The Right Coast
April 27, 2005
Back to the Swamp from Whence She (Partly) Came
By Gail Heriot
I was in South Carolina back in February doing a little research for a book I have planned. While there I thought I should do a little ancestor hunting. My paternal grandfather was from the South Carolina Low Country, but since he died in about 1917 just after my father’s birth, no one in my immediate family knew a great deal about the Heriots. What little I knew came mostly from the internet.
Sandy Island ... I knew that was important. My great, great grandfather, Dr. Edward Thomas Heriot, had lived there prior to the Civil War on a plantation he called Mount Arena. The island is about five by three miles and located at the confluence of the Waccamaw and Pee Dee Rivers; it is the largest alluvial island in the East. Mount Arena, if there is anything left of it (and I doubt there is), would be towards the south end of the island. All I had to do was find it with the pathetically inadequate road map they’d given me at the car rental agency.
Luck appeared to be with me. Shortly after landing in South Carolina in the early morning, I was driving south on US 17, and I noticed a road marked “Sandy Island Road.” I figured I’d be standing on land once trodden by my great, great grandfather in no time. Hunting ancestors was turning out to be easy.
Alas, it was too easy. Sandy Island Road dead ends at the Waccamaw. There is no bridge, just a tiny dock. Sandy Island was so close I could have thrown a rock at it. But the eastern half of the island is a cypress swamp. Hundreds of partly-submerged mist-enshrouded bald cypress trees stood guard with their enormous lower trunks and roots like buttresses. Spanish moss. A great blue heron. Egrets. And if I’m not mistaken the smaller birds I saw were least bitterns. (I’m pretty good at identifying swamp birds; I hadn’t realized until that moment that it might be a Lamarckian genetic trait ....). It was an eerie but beautiful scene.
A few minutes after I arrived, a group of hunters with their Labrador Retrievers drove down the road. I asked them if I was indeed looking at Sandy Island and whether there was a bridge leading to it anywhere. They said it was, but that the only way to get there is by boat. According to these gentlemen, the island is mainly a nature preserve today, but there is a settlement on the island of about a hundred people. The residents are the descendants of slaves from the island and speak in the traditional Gullah dialect. A school boat picks up the children every weekday and takes them to a school on the mainland. Otherwise their contact with the mainland is somewhat limited.
The hunters were off in search of wild boar, which they said are common along the Waccamaw. They thought they might see alligator as well, but that was not what they were after. They offered to take me to the island, but they said it would be quite some time before they could bring me back. I was actually tempted, but I figured that, among other things, I wasn’t dressed for it. (The wrong shoes have prevented me from going on many an adventure. I am not sure whether on the whole this has been to my advantage or disadvantage.)
I didn’t make it to Sandy Island on that trip. I will go again in the winter. I want to be able to wear boots, since Sandy Island is home to both coral snakes and cottonmouths and I’m sure that wearing boots in the summer in the South Carolina Low Country is not pleasant. But I’ve learned a lot about Sandy Island since my first trip. It turns out that most of it is owned by the State of South Carolina and managed by the Nature Conservancy. And the folks at the Nature Conservancy have been kind enough to offer some advice and assistance.
One thing I’ve learned is that Mount Arena means “Mountain of Sand.” (The early Romans, from whom we get the word "arena" conducted their athletic competitions in sand pits.) But it is both a literal description of the island location and a metaphorical one. The rice plantations on Sandy Island were built on slavery, and they made their owners very, very wealthy. But eventually the foundation of sand gave way-- as sand is wont to do. No one is getting rich on Sandy Island anymore. And no one is a slave.
I can’t help thinking of it in contrast to the old farmhouse in Nobleboro, Maine where my mother was born (as well as her mother and probably her mother’s mother). Like everything in Maine, that house was built on rock–a huge shelf of granite that seems to stretch from one end of the state to the other. You could see it down in the cellar (or for that matter in the cow pasture). But again the foundation of rock is both literal and metaphorical. My mother’s ancestors were yeoman farmers there in Lincoln County going back to the early 18th century. They never got rich, but they never starved either, and they did the work themselves (with an occasional assist from a hired hand). Unlike Mount Arena, the house on East Neck still stands and has been continuously lived in since it was built. It's still solid almost two centuries later.