The history of Shem Creek

  • Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Shem Creek is home to thriving marshlands. SUZANNAH SMITH MILES


Today picturesque docks, any manner of pleasure boats and net-draped shrimp boats make this Mount Pleasant creek one of the most scenic and popular spots in the Lowcountry. Restaurants on both sides of the creek offer both superb seafood and up-close-and-personal views at the nature of the creek itself. Kayakers and paddleboarders navigate the creek's narrow waters side-by-side with schools of porpoise and armadas of pelicans, making it a busy creek for both man and wildlife.

The creek's name derives from the Sewee Native American word “shemee,” but whether that was the name of a tribe who lived along the banks or the name they gave to the creek itself is undetermined. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Native Americans who lived north of the harbor were members of the Eastern Sioux linguistic group called the Sewee, and inhabited the coastal area from what is now Mount Pleasant to the Santee River. There was likely a Sewee village somewhere on the banks of Shem Creek, for the same sheltered deep water and easy accessibility to the harbor would have been as important to them as it was for the Englishmen who began settling on the creek in the 1670s.

After settlement, the name of the creek began to change according to ownership. The first person who was granted lands adjacent to the creek was Captain Florence O'Sullivan (for whom Sullivan's Island is named) and during his ownership in the 1670s-80s, the creek was known as Sullivan's Creek. Later, Barbadian colonist Captain George Dearsley owned the lands and the creek became known as Dearsley's Creek. It was probably during Dearsley's ownership that shipbuilding was introduced to the creek. The name then changed again throughout the 1700s. It became Rowser's Creek during the ownership of shipwright Richard Rowser and Parris' Creek for later owner Alexander Parris, who owned Hog Island (now Patriots Point) and who was the same man for whom Parris Island in Beaufort County is named. During the Revolutionary War, the creek was called Lempriere's Creek for Captain Clement Lempriere, a noted shipbuilder and master of the ferry to Charleston at Haddrell's Point where Shem Creek enters the harbor. At a period in the early 1800s, it was briefly known as Distillery Creek for a short-lived distillery built along the creek's shoreline. Between ownerships, it was always referred to as Shem Creek and the name remains today.

Given the creek's deep-water accessibility, the creek was ideal for shipbuilding. All manner of vessels were built there in the 18th and 19th centuries, from sailing sloops to the Planter, which started out as a coastal steam vessel for hauling crops to market but later became famous as the Confederate military transport taken by its African-American pilot, Robert Smalls, and turned over to the Union Navy. During the early part of the 20th century, E. O. Hall's shipyard was on the creek. The last shipbuilding concern on Shem Creek was Darby's Shipyard which only closed some 20 years ago, ending more than a century of Darby-affiliated shipyards there.

Other businesses were also active on the creek during the course of history. Peter Villepontoux had a lime kiln on the creek in the 1740s, an all-important business during the building boom in Charleston during that period. In 1795, Jonathan Lucas built the first water-driven combination rice and saw mill in Charleston on Shem Creek's eastern banks and the area became known as Lucasville. Today, Lucas Street, Mill Street and the large mill pond are reminders of this once important concern. In the early 1800s, John Hamlin's Bucket Factory was located on the eastern bank (just south of where the bridge crosses the creek), and provided an assortment of lumber, lathes, wooden buckets and brooms to the Lowcountry market.

Shrimping became the creek's major industry starting in the 1930s when Captain William C. Magwood introduced the first powered shrimp trawler onto the creek, the Skipper. From then on, the creek became a major home port for a huge fleet of shrimp boats and fishing vessels. For decades, literally dozens of working boats lined both sides of the creek, so many they often had to dock three or four abreast and could be seen all the way from the bridge to the creek's mouth at the harbor. Sadly, because of dramatic increases in property values, high tax base and the resulting exorbitant cost for dock space, only a few shrimpers now use the creek. Even the Magwood family, a name so synonymous with shrimping on the creek, is barely holding on.

Considering its centuries of continued use, the creek continues to thrive with a remarkable natural healthiness. Shem Creek is not only deep, but tidally influenced. Each changing tide flushes in a huge rush of water, carrying the requisite nutrients that feed the shrimp, crabs, fish and shellfish that live in the creek's waters and marshlands. These creatures in turn provide food for a healthy population of herons, egrets, gulls, pelicans, larger fish and the schools of porpoise who feed in the creek's waters. Moreover, the creek doesn't end just past the bridge. It meanders onward for about a mile, just past Bowman Road where it meets Highway 17 North. The creek narrows, of course, but the marshlands surrounding it are wide and surprisingly healthy given today's population density.

Shem Creek has been a mainstay for the people who have lived on East Cooper lands for more than 300 years. Residents must treat this jewel cautiously in the 21st-century rush around supposed development for the good of an increasing population. It is a treasure residents should all preserve, uphold and look on with pride.

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