BYEW-tiful Beaufort

Posted October 16th, 2009 at 5:36 pm (UTC-4)
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Carol and I have visited Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia, many times.  Sizeable yet quaint places, both of them, storied in history and full of old fortifications and photogenic magnolias (Charleston) and tidy squares filled with oak trees draped in Spanish moss (Savannah).
Yet every time we go to either place or tell friends about our visits, someone is sure to remark, “They’re gorgeous.  But you really have to see Beaufort.
That’s Beaufort, South Carolina, pronounced BYEW-fort, as in “Beautiful Beaufort,” which Carol and I took to calling it the moment we drove into town.
This Beaufort should not be confused with a smaller town of the same name up the coast, though people do indeed confuse them all the time.  That one, which regards the “Beau” in its name in the French way you’d expect, is Beaufort, North Carolina.  It doesn’t help that both BYEW-fort and BOW-fort were named after the same English nobleman — Henry Somerset, the Second Duke of Beaufort.  He was the palatine, or most important dude, among a group of proprietors upon whom the king had bestowed the southern part of Carolina Colony before it was split in two in 1712.  The duke’s dad, the First Duke of Beaufort, had earned the title after some French adventure near Beaufort Castle in Champagne during the War of the Roses. 
These dukes were BOW-forts, and nobody in Beautiful BYEW-fort can explain why their town ended up mangling the name.  Just to be different or ornery, perhaps.
Beaufort, a town of just 13,000 or so people, is the jewel of the Sea Islands in South Carolina’s “Lowcountry” — one word — called that because its many estuaries and saltwater marshes reminded Spanish, French, and British colonizers of the Low Country back in Northern Europe.  South Carolina has a high country, too, which the natives call the “Highlands.”  The state capital, Columbia, is up that way.  Wealthy Lowcountry rice, indigo, and cotton planters routinely fled the hot, humid, no-see-um-infested marshes to “summer” up there in the cool mountains.
No-see-ums are tiny but bedeviling sand gnats that don’t bite so much as make a beeline, or a gnatline, for your eyes and ears.  The only defense is a hearty “Beaufort salute” — a stern wave of your arm to shoo their squadrons away.  We got to be quite good at it.
To put Beautiful Beaufort’s galleried antebellum showplaces, verdant parks, and seaside promenades in perspective, one must take a long and satisfying dive into its rich lore of plantations and pirates, tempests from the sea, rebellions, and all manner of military occupations. 
Most of these tales are lusty and true.  Disregard the pirate part, however.  Spanish and French buccaneers did duck into nearby coves, but they mostly steered clear of settlements.  It’s BOW-fort up the road in North Carolina that can properly boast of depredations by the pirate Blackbeard— Edward Teach — and the like.
Still, old stories hang in the air in Beautiful Beaufort, begging to be spun by masters such as Larry Rowland.  He’s Beaufort’s pre-eminent historian, a professor emeritus at the state university’s branch in town, and the author, along with former colleague Stephen Wise, of a three-volume account of the life and times of Beaufort County.  I expected him to speak with the lilting, cultivated drawl that so becomes educated South Carolinians, but detected no accent at all.  That’s because, while his mother’s side of the family goes back 330 years in town, whole generations ended up in New York State during the many long years that things took a dreadful turn in the Lowcountry.  Those years, I shall shortly describe.
Beaufort, South Carolina’s second-oldest city (to Charleston), was the in-town home of wealthy coastal planters — a term by which they’re sometimes known.  “Plantation slavemasters” works, too.  A thriving port prior to the Civil War of the 1860s, Beaufort boasted the best natural harbor south of New York.  Beaufort’s sound was discovered in 1525 by a Spanish explorer who, before sailing away, named the area La Punta de Santa Elena, or Santa Elena Point.  In 1566, the Spanish settled on the island that includes present-day Beaufort, and for a short time it was even the capital of their Viceroyalty of Florida.  But the Spanish soon lost their affection for the watery, bug-biting surroundings and abandoned them for more pleasant quarters along the Florida Peninsula to the south.  In 1562, French (Protestant) Huguenots sailed into Santa Elena Harbor, renamed it Port Royal, and founded what would be a short-lived colony.
Port Royal remains the name of the island that includes Beaufort Town, and, just to further confuse things, there’s a hamlet called Port Royal just below Beaufort as well.  But Port Royal Town is now “Beaufort,” thanks to those British BOW-forts.
