Remembering the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893: Mermaids, culpability, and the postbellum Lowcountry

Erstwhile editor Caroline Grego reflects on her dissertation research from the summer and explores the ways in which African Americans in the South Carolina and Georgia sea islands – the Lowcountry – understood the Great Sea Island Storm of 1893, a hurricane that killed thousands of African Americans.  Meteorologists later estimated that the storm was a Category 3 hurricane.  This post is also in memory of renowned southern historian Dr. Charles Joyner, who passed away last week.  Joyner wrote the book Down by the Riverside, which features All Saints Parish in Georgetown, South Carolina.

Pauline blamed Doctor Ward and the blue-tailed mermaid for the hurricane of 1893.[1]  Doctor Ward had trapped the mermaid somewhere in the tangle of inlets and marshes along the coast and locked her up. The mermaid’s anger and sorrow conjured rain for thirty days before the hurricane struck sea and earth with winds over 120 miles per hour and a storm surge at least twelve feet deep on the night of August 27th, 1893.[2]  The South Carolina and Georgia Lowcountry, a coastal strip of low-lying islands separated from the mainland by wide marshes and tidal rivers, bore the brunt of the storm’s ferocity – though its path was enormous, a churning storm between 800 and 1,000 miles wide.[3]  The town of Beaufort, South Carolina and its environs suffered the worst damage. As the ocean receded, sweet potatoes rotted in the salt-logged soil. Bodies rafted like dead cordgrass in the marshes. Wells overflowed with saline floodwater, even as malaria-bearing mosquitos bred by the thousands in the pools of rainwater pitting scoured fields and gutted homes. Clara Barton, who arrived a few weeks after the storm and stayed in Beaufort for ten months to direct recovery on behalf of the American Red Cross, wrote that the hurricane killed between 3,000 and 5,000 people on the sea islands alone.[4]  All but a handful were African American.

To dismiss Pauline’s story as superstition or a quaint yarn similar to one of Joel Chandler Harris’s Brer Rabbit folktales does Pauline’s own local knowledge a disservice. Behind this hurricane origin story is quiet resistance to an old system of white supremacy and oppression that, with the emergence of Jim Crow segregation and violence, was finding new expressions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This seemingly fanciful origin story seethes with tension and a fraught history.

hurricane-track

The track of the hurricane.  The storm weakened as it headed north, but still caused flooding in the northeast.  From William & Fran Marscher’s account of the storm, The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 (Macon:  Mercer University, 2003), Preface.

Today, people usually do not blame mythical creatures for hurricanes. Meteorological experts have predicted that this year’s hurricane season will be especially prolific because of the transition to La Niña and higher-than-normal water surface temperatures on the Gulf of Mexico. Already, ten of the twelve tropical storms and hurricanes this year have hit land. Experts predict an intensification of hurricanes as climate change escalates. Hurricane activity may then increase, adding a new chapter to the history of how people of the Greater Caribbean have grappled with these storms. Stuart B. Schwartz, in his comprehensive book Sea of Storms, traces the ways in which people have conceptualized and understood hurricanes over the past five centuries. Many early European colonizers in the Americas saw hurricanes as divine retribution for sin, and Caribs of the Lesser Antilles blamed the devastating storms on evil spirits.[5]  Schwartz describes these belief systems as forms of local knowledge, in which early modern peoples “combined aspects of religion and astrology with a knowledge of the physical world and the signs that revealed it.”[6]  Understanding hurricanes’ destruction in “theological and moral terms” continued well into the nineteenth century, even as many Westerners began to believe that national governments must, in some capacity, assume responsibility for providing humanitarian aid to citizens in distress.[7]  In the United States, the federal government’s understanding of its level of obligation to its citizenry has varied: during the 1893 hurricane, no single federal aid apparatus existed, and the survivors saw no national or state relief. (The Red Cross was, and remains , a nongovernmental organization). In fact, it was not until 1978 that Congress established the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the first centralized, federal agency dedicated solely to providing aid in the wake of natural disasters.[8]

P1260649.JPG

“Rations for Lady’s Island,” by Daniel Smith for Joel Chandler Harris’s article, “The Sea Island Hurricane:  The Relief,” in Scribner’s Magazine, March 1894, Vol. XV, No. 3, 268.

Pauline lived at Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, which is today immediately south of that lamentable tourist destination, Myrtle Beach. This area is further up the coast from the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, the epicenter of the hurricane’s worst destruction, but was nonetheless hard-hit by the storm. Born in 1886, Pauline was never a slave, but her elders were probably enslaved by the Wards. Doctor Ward and Pauline, then, coexisted in a strange space: he had not been a slaveholder and she had not been a slave, but he benefitted from his family’s wealth and she knew her family’s past. The Wards owned, before and after the Civil War, much of the land that is now part of the beautiful Brookgreen Gardens.  (This 9,100-acre property features public manicured gardens, the sculptures of Anna Hyatt Huntington, and old rice fields through which tourists can now take a boat tour). The Wards were not just any southern planters. Doctor Ward’s grandfather, Joshua John Ward, was the largest slaveholder in the United States at the dawn of the Civil War. He died in 1853 with 1,092 slaves, and in 1860, his estate had increased to 1,130 people.[9]  Among them were likely Pauline’s parents.

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A fountain at Brookgreen Gardens.  Photo by author, June 2014.

p1260643

A map of the area by Daniel Smith for the same article in Scribner’s Magazine, p. 237.  Murrells Inlet is further north.

