Down the King’s Highway

I have this book called “Touring South Carolina’s Revolutionary War Sites” and for years I have used it as a guide to find the far off the beaten track sites around South Carolina that go back almost three centuries.  Often these sites are ruins found down dirt roads or hidden within out-of-the-way undergrowth in places that time forgot.  Part of the fun is trying to navigate by the hand sketched maps and written directions the author included, as most of the sites aren’t easily found using your GPS.  The search makes you feel as if you are on an adventure and that you alone are going to experience something that not many others have in a long, long time.

One such outing was connected to our annual family beach trip to Pawleys Island.  I was riding with my brother and his family and somehow convinced them to go on one of my “adventures” as we made our way north on Highway 17 from Charleston towards Georgetown, South Carolina.  Our target was the St. James Santee Episcopal Church or simply, the Brick Church at Wambaw, build prior to the Revolutionary War in 1768.

After a few false starts, one taking us seven miles down a hunting track and probably past some, ahem, unmentionable crops out in the remote woods, we finally found our way onto what was once part of the King’s Highway back in colonial time.  This particular stretch is a little over six and a half miles long and is referred to as the Old Georgetown Road.  This is one of the only remaining, and possibly longest, portions of what once was a 1,300 mile road stretching from Boston to Charleston and is on the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, George Washington used this road to make his grand tour of our young nation once he became President.

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Old Georgetown Road today (photo by author)

This relatively good road is partly gravel and partly sandy dirt, but it is level. Even driving down the road today, you feel remote, despite the fact that Highway 17 parallels it about a half mile away.  There is really no sign of the modern world around you, just lowland pines, scrub and lots and lots of mosquitoes who thrive in the nearby swamp lands.

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Old Georgetown Road (photo courtesy of Sarah Nell Scott)

After about two and a half miles, you see a brick wall on your right and then, there it is – a small brick church, looking very good for its advanced age, surrounded by a small graveyard. Moss drips from the low hanging trees over gravestones that go back to the eighteenth century.

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St. James Santee Cemetery (photo by author)

Each tombstone marks a life lived in this forgotten place.  One in particular is that of the son of a church rector, Colonel Samuel Warren.  During the Revolution, Warren lost a leg at the Battle of Savannah.  To show his devotion to the cause, he mailed his severed limb to his aunts in Great Britain.  They had been critical of him for fighting against England.

Beyond Warren, there are others.  One in particular caught my attention as it was barrel-vaulted and above ground.  From what I could see, it is one of the oldest in the graveyard.  Jonah Collins – born 1723, died 1786.

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Grave of Jonah Collins (photo by author)

Jonah Collins was the son of a sea-captain who held land on Bulls Island. Collins inherited around 1,300 acres from his father and turned it into the working plantation Carnadey (later known as Buck Hall). Today nothing is left of the plantation but the land.  It now hosts a recreation area that preserves the Buck Hall name.

William Russel’s tombstone indicates he was born in Ireland, immigrated to South Carolina and died in 1817.  The poem carved into the stone suggests he perished before his wife and it is similar to other examples I’ve seen in New England graveyards. There are so many stories represented by the tombstones – among them are a mother and her two young children, victims of the 1822 hurricane.

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Gravestone of William Russell (photo by author)

The grave of Daniel Huger, born 1651 and died 1711 might be the oldest and is a good example of the mixed culture present in this part of South Carolina in the late 17th and early 18th centuries.  Huger was a French Huguenot, born in France and one of the first to immigrate to this area of South Carolina. The community was a combination of French immigrants, fleeing from religious persecution in Europe and English families, coming for another kind of new life – one with endless land and potential. In fact, the church here once boasted two identical porticos, front and back – one for the English settlers and the other for the French.  Today the back portico is enclosed.

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Front portico (photo by author)

This entire area, now seemingly deserted, was once an active community linked together by the culture of the rice plantations all around.  During the Revolution, Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, hid among the trees and swamps nearby.  In fact, the church now sits inside the boundaries of the Francis Marion National Forest.

Entering the church, you must work the rusty, primitive lock of the heavy doors. No one seems to mind if you visit, as long as you leave it as you found it and lock up afterwards.

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Door lock (photo by author)

Once the doors creak open, you are greeted with original flagstone floors and hand-pegged cypress box pews that have never had a coat of paint. They remain as they have when originally completed, nailed together with handmade square head nails. The vaulted ceiling, although suffering a bit from water damage and mold, is original as well.

At the time of its construction, this was the fifth parish church near the site, and had a congregation founded in about 1706.  It was the first parish church designated outside of Charleston and the second established in all of South Carolina.  It was ransacked by Northern troops during the Civil War, but the fact that it remains standing is an amazing wonder.

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Interior with original flagstone floors (photo by author)

The brick that makes up the exterior was actually imported from England, all but the columns, which are built of locally made brick.  The pews were carved from local cypress, a natural choice considering the nearby swamps.  This is probably why the wood is in such good shape two hundred plus years later.

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Original cypress box pews with square head nails (photo by author)

The air inside is musty and damp.  On the day I first visited, the air was thick with mosquitoes – in fact, you could hear them arrive as we exited the car and made our way through the cemetery.  Inside we found no relief due to holes in the screens covering the open windows.  I left that day with well over a hundred bites – I know because I counted them.  It is no surprise that malaria was once rampant in this area and explains why most plantation families escaped to the nearby coast in the warmer months.

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Interior, view of pulpit and box pews (photo by author)
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St James Santee Church (photo by author)

The entire church is filled with a maze of the box pews – each was the domain of a particular family in the area.  There are no longer weekly services in the church, but there are annual events where today’s congregation visits the church and continues the fellowship of old.

What a wonderful place.  A church that my little niece will always remember as “The Haunted Church” left a mark on my memory from the moment I entered.  Haunted.  Indeed…

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