood-laden conference room that houses the PBC, complete with artifacts and perfectly preserved indigenous animals from the area on display. It gave the location the feel of a satellite museum of sorts. Our guide for the day, Dr. Mary Socci, had a veritable wealth of knowledge about nearly every inch of the land in Palmetto Bluff, as well as the people who had inhabited it prior to modern times. She is a true steward of the land and guardian of the past.
It was a joy to listen to her speak and weave together family trees and lineage with the grace and ease of an historian who really knows her stuff. And know her stuff she does; enough so to have penned several books and papers on the topic of her historic milieu.
We poured over slides of family trees, along with the history of original landowners and associated enslaved families. We dug into historical maps that showed the original delineations of the land, which are vastly different than what it looks like today. She explained how the families were interwoven with the land and development, and she explained the changes that took place in society that spurred the division of the land to its current state.
Once armed with a basic working knowledge of the landowners, families and land maps, the group shuffled en masse to the tour vehicles and were promptly instructed to ‘take a bath’ in mosquito repellant. This tour was not held on the beaten path, but deep in the woods, and Palmetto Bluff has thick layers of forest. It is not unheard of for folks to get turned around and lost while riding bikes through the endless paths and dirt roads around the property, a danger that all visitors and residents alike must cautiously avoid.
Once properly doused in a cocktail of insect repellants, we loaded into the long, riser seating perched in the bed of two dusty pickup trucks and we were on our way. We were warned that the ride to our destination was a 15-20 minute roundabout trek. I have to admit, I didn’t mind the jaunt.
We were lightly jostled as we drove along the bumpy paths, but it gave the rustic feel of a Jurassic Park inspired safari, minus the looming danger. We were moving just fast enough to get to where we were going, and slow enough to take in the beauty of our surroundings. When I feel stressed or anxious, there is no greater calming force than being in nature. The sun peeked through the trees and you could see the pollen whirling through the spring air. Even that has its own beauty. It gave me a great respect for the impressive size and vast ecology that comprises Palmetto Bluff. My mind was spilling over with all of my newfound knowledge of the region. Looking out on the undeveloped land, you could almost feel the history and picture what life was like, way back when.
The History of Bluffton
In case you are not aware, I will give you a brief history on the land that surrounds Palmetto Bluff. Mind you, this is a highly abridged version.
As a starting point, the region first housed Yemassee Indians dating all the way back to the 1700s. The Yemasee Tribes were eventually driven further south to Florida as the land was taken over by wealthy European landowners, who arrived in the early 1800s and frequented the area as a summer escape destination. Here they could enjoy the pristine waterways and shores and escape the heat of inland areas. Upon arriving, the Europeans saw an opportunity in owning land. They swiftly purchased large tracts to secure their wealth through ownership of a piece of this new frontier. Commerce began to develop in the region and much of the land was split into large plantations used for crop farming. Some of the names of streets and neighborhoods maintain the family names of the original landowners to this day.
It is no secret that, with plantations, also came slavery. Slaves were slowly brought over to work the land for wealthy European landowners at this time, many of whom built farms for rice, cotton, indigo, corn, beans, sweet potatoes and various other crops. Keep in mind that the area was very rural and overgrown, so a good amount of work had to be done to clear the thickly wooded land prior to farming, mostly in less than desirable conditions.
We all know how hot the summers can get here. It is hard to imagine working in the blazing sun all day performing manual labor, only to encounter snakes, alligators, bobcats and insects of all kinds, without much in the way of defense. Many people from this time passed away from malaria due to the thick, humid heat and an over abundance of mosquitoes.
Dr. Socci explained that over the years, slaves from many different regions were brought to the area and meshed cultural practices and languages together. They eventually formed what would become known as the beautifully rhythmic Gullah dialect, which is believed to be a compilation of English, Central African and West African dialects. Many believe that this form of communication may have also been developed out of necessity, as it allowed the enslaved to communicate with each other in a way that the landowners would not be able to decipher. I am utterly fascinated by the Gullah culture and its intertwined, rich history in this area. I plan to touch on this culture further in future posts.
November of 1861 marked the beginning of the downfall for the Confederacy. Eventually, in June of 1863, Union soldiers attacked Bluffton from the May River to force out rebel infantry that had assumed headquarters in Bluffton. Upon their approach, wealthy residents fled for safety, taking what they could carry and abandoning their land for good, most never to return. The majority of Bluffton was burned to the ground to the tune of 75%, except for a reported 15 homes and 2 churches. These include the iconic Church of the Cross and Historic Heyward House in the heart of Downtown Bluffton.
