Discovering Daufuskie’s hidden history

By Carolyn Males

It’s all too easy to think you know Daufuskie after you’ve explored its rustic roads in a golf cart, stopping in to see sites like the Bloody Point Lighthouse, First Union African Baptist Church, and the old Mary Field School where local authors Pat Conroy and Jim Alberto along with his wife, Carol, once taught.

But when it comes to the island’s backstory and how it made Daufuskie what it is today, it’s likely you haven’t scratched the surface.

ABOVE: Brave harvest Oyster-shucking operations began in the early 1880s. It was a difficult and dangerous business for oyster pickers who braved tides in their wooden bateaus and harvested the shellfish with rakes and tongs. Daufuski Oysters, a product of L.P. Maggioni & Company, were famous throughout the Lowcountry. (Courtesy, Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation)

However, two women, one a Daufuskie native, the other a transplant, have lifted the veil on this mysterious 5 x 2.5 mile strip of land off Hilton Head. The resulting narrative –– chock full of old photos and maps –– stretches from: the island’s Native American settlements; to the 1700s British land grants establishing a trading outpost and bulwark against Spanish and Indian attacks; to the plantation era which brought enslaved Africans to these shores; to its oystering heyday and subsequent collapse; through dashed dreams of creating a tourism paradise. Along the way, they offer glimpses of the real people behind the history of South Carolina’s little-known and southernmost Sea Island.

A tale of two authors

“It’s a bit of a detective story,” says Jenny Hersch, when asked about how she and Sallie Ann Robinson researched and wrote Daufuskie Island, part of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series of pictorial histories.

And I suspect, given the book’s comprehensive collection of historic information illustrated by nineteenth and twentieth century photos, it’s a labor of love story too.

Ready for school • Author Sallie Ann Robinson, then a seventh grader, graduated from Mary Field in 1970. With no high school on Daufuskie, she had to go to school off island in Bluffton. She bunked in with family members during the week and took the ferry home on weekends. At one point, the Beaufort County School District housed students from Daufuskie in a Bluffton boarding house managed by a couple who lived nearby. (Courtesy, Sallie Ann Robinson)

Sallie Ann Robinson, a sixth generation Daufuskian, was born in her grandmother’s house, her entry into the world tended by midwife Sarah Hudson Grant. As a girl, she rode Billie Burn’s battered school bus over dirt roads past oxcarts to the old two-room Mary Field School. There she spent sixth grade in Pat Conroy’s classroom where he encouraged her to be adventurous — advice she took to heart.

Afterwards Sallie Ann left for a while, living in Savannah and Hilton Head, before heading out with her children to Philadelphia where she put in a stint as a licensed practical nurse. Over the years, she’d come back to Daufuskie to work at Haig Point as well as the old Melrose and Bloody Point resorts only to leave again in pursuit of other opportunities. But her love for the island drew her to cross the Calibogue once more in 2016, returning as a much-celebrated Gullah chef and cookbook author. Today, she runs her own tour and catering company where she shares her insights into Daufuskie history and culture with island visitors, spicing the mix with her own personal experiences.

Meanwhile back in 2012 Jenny Hersch, who’d traded her old metropolitan stomping grounds of Boston and New York for the serenity of Daufuskie’s Haig Point, had begun a deep dive into her new environment. She started by educating herself about the surrounding waters and the local fauna and flora. Then history crooked a finger and nodded at her. The island’s historic cottages and churches, tabby ruins, old lighthouses, and graveyards beckoned her to learn more.

The Clifton • Steamers like the Clifton (seen here in 1912) began transporting residents, workers, church groups, visitors, and provisions between Savannah, Beaufort, Bluffton, and Daufuskie in the late nineteenth century. (Courtesy, Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation)

The perfect partnership

Hersch began combing archives at the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation, The Heritage Library, and the Georgia Historical Society (most of the island’s history is tied up with Georgia rather than South Carolina). She soon uncovered little-known bits of the past: the Quarantine Detention Camp that stood at Bloody Point which held soldiers returning from the Spanish-American War during the yellow fever outbreak in 1899 and the 1930s proposal to build four causeways and two bridges to connect the still bridgeless island with the mainland at Bluffton. And what a job it was, sorting out the census records with their misspelled names and vague addresses! (Daufuskie had no road names until 1996.) While gaining familiarity with long-time Daufuskie families and tracing their roots to their enslaved ancestors, Hersch recognized “that it is the stark reality of being owned as property that echoes from the very soul of the island’s history.”

Five years ago, she and Robinson met at Pat Conroy’s seventieth birthday party. Soon after, they pooled their resources and talents, forming the perfect partnership to create their book. “What Sallie Ann lent to the project is her dedication and authenticity,” declares Hersch. “I’m a passionate researcher but I haven’t lived it.”

Oxcart • James Williams mails a letter in the late 1970s. The postal boxes were placed high to accommodate those riding in wagons. (Courtesy, Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation)

“I’ve been told these stories all my life,” says Robinson. “The book and the pictures Jenny found brought back bits and pieces of memories and I started putting things together. Parents and neighbors had talked about how many people used to live here: Roads full of people in the evening; all the mom and pop stores; the timber wood people who came in and practically cleared the island of trees. I heard you could see from one end of Daufuskie to the other.”

The Quarantine Detention Camp • As the Spanish-American War was winding down in 1899, soldiers and civilians were quarantined in a detention camp at Bloody Point for five days upon their return from Cuba where a yellow fever outbreak had already infected troops there. Islanders were hired to provide laundry and maintenance services for the camp. In the end, no cases of yellow fever were reported at the camp.(Courtesy, Jenny Hersch)

The next chapter

What will be the next chapter for both women? Robinson, who serves on the board of the Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation is working on the restoration of the historic 1893 Oyster Union Society Hall, a benevolent society where oyster workers held meetings and social events. She’s also penning an autobiography –– guaranteed to be a lively read punctuated by wisdom garnered from her life experiences. Meanwhile Hersch continues her exploration into Daufuskie history with an eye to digitizing her collection, making it available to libraries, historical societies, and college archives.

At the Public Landing • Louvenia “Blossum” Bentley Robinson (author Sallie Ann Robinson’s grandmother), Viola “Ola” Bryan, and midwife Sarah Hudson Grant rest on a bench at the public landing. All were community leaders, active in school, church, and benevolent society activities. (Credit: Constantine Manos)

In the end, the authors see Daufuskie Island as an opportunity to leave a legacy for future generations of islanders. As Robinson, whose ancestors formed the backbone of the island, puts it, “I want my great grandchildren to know the facts and what happened and not just sugar-coated stories.”

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