Like the Spanish before them, the French colonizers had few problems with indigenous Indians, who were a peaceable lot related culturally and linguistically to Creek tribes in the western interior.  But then along came the British, coveting the Sea Islands.  They allied with a much more ferocious native band called the Yemassee, who helped them take control of Port Royal, only to viciously turn on the British population a few years later.  Over a few terrifying days in 1715, the Yemassee slew one in four European settlers of South Carolina. The people of Beaufort were miraculously saved only because a warning reached them.  The entire populace fled to safety aboard a cannon-equipped ship in the harbor.  The Yemassee then burned the town and surrounding plantation dwellings to the ground. 
In revenge over the next 20 years, South Carolina militiamen and British Redcoat soldiers virtually exterminated the colony’s Indian population, leaving only archeological artifacts, buried bones, and place names like “Yamassee” and “Coosawhatchie” as evidence of native culture.
The British intensified port activities in Beaufort.  But its island location stunted real growth.  To reach mainland raw materials and markets, one had to maneuver past other islands and up shallow rivers.   Savannah, by contrast and to its good fortune, sits at the mouth of a good-sized river that winds far into the hinterlands.  And Charleston lies on a neck of land from which two rivers reach into the interior.  Viable markets as well as maritime towns, they soon left Beaufort in their wake.
So Beaufort became a sultry, out-of-the-way place where passions boiled and plots were hatched — the cauldron of a brewing revolt against northern rule from Washington.  Volatile “fire-eaters” — eloquent hotheads furious about cotton tariffs, laws that thwarted the spread of slavery as the nation moved westward, and what the firebrands considered federal interference in their local affairs — cried out for secession, or withdrawal, from the American Union.  The most vocal of them all, Robert Barnwell Rhett, a U.S. senator from Beaufort, is known to this day as the Father of Secession.
Several of the authors of the ordinance of secession passed at the 1860 South Carolina Constitutional Convention naively thought that separation from the Union would go peacefully.  Rhett, working among equally stubborn Yankees in Washington, no doubt knew better.
It is not a coincidence that the first name of the main male character in Gone With The Wind, the overarching novel and later film about the U.S. Civil War, was “Rhett.”  Author Margaret Mitchell chose it because it so clearly reflected southern antebellum history, even though rascally Rhett Butler was more of an opportunist than a fire-eater.
Beaufort planters had played a key role in the explosion of cotton as the cash crop of the entire South.  After their phenomenal success with a particular strain of cottonseed on Port Royal, Hilton Head, and the other Sea Islands, King Cotton— and the slave culture that went with it because the picking and sorting were so labor-intensive — dominated the economy of the entire South.
Hilton Head Island, which I just mentioned, commands the southern part of Beaufort County below the Broad River.  Once a rural backwater — one of the poorest places in North America — it bore no resemblance to the flashy golfing, retirement, and beach resort destination it has become.  Suffice it to say most of genteel Beaufort wants no part of Hilton Head-style glamour, glitz, and day-and-night buzz.  And since Beaufort County is already getting plenty of tax money from Hilton Head motel stays and property levies, there’s no great urgency to overdevelop Beaufort Town’s antebellum serenity.
Once civil war broke out up in Charleston as South Carolina militiamen fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter in 1861, the Union Navy and Army quickly subdued, occupied, and put to good use the valuable deep-water port of Beaufort — sending most of the affluent white population scattering in their wake.  The Yankees transformed South Carolina’s Sea Islands into an auxiliary of the Port of New York.  Men and goods and war materiel to blockade other southern ports and mount expeditions into the belly of the South radiated from suddenly bustling Beaufort. 
And prosperity continued under Northern-imposed “Reconstruction” of the defeated South.   For 30 years, Beaufort was run by African-American Republican politicians and white Yankee merchants.  And just as things were slowing down, rich beds of phosphates — important to agriculture as fertilizer — were discovered in creek beds nearby.   An entire fleet of phosphate carriers left Beaufort each week, laden with phosphates for ports all over the world.  When steamships replaced most sailing vessels, the deep-water port of Beaufort — already the 10th-largest on the Atlantic Seaboard — showed every sign that it would one day outpace haughty Charleston and Savannah.  And when Yankee-trained engineers built a railroad bridge that finally connected Beaufort with the mainland in 1873 — and millions of tons of coal from the southern Appalachian mountains began fueling steam vessels berthed at Port Royal — still more riches for Beaufort seemed assured.