Once the area was invaded, the majority of the enslaved that worked on the plantations were left behind to fend for themselves. Because the land fell to Union soldiers, slavery was lifted from the area. At this important juncture in history, many of the enslaved who were abandoned fled to Hilton Head Island and were able to declare freedom at this time.
Subsequently, many of the newly freed became landowners, purchasing abandoned land plots that had been left behind by their former owners. It was from this point that they were able to set roots and became true pioneers. They built progressive communities of their own, which were complete communities with churches, schools and self-governance. Historic Mitchelville is a prime example on Hilton Head Island. Mitchelville Freedom Park is so peaceful. It still houses original buildings from this time and guided wayfinding tours through its storied history. The Praise House on site in this park is one of my favorite structures that I have encountered on HHI. When you see it in the morning hours, the sun rises over the top of this storied prayer site and shines across it in the most heavenly fashion. You can’t help but feel moved.
As the tour grew closer to the intended gravesites that were our mission for the day, we made a sudden stop in the woods, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. “We’re here,” Dr. Socci proclaimed, as she hopped out of the bed of the pickup. It was somewhat eerie, all the way out there in the middle of the woods, to think that this is where the inhabitants of that era lived and roamed. What must it have been like to live there so many years ago, with no roads or conventional electricity and predators seemingly at every turn?
“Ok, let’s walk!,” Dr. Socci instructed. Off we went like ants marching. After a brief hike through the woods, the sacred land revealed itself. It was humble, yet completely awe inspiring. The carved headstones still stood tall (with a few exceptions), as well as a dilapidated building structure, believed to be a prayer house of sorts, flanked at its side.
It is unbelievable to think that these stones were etched centuries ago and have stood up to the sands of time. The names and tributes were still legible. It is mind blowing to stand there and realize that the rock you are looking at was carved by someone who stood in that very spot 200 years earlier. It is also wild to think that sites like this exist all over this area and so many current residents and newcomers are none the wiser. It made me want to do my small part to share this rich history.
We visited two cemeteries that day, both the landowner site and a burial for those enslaved, as we learned their resting grounds were kept separate in this era. Dr. Socci explained that the enslaved cemeteries were generally placed nearer to the water, which she believes is attributed to the unpredictability of the tides. She reminded us that these were different times. While these lots are now some of the highest priced and most desirable, it wasn’t so back then. Priorities were different and decisions were mostly based on farming and survival. Due to the flow of the tides, it is believed that waterfront land was seen by the plantation owners as unusable land for crops and development, so they opened it up for such burial purposes.
The headstones still stand strong here as well, which is completely amazing when you think about how many hurricanes and storms have passed through over the centuries, as well as factoring in erosion. Some of the headstones in this space are so uniquely beautiful, complete with artistic etchings and cursive script, and dictating particularly heartfelt messages. There was a palpable soul to this resting place. Dr. Socci clarified that, based on the dates, some of those buried in this space were also formerly enslaved individuals that had achieved freedom, but were returned to lay to rest alongside their family members who had passed in prior generations.
Protecting the Land for Public Enjoyment
The PBC is working tirelessly to identify landmarks with historical importance in order to preserve the land surrounding them. Once artifacts such as these are found, development is prohibited within a certain distance from the grave sites, as a matter of historical preservation. That said, the land can still be purchased and homes developed, only an easement would have to be carefully placed on and around the cemetery. It is a law that there must be public access to gravesites that are intact, in order to allow relatives of later generations to pay their respects.
It is the PBC’s greatest wish and ultimate goal to save this particular landmark, and others like, it from development. To do so may require purchasing the land in full. Their end goal is to turn this area into a beautiful park for public enjoyment. When the time comes, they may need many donations to make this a reality, as this land will sell for a pretty penny, if not donated outright to their cause.
If you are interested in supporting the wonderful efforts of the Palmetto Bluff Conservancy in preserving the history of our community, and wish to contribute to their efforts in maintaining the integrity of the land, your donations are greatly appreciated and welcomed. To learn more, you can visit their website at: https://www.palmettobluff.com/conservation
PBC also opens up a variety of historical tours and volunteer efforts to the public. Visit their online calendar of events for information on how to sign up and to view which events are being offered in the coming months.