It is not clear how the story of the mermaid emerged. Did Doctor Ward make it up? If so, did he intend to awe the descendants of his family’s slaves with his power, to cow them into submission, to remind them of what a white man in the South was capable of? Did he mean to make Pauline and her friends and family sound foolish and ignorant for disseminating tales of mermaids? If Doctor Ward told the story to impress and intimidate local African Americans, then it rebounded on him. The hurricane killed thousands of African Americans. It left 30,000 sea island residents homeless and destitute for months. It destroyed an emerging Lowcountry industry in phosphate mining, much heralded by boosters of the New South and a burgeoning source of income for thousands of local and migrant workers by 1893.[10]  It ravaged the already-decaying rice culture that had built the wealth and power of Doctor Ward’s family on the backs of the slaves who brought forth Pauline, reinforcing the decline and fall of rice cultivation in South Carolina.[11]  That is – if Doctor Ward had initially intended to brag, he was crowing over a nail in the coffin of the systems that once brought his family such immense wealth. But Pauline, with an audience of friends and neighbors sitting on her porch as she recounted the story to the Federal Writers Project interviewer in 1937, recollected that when Doctor Ward spoke about the storm, he teared up. His attitude seemed to be, in retrospect at least, one of remorse.

Pauline’s feelings are less clear. Did the story originate with Pauline, her parents, or their friends? If she or people she knew spread this story, it might have been out of a sense of resentment and upset. Pauline could have been blaming Ward for the ills that befell African Americans during and after the hurricane. Remember that of the few thousand African Americans that died as a result of the hurricane, only a handful of white people did; of the intense poverty that followed the storm, African Americans constituted nearly all of its victims. Pauline may be placing the hurricane and Doctor Ward’s role in it, as a selfish, greedy man eager to trap a creature that should have been left alone, within a larger framework of how she and other African Americans understood the postbellum South.[12]  The racial exploitation that emerged with slavery did not end with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. Moreover, Doctor Ward’s birth after slavery did not exempt him from culpability for slavery’s lingering ravages – especially after planters and other Democrats violently recaptured southern state governments in the 1870s, a development that contributed to the rise of Jim Crow in the 1890s. Doctor Ward’s place in the southern hierarchy was set, assured. The fall of the Confederacy did not see the permanent fall of a white upper class with planter roots:  Doctor Ward, a wealthy landowner in his own right, was proof of that. Seen this way, Pauline’s story becomes subversive, suggesting that Pauline and her guests understood all too well how they lived within a new iteration of the old white supremacy that had guided slavery.

Charleston Hurricane 1893 Vertical File.JPG

A cyanotope from the South Carolina Historical Society’s vertical file on the hurricane, photographer unknown.  This is a view familiar to tourists, showing damage looking north along the High Battery in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Great Sea Island Storm of 1893 is one of the most tragic, devastating episodes in American history. It was an extraordinary hurricane within the inevitable seasonal cycle in which weather event clashes with human societies to force a disaster that goes well beyond the “natural.” But it also stands as a cautionary tale ignored, a tragedy forgotten, and a template for the outcome of future natural hazards as long as racism, class inequality, and inadequate government responses continue in this age of climate change. Indeed, Ted Steinberg in his excellent book Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America argues that an ongoing issue plaguing federal disaster relief efforts is the difficulty in finding, within impoverished areas, “where the effects of disaster begin and end.”[13]  Hurricanes do not create poverty, racism, or faulty levees. Hurricanes only reveal human hubris, greed, and bigotry and push those fatal flaws to their furthest limit and outcome: the death of people in poverty, most often people of color. Pauline implies that message in her story of the hurricane, the mermaid, and Doctor Ward. She knew who to blame.

~

[1] Federal Writers’ Project: Slave Narrative Project, Vol. 14, South Carolina, Part 2, Eddington-Hunter, 322 (1936), Manuscript/Mixed Material, retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/mesn142/ (accessed September 18, 2016). Two hurricanes struck the coast in the season of 1893: this hurricane on August 27th, and another on October 13th. The former was stronger and much more deadly; the latter was less intense, killing around twenty people. The two seem to have melded in the memories of the people interviewed about them forty years later.

[2] Calculations from Walter J. Fraser Jr., Lowcountry Hurricanes: Three Centuries of Storms at Sea and Ashore (Athens: University of Georgia, 2006).

[3] See Fraser, 172.

[4] Clara Barton, A Story of the Red Cross (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1928), 77. From Chapter VI, “The Sea Island Relief,” courtesy the Beaufort District Collections.  This number is uncertain and disputed. Scholars, drawing from unclear sources because there is no single death list, place the number anywhere from 1,200 (number of completely verifiable, named deaths) to 5,000. I choose to honor the estimate drawn up by Barton, the informant closest to the devastation.

[5] Stuart B. Schwartz, Sea of Storms: A History of Hurricanes in the Greater Caribbean from Columbus to Katrina (Princeton: Princeton University, 2015), 9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., 125.

[8] For more on FEMA, see Ted Steinberg, Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[9] These details derive from the 1850 and 1860 South Carolina censuses, which indexed slaveholders and slaves. USC South Caroliniana Library’s collection on Joshua John Ward enumerates his holdings. The University of Virginia Library also provides digital access to historical census data.

[10] See Shepherd W. McKinley, Stinking Stones and Rocks of Gold: Phosphate, Fertilizer, and Industrialization in Postbellum South Carolina (Gainesville: University of Florida, 2014).

[11] See Mart Stewart, “What Nature Suffers to Groe”: Life, Labor, and Landscape on the Georgia Coast, 1680-1920 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996), 236.

[12] For more on an interpretation of mermaids in Gullah lore as connected to West African nature spirits, or simbi, see Ras Michael Brown’s African-Atlantic Cultures and the South Carolina Lowcountry (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2012), 253.

[13] Steinberg, Acts of God, 190.

 

 

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