But several jolting turns of fate reversed its fortunes in a flash and put Beaufort nearly to sleep for the better part of a century. 
In 1893, a catastrophic hurricane submerged South Carolina’s Sea Islands and sank the entire phosphate fleet.  Two thousand people died.  Five more hurricanes followed in short order, souring Beaufort’s reputation forever as a reliable shipping center.  The U.S. Navy abandoned Port Royal Island and moved to Charleston, and the phosphate industry took off for Florida. 
As if that weren’t bad enough, world cotton prices declined so dramatically that cotton growers and traders lost money, no matter how many fields they planted, in all but two years of the first two decades of the 20th century.
“So the years between 1893 and 1940 delivered dismal decline to Beaufort,” Larry Rowland summarized for me.  “All the old industries were gone.  Shipping disappeared.  The last lumber schooner to leave Port Royal Sound was in 1925.  And the Port of Beaufort closed in 1933.”  The town’s population declined from 35,000 in 1890 to 21,000 in 1940.  (It’s even lower today, you’ll recall.)  One half of the African-American population of Beaufort County left as part of the Great Migration to the industrial North, in search of jobs.
But Beaufort was rescued by the United States Marines. 
Marines had been stationed in the area since 1891.  As the security detail at the Port Royal Naval Station, they served bravely during the onslaught of hurricanes and tidal waves.  Then in 1915, Parris Island, next door to Beaufort — named for Alexander Parris, treasurer of the original South Carolina colony — was designated as a Marine Corps “recruit depot.”  That’s an odd name, since one imagines sergeants behind a table, passing out literature and delivering recruiting spiels to young men (and later women) interested in a military career.  Instead, this “depot” is the center of rigorous — and I do mean rigorous — military training and inculcation of new recruits.
Marine boot camp, in other words.
The mass influx of recruits during world wars I and II rivaled the Union occupation of the Civil War, with the obvious difference that the latter two takeovers of the local economy were most welcome, indeed.  During the Second World War, 240,000 Marines trained at Parris Island at a time when only 21,000 people lived permanently in all of Beaufort County.
As Larry Rowland puts it, “That’s a whole lot of commerce and business and exchange and rented rooms.  And what it did for Beaufort was provide a middle class.  After Reconstruction, except for some doctors and lawyers — black and white — everybody in the area was either a poor black or a wealthy white landowner.  That’s not exactly a healthy culture.”  Officers, enlisted officers, and civil servants stationed at Parris Island not only spent their money in town; many also retired or returned there and opened bookstores and bars and gas stations and the like.  And a surprising number of young Marines somehow have found time to take classes at the state university branch.
No wonder Beaufort watched nervously, with fingers tightly crossed, as the Pentagon closed 99 bases and 55 other military installations across America beginning in 2001 as part of its “BRAC” — Base Realignment and Closure — program.  “If the Marines ever left, we’d be a ghost town,” Rowland told me, exaggerating at least a bit, for effect.  “We’d be down in Hilton Head with our hands out.”
Fortunately, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, where, as the Corps puts it, “We Make Marines,” was the only significant Marine facility east of the Mississippi River and, thus, spared from closure. 
Carol and I saw only a few uniformed Marines in town.  That’s because, it was explained, upscale Beaufort is an expensive place for a Marine private or corporal who is busy elsewhere anyway, executing pushups.  Check out the bars on the fringes of town on a weekend night if we wanted to rub noses with jarheads, we were advised.  Or cross the Broad River Bridge and drive 45 minutes down to livelier Savannah, where Parris Island Marines on leave go to unwind.
We passed on that opportunity.
Already eclipsed by Charleston and Savannah industrially, charming Beaufort is left hiding in the bulrushes.  None of these three southern charmers is “right close” (as the locals might say) to the main north-south Interstate Highway 95 that carries a ceaseless flow of traffic from the populous Northeast all the way to the tip of Florida.  But high-speed Interstate spurs off I-95 whisk travelers to Charleston and Savannah.  By contrast, you can hardly find the name “Beaufort” on highway signs, and one must locate and then navigate an old U.S. highway, full of traffic lights, and wind 40 kilometers [25 miles] to reach Beaufort.
