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The history of the Cainhoy Peninsula

  • Wednesday, February 19, 2014

As a way of introduction for those of you who don’t know me, I have written extensively on the history of the East Cooper area and for some years have been researching Wando River and Cainhoy peninsula history. Unapologetically, I admit that I probably know more about the Cainhoy region’s history than anyone else at the moment. As I was attempting to explain my concerns about the proposed development of Cainhoy Plantation to a friend and writer, the following resulted. Because of the enormity of the area’s history, this method will hopefully prove to be a readable way to pass on some of the region’s historic importance, especially African-American history.

The importance of the Cainhoy Peninsula

The history of the Cainhoy Peninsula is as old as the settlement of Charleston – actually older because of the Native American presence in the area. What makes the Cainhoy Peninsula especially important is that the land is still intact. The topography has not yet been sullied by growth as in other parts of the Lowcountry. The artifacts buried in the ground need to be excavated appropriately by full and expansive archaeological studies — not merely random test-pits, but serious archaeological digs at numerous locations. Otherwise, the wealth of information buried in the soil will be lost forever when the bulldozers come in to level ground for construction. While some might argue that every inch of Lowcountry soil is “historic,” this area is particularly important, especially the Native American and African-American history, the latter of which not only involved slavery but also an astounding number of free men who owned property early on.

The Jack Primus community

The Jack Primus community has been there for as long as anyone can remember. But who was Jack Primus? Most people assumed he was probably one of the freed slaves who came into property ownership after the Civil War, one of the “40 acres and a mule” folks who went from slave to landowner in the late 1860s. It turns out that John Primus (also spelled Primots in one land survey) was a free black man who purchased 100 acres on the Cainhoy Peninsula in 1712. Read that again, 1712. That was 40 years after Charles Town was settled. 153 years prior to emancipation. In the early 1700s, Primus was a free man of color AND an owner of valuable property. The records on this, by the way, are indisputable and shown in various deeds and land grants kept at the S.C. Department of Archives & History. Through other documentation one can follow the Primus descendants as they eventually moved to the Pocotaligo and Beaufort area, where many still reside today.

Black-owned plantation land at that time was very special

Indeed, and it makes the Cainhoy history particularly unusual. The first settlers were a mix of people that included English-speaking people from the British Isles and Caribbean, a large contingency of Congregationalists from New England, and Puritans from Massachusetts. The French Huguenot settlers had their own French-speaking church, St. Denis, on French Quarter Creek. There were Native Americans, primarily those of the Wando and Etiwan tribes, and the name “Cainhoy” is a Native American word, originally seen as “Kenha” on maps of the late 1600s. There were also African-Americans, both slave and free. In fact, the St. Thomas Parish Annals note that in 1728, the inhabitants numbered 565 whites, 950 negro slaves, 60 Indian slaves and 20 free negroes. That is an unusually large number of free blacks. This came about from the fact that many of the original white Cainhoy Peninsula landowners manumitted their slaves in their wills. When Sarah Fenwick, a Congregationalist and the widow of Robert Fenwick, died on Jan. 26, 1726/7, her will bequeathed, among other things, “£20 yearly for 20 years” to the pastor at the Cainhoy Meeting and a similar bequest to the meeting house at Wappetaw. Her will also gave her “negro man Jack his freedom upon this condition that he pay five pounds current money yearly to the dissenting pastor teacher on this neck,” and “Old Judy her freedom on condition she pay to said dissenting teacher yearly five shillings.” In 1696, the Quaker Thomas Bolton, freed his slave Titus, writing in his will, “To my negro man Titus his freedom at the expiration of two years after my decease or as soon after as my Executor shall think fit not exceeding five years.” Often slaves were not only given freedom, but land – good land – or money to purchase it. The free black population in the region continued to grow into the next century. From 1840 to 1850 for instance, census records show that the slave population in St. Thomas Parish actually declined while the number of free black landowners grew from 177 to 210. In 1860, a little more than 61 percent of the free people of color in the parish owned property and six out of seven, or 85.7 percent, owned slaves. Like their white landowner counterparts, the majority of their income was derived from rice. This is an important and much overlooked part of Lowcountry African-American history.

