James Island – Folly Island History

Just across 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. 

Many 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 history.

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

The 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 as 1749.

Morris 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 naming.

The Morris Island Pirate Ghost

A Union 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.

On Morris 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.

Among the 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 beheading.

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.

Although 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.

Folly Island 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.

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 purposes.

The troops 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.

Folly 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.

Morris 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.

Later the 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 confederacy.

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 foliage

  • 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 was built.
  • 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 July celebration
  • 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 Street.
  • 1956:  The wooden Folly River Bridge was replaced with a concrete bridge
  • 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 beaches
  • 1995:  The current Pier, restaurant and tackle shop was built

Resource: Time and Tide on Folly Beach South Carolina, Gretchen Stringer-Robinson (1998)

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