James Island – Folly Island History
the harbor from Charleston is beautiful, historic James Island. As
the gateway to the Atlantic Ocean via Folly Beach, James Island also
has had a long history of native Indians, settlers, pirates, wars,
soldiers, forts and many historic sites including the Morris Island
lighthouse, which still guards a silent reminder to past.
different people have visited through this area from the native
Indians which fished and hunted, to the explorers that discovered
the area, the settlers which started settlements there, to the
pirates and soldiers which also occupied this area throughout
Much of what
we know concerning the history of Folly Beach comes from its close
geographic and cultural connections to the city of Charleston, South
Carolina. The name "Folly" is thought to have come from the Old
English translation of the word, which means a clump of trees or a
thicket and this name is historically appropriate for the island.
The main shipping channel into Charleston harbor in the 1700 and
1800's brought the ships past the northern side of Folly Island. For
some ships, the trees on Folly Island may have been the first they
had seen after a long voyage across the Atlantic. The island is also
at times labeled Coffin Land or Coffin Island on some original
historical maps due to its use as a Lazaretto and leper colony prior
to the war
significance of this name is still under debate for several reasons.
Some believe that it is due to the fact that ships entering
Charleston harbor would drop off sick and dying people on the island
to avoid becoming quarantined. Many believe it came about from a
shipwreck that occurred off the coast of Folly in the 1700’s which
lead to many of the bodies of those onboard washing up on the beach.
The final inconsistency with the name Coffin Island is that
documents also show that name being used for Morris Island as early
Island was the location of the Pest House in 1834. The Pest House
was used to house sick and contagious people entering the port of
Charleston. Boats would have to unload their sick passengers and
crew before being allowed safe passage into the harbor. The large
number of sick and dying people on this island may have lead to its
The Morris Island Pirate Ghost
survivor of the Battle for Morris Island had an interesting story to
tell that was unrelated to the Battle. According to Nancy Roberts in
Ghosts of the Carolinas, Francis M. Moore was stationed on Folly
during the Civil War. He wrote that, prior to an ensuing battle for
Charleston, a Union Army soldier named Yokum was dispatched to
relocate all Negroes living on Morris Island to Port Royal. When
speaking with one of the old black women which inhabited the island,
Yokum learned of pirates who had buried six treasure chests
somewhere on Morris Island. She also told him that the chests had
been buried between two old oak trees in her yard. Then she told him
that the pirate captain had ruthlessly stabbed one of his men and
let the body fall on top of the chests before covering them up.
Yokum then ask her if the chests were still there and she answered
"Yes". She said no one would go near the trees because the dead
pirate’s ghost was guarding the treasure.
Approximately midnight that night, Yokum and Lt. Hatcher left their
camp with shovels to visit the old oak trees to discover the
treasure. Though it was a windless night, as the men began to dig
the tops of the trees started to sway as if in a hurricane was
approaching. Lightning flashed, but no thunder followed. They
continued to dig. Lightning flashed again and lingered for a while.
Suddenly the men realized they were not alone. In the strange
prolonged lightning they saw the clear figure of the pirate. They
dropped their shovels and ran for their lives.
Island the next day the attack began and they were never able to
return to the treasure site. It wasn’t until 50 years later that
Yokum retold his story at a veterans’ reunion where it was recorded.
Mystery of the Headless Bodies
In May of
1987, fourteen bodies were discovered while excavating was being
done at a construction site at the west end of Folly Island.
Construction was stopped for approximately a month while the South
Carolina Institute of Archeology and Anthropology (SCIAA)
investigated the remains discovered. All of the bodies except one
had been buried with shoulders directed to the west. Twelve of the
bodies were missing skulls and other major body parts. Some of the
burials had coffins, others had only ponchos.
bodies that were discovered was found Union Army Eagle buttons, one
"5" insignia from a cap and Enfield Rifle .57 caliber Mini Balls.
The SCIAA finally decided the men were from the Union Army’s 55th
Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. Because the bodies had no
injuries, the possibility of death in battle was eliminated. That
left only the possibility of death by illness, head injury or
There are several unproven opinions as to why the bodies were minus their
skulls. One theory is that bounty hunters sought the skulls of
buried Union soldiers when the Federal government offered rewards
for retrieval of Union soldier’s bodies. While the skulls were
missing, the rest of the bones were undisturbed and the bodies were
either reburied or originally buried without their heads. It is not
likely that bounty hunters would be that respectful when burying the
dead. One opinion was that the heads were removed by local islanders
for voodoo rituals. Of course many other horrible options and
opinions were given through time, but this is one Folly Islands’
mysteries which may never be solved.
Folly Island today is a continuous island stretching from the Stono
Inlet to Lighthouse Inlet, but that has not always been the case.
Many maps show Folly to have been considered two islands, commonly
known as Big Folly and Little Folly. Historical records from the
time of the Civil War state that travel from Big Folly, across the
neck of the island, today called the washout, to Little Folly was
only possible along the beach at low tide.
also played an important historical role during the Civil War.
Federal troops began occupying the island in 1863. At the height of
the occupation, over 13,000 troops were stationed on the island.
these troops occupied was very different from the island of today.