Puritans from Massachusetts

A large contingency (you might even call it a mass exodus) of people from Massachusetts came to South Carolina in the late 1600s following the debacle of the Salem witch trials. One group settled on the Ashley River and established the town called Dorchester. Another group settled on the Wando River at Wappetaw, building a meeting house on 15-Mile Road. near today’s SeeWee Restaurant. And an allied group settled at Cainhoy where they erected a meeting house in the 1690s. The families of all three settlements were related by marriage and include some of our most recognized “Lowcountry” family names, such as Legare, Bennett, Singletary, Simmons, Wells, Whilden and Murrell, to name only a few. The Wappetaw and Cainhoy settlements were only a few miles apart by river and at times shared the same minister. Eventually, both morphed from being Congregationalist meeting houses to Presbyterian congregations. While the Cainhoy meeting house building no longer exists, the graveyard does, and in it are buried some of the earliest settlers in the region. The graveyard is hallowed ground and it is my understanding that it is threatened by the proposed widening of Clements Ferry Road. This cannot be allowed to happen.

A true melting pot

Indeed. What gets confusing is that the connections go beyond being “just” from Barbados or “just” from England. For instance, one of the very first owners of the land that became Hartford Plantation (now Cainhoy Plantation) was Joseph Harbin, a wealthy merchant in Barbados. His land grants in South Carolina date to before 1680. Although Harbin never came to Carolina, he sent a relative (probably his grandson), Andrew Russ, to oversee his property. Russ and his heirs eventually inherited Hartford. But Russ didn’t come from England or Barbados. He came from Massachusetts! This tells volumes about the convoluted connections of the people who lived in the colonies in those early days. It is not exactly what one expects. For instance, the progenitor of the South Carolina Legare family, Solomon Legare, was not a Huguenot who came from France, he was allied with the Ipswich, Mass group who settled Wappetaw. Early on, all these people — the English, Barbadians, French, Massachusetts folks, Native Americans and African-Americans — formed a mutual reliance on the Cainhoy Peninsula. They held a connection to the land and to each other that is evident even today. The people who live at Cainhoy and at Jack Primus aren’t fighting for mere land. Their families go back three centuries. This is their birthright, their legacy.

Beresford Bounty

You could rightfully ask, “What IS the Beresford Bounty?” The Beresford Bounty monies are in use even today. It remains one of the longest-surviving unbroken trusts in the world. It began in the early 1720s as a fund set up in the will of Richard Beresford for the operation of a free school at Cainhoy, then the “town” for the upper Wando River region. First, a bit of background: There are actually two Cainhoy villages. The “new” village, the existing village of today, was developed during the 1800s as a summer resort for area planters and is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The earlier village, the original Cainhoy settlement that dates to the late 1600s, is actually about one half-mile downriver on a bluff on aptly named Cainhoy Village Road. It was here that the original Congregational (later Presbyterian) Meeting House and parsonage were located, and where the Beresford Bounty schoolhouse served as the school until the advent of public education made it no longer needed. Beresford was accidentally killed by a falling tree limb on March 17, 1722, and included in his will were the terms for what would come to be known as the Beresford Bounty, providing in perpetuity for the education of the poor of St. Thomas Parish, who were to be instructed in “Reading, Writing and Casting accounts, Learning of the several Languages, Mathematics, or other Liberal Learning, and Education, as the said Vestry shall Direct.” While the monies no longer go for education, they are still in use today and go towards the support and upkeep of historic St. Thomas Church — where, by the way, Beresford is buried.

What should be saved?

The history must be understood before the first shovel is put to the ground. This is paramount, one of the many reasons why some are pushing for a general slowdown of the project until facts can become more appropriately known and responses made in kind.

Like I said earlier, this land is terra incognita in archaeological terms. It has not been sullied. Just the knowledge that can be gleaned about the Native Americans who lived in the region for thousands of years is invaluable and, more to the point, irreplaceable. Once the damage is done, the sites destroyed, there’s no way to recover the information. It would be the equivalent of burning the one book on the history of the world before anyone even had a chance to read it.

It causes concern when decisions are being made quickly and without due respect to the land’s historic importance. The city of Charleston has an international reputation as a leader in historic preservation and for keeping intact the natural integrity of lands and rivers. The development of the Cainhoy Peninsula, if done correctly, can go down in history as a landmark in excellence for this preservation. Very rarely does a community have such an opportunity to do such a great good. One hopes this is what will happen. Otherwise, the development at Cainhoy Plantation could go down as the great rape of one of the Lowcountry’s last remaining pristine and historic landscapes.

For more information, contact Suzannah Smith Miles at suzannahsmithmiles@hotmail.com.

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