But it’s worth it, and Beaufort’s isolation is part of its allure.  “There’ve been lots of schemes to link the Sea Islands to Charleston and Savannah,” Larry Rowland told me.  “But bridges are expensive.  We just couldn’t afford it.”
So Beaufort, appropriately and successfully, touts its relaxed pace and southern charm — even though many of the old families are descended from Union soldiers and Yankee traders.  Rowland’s great grandfather, for instance, came to Beaufort from Maine in 1866, a year after the war ended, in a schooner loaded with food and dry goods.  He started several businesses, including a grocery store and cotton gin.  Rowland points out that the only reason many old-time southerners, who had fled the Yankee invasion, returned was to be buried outside St. Helena Episcopal Church or the Baptist Church of Beaufort.  The living among the planter class had little property to which to return anyway; it had been seized by the Federal Government. 
So unlike many small southern towns in which an oversized statue of a Confederate soldier looms in the courthouse square, Beaufort has only a small one — not even erected until 1903 — that, as Rowland puts it, “you’ll never find unless you look carefully.”  Carol and I did find quite a few small Rebel flags fluttering next to tombstones in a prominent Beaufort cemetery, however.
And on one leisurely stroll through town — unrushed Beaufort and unhurried strolling go well together — Carol and I counted 40 “Tara”-style mansions of the sort made famous in Gone With the Wind: the classic kind with white columns, wrap-around verandas, and nearby azalea bushes and moss-draped trees.  Let’s see.  Was this the Barnwell House (1785)?  The Fripp House (1832)?  The Sams House (1810)?  The “Little Taj” (1856)?   Union General William Tecumseh Sherman slept in one of them at the successful close of his “March to the Sea.”  Another was a makeshift hospital.   That one’s called “Secession House.”  Ghosts prowl this one over here.  You can picture the fire-eaters toasting rebellion and fine ladies fanning themselves all over again.
We managed to get out of town without trying a local delicacy — only because we didn’t know about it until later.  It’s Frogmore stew, which, curiously, contains no part of a deceased amphibian.  A classic African-American gumbo made of shrimp and crabmeat, perhaps smoked sausage, onions, potatoes, corn, and assorted greens, it takes its name from the tiny fishing community of Frogmore on nearby St. Helena Island.  This is the most notable home of the Gullah people, whose story is worth one last diversion. 
“Gullah” is a colloquialism for what is now Angola in southwest Africa.  Or rather, Angola is the Latinized version of what sounded to Portuguese colonizers’ ears like “N’Gullah.”  Nearly half of South Carolina’s African slaves came from there, and their culture survives with its own Creole patois with words from English, Ewe, Mandinka, Igbo, Twi and Yoruba.  The remoteness of the Carolina Sea Islands helped preserve a separate Gullah culture that endures and is still studied by anthropologists.
Beaufort dozes, but also stirs seductively.  Shrimp, art, house-and-garden, and soft-shell-crab festivals — even a credible international film festival — liven things up.  (Parts of many movies, including “Forrest Gump,” “The Big Chill,” and “The Prince of Tides,” have been shot right in Beaufort, after all.)  Beaufortonians have racked up so many “best” ratings from magazines that rank visitors’ experiences — “Best Small Southern Town” (Southern Living); “One of America’s Best Art Towns” (American Style), and so forth — that they take their appeal for granted.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls Beaufort one of a dozen “Distinctive Destinations” in America.  Yes, distinctive, unforgettable — and of course beautiful — Beaufort, South Carolina.

(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I’ll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of “Ted’s Wild Words” in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there’s another word in today’s blog that you’d like me to explain, just ask!)

Depredations.  Plunderings, often by a conquering army.
Jarheads.  A nickname for U.S. Marines, used fondly by the Marines but with great care by others.
Rigorous.  Thorough and strict.
Spiel.  An extravagant speech or monologue, often carefully rehearsed.

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Ted Landphair


This is a far-ranging exploration of American life by a veteran Voice of America “Americana” reporter and essayist.

Ted writes about the thousands of places he has visited and written about as a broadcaster and book author. Ted Landphair’s America often showcases the work of his wife and traveling companion, renowned American photographer Carol M. Highsmith.

Ted welcomes feedback, questions, and ideas. View Ted’s profile. Watch a video about Ted and Carol by VOA’s Nico Colombant.

Photos by Carol M. Highsmith


October 2009
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