At that time, Folly Island was relatively uninhabited. The first
roads on the island were constructed by the federal troops to allow
ambulances to transport wounded soldiers, and for communication
also constructed various forts and batteries on both the northern
and southern end of the island. A large commissary depot, known as
Pawnee Landing was built to aid in the unloading of troops and
supplies. The only actual fighting to occur on Folly Island was on
May 10th, 1863, when confederate forces attacked federal pickets on
the left side of Little Folly Island. The fighting was light, as the
confederate forces were conducting a reconnaissance mission, for
gathering information, and taking prisoners.
Island's major importance in the Civil War was because of its use as
a base, housing troops and equipment, and for the presence of an
artillery battery located at the northern end of Little Folly. The
island was the federal staging area for the battle of Morris Island
which took place from July to September of 1863.
Island was the home of Fort Wagner, a confederate fortification that
guarded the entrance to Charleston harbor. In the Battle of Sol
Legare, Union troops attacked the fortification on James Island and
Folly Island, but were repelled by the confederate forces, this lead
to the grand assault on Battle Wagner, renown from the movie "Glory"
which was based on the true story of Massachusetts’s infamous 54th
brigade, comprised from the first all-black volunteer company,
fighting the prejudices of both the Union army and the Confederate
army. Their courage was unyielding and even though they were
defeated by the confederate forces, they gained the respect of the
entire union and confederate forces for their gallantry and heroism.
Union army forces continued their retreat from Folly Island to Coles
Island and across the Folly River. All of James Island was in
Confederate hands again. For the Confederacy it was a victory over
superior numbers of union troops. These attacks demonstrated the
zeal and competence of the Confederate troops and even though the
Union troops had escaped, it was still a great victory for the
After battle Wagner,
union troops set up an artillery battery on Little Folly and the
federal troops shelled Fort Wagner and deployed more troops to
capture the fort. With the capture of Fort Wagner accomplished, the
federal troops were now in position to shell Fort Sumter. The troops
moved their artillery from Big Folly to the captured fort, and
renamed it Battery Meade.
The shelling began on
August 17th, 1863, and quickly reduced Fort Sumter to rubble, but it
was unable to force a confederate surrender. Folly Island and Morris
Island remained occupied by federal troops until the end of the war.
The Union army on
July 2, 1864 launched a covert amphibious attack against Ft.
Johnson, on James Island. After some initial success, the attack
fought against a much smaller Confederate force, failed. The attack
started engagements of fighting in and around the Charleston area,
with each battle ending in a Confederate victory, even though each
of these conflicts drained the Confederate Garrison in Charleston of
much needed southern soldiers needed to continue the conflicts
against the union forces in Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia.
The word "Folly" is an Old English word meaning an area of dense
1600’s: Early settlers found an Indian tribe, the Bohickets,
inhabiting the island
1696: Folly Island was deeded to William Rivers.
1744: Folly was passed down through a generation and sold to Henry
Samsways whose deed referred to the Island as "Coffin Land" and a
map from 1780 depicts Folly as such. However, a map dated 1800 shows
Coffin Land as the western end of Folly Island where the State Park
is now. The name Coffin Land came from the fact that it was
customary for ships with plague or cholera victims to the leave the
ill travelers on barrier islands before they entered the Charleston
port. On their way back out to sea, they would pick up the survivors
and bury the dead.
1832: The ship Amelia wrecked on Folly Island while sailing from
New York to New Orleans. Twenty of 120 passengers died of cholera
while marooned on Folly Island and Charleston cut off communications
and supplies to the Island, fearing it would spread into Charleston
and become an epidemic.
1838: Thomas Gillespie, a Scottish captain, died on Folly. His
marker still stands at the southeastern end of the Island.
1860’s: The first shots of the Civil War were fired by Citadel
Cadets on Morris Island. Three months later Beauregard’s men fired
on Ft. Sumter. The Union army took Folly Island and Morris Island on
their way to Charleston
1920’s: Rumors of bootlegging on the Island. The original Pavilion
1930’s: The new Atlantic Pavilion, Boardwalk, Pier and Oceanfront
Hotel were built where the Holiday Inn now stands.
1932: Nine families lived on the Island year-round
1934: Gershwin stayed at 708 West Artic and wrote Porgy & Bess. He
also judged a local beauty contest.
1937: Over 15,000 people were at the Pier for the 4th of
1940’s: Many new homes were built and improvements were made to
roads & utilities
1955: Elmer "Trigger" Burke (the man who killed Joseph "Specs"
O’Keefe of the $1.2 million Brinks robbery) rented a cottage on
Folly and was arrested by the FBI on the corner of Erie & Center
1956: The wooden Folly River Bridge was replaced with a concrete
1957: The Oceanfront Hotel and Pavilion and Joe’s Restaurant burned
1960’s: Ocean Plaza was opened with 1700 feet of boardwalk, pier,
amusement rides, shops, roller skating and concessions. This was the
Golden Era of Folly Beach. The first surfboard on the Island was
introduced by Pat Thomas.
1964: Palm reading was banned on Folly
1967: Horseback riding was banned on the Island
1977: The Pier burned again, suspected arson
1985: Holiday Inn was built
1989: Hurricane Hugo destroyed many homes and devastated the
1995: The current Pier, restaurant and tackle shop was built
Resource: Time and Tide on Folly Beach South Carolina,
Gretchen Stringer-Robinson (1998)