Cultural history of Old St. John’s Parish resurfaces
By Patra Taylor
When Dr. Richard Porcher looks out across the vastness of Lake Moultrie, it’s often with a sense of melancholy. Both having come into this world in 1942, the noted field botanist and the third largest lake in South Carolina find their histories inextricably connected.
A part of a massive hydroelectric project that brought power to thousands of people, and later became a watersports paradise for Lowcountry residents and visitors alike, the reality of the lake today isn’t lost on Dr. Porcher. But to him, the great tragedy of this 80-year-old story is the lost history and culture of those who lived and worked in that great natural basin beneath the lake for centuries. According to Dr. Porcher, “Lake Moultrie flooded the entire 60,000-acres that made up Middle St. John’s Parish, leaving virtually nothing of its physical and cultural history.”
That loss of this important piece of South Carolina’s history includes the loss of a piece of Dr. Porcher’s personal history, the remnant memories of which are imprinted in his DNA. He grew up in Pinopolis, there along the rim of the great basin where his ancestors settled and lived for generations, the place from which his family was displaced before it was flooded during the year of his birth.
Fast forward to 2007 when an unexpected opportunity arose for Dr. Porcher to explore the land that had been lost to so many. “During the drawdown in the winter of 2007 and 2008, the water level of Lake Moultrie dropped to 66 feet, nine feet below its high-water mark of 75 feet,” he says. “With childhood friends from Pinopolis, Norman Walsh, Eddie Davis, Whit Boykin and cousin Heyward Porcher, along with Cecy Guerry, we roamed the exposed shore and islands of the lake. With a 1938 aerial photograph of the area covered by the lake and several survey plats of plantations done by J. Palmer Gaillard, Sr. from 1920 to 1930, we tried to locate plantation sites uncovered by the drawdown. We were not very successful.”
That’s when Norman Walsh made an interesting suggestion: Why not contact Robert Hauck at the Berkeley County GIS (Geographic Information System) office and ask if he would overlay the Gaillard plats onto the 1938 aerial photo. Hauck agreed, and soon Dr. Porcher and his friends returned to the field with several landscape maps created by Hauck. With those in hand, the explorers were able to locate the sites of several homes in Middle St. John’s: Somerset, Chapel Hill, Moorefield and Woodlawn. In Upper St. John’s they found Springfield, The Rocks, Poplar Hill, Eutaw, Mt. Pleasant and Belvedere.
Suddenly, Dr. Porcher had a birds-eye view of the St. John’s Parish of the past, a history that his father had often said, with a wave of his hand, was “gone with the breezes.”
After more than 12 long years of reading, writing and researching, along with the help of some amazing technology, Our Lost Heritage: A Cultural History of the Middle Beat of Old St. John’s Parish, Berkeley County, South Carolina 1700-1942 by Richard Dwight Porcher, Jr., Cecile Ann Guerry and Robert Joseph Hauck was published in October 2022.
A graduate of The College of Charleston who earned his doctorial degree from the University of South Carolina, Dr. Porcher began a 33-year tenure as a biology professor at The Citadel in 1970. He is the author of Wildflowers of the Carolina Lowcountry and Lower Pee Dee (1995); senior author of A Field Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina (2001); and co-author of A Guide to the Wildflowers of South Carolina, which was also published last month. He is currently working on A History of the Santee Canal with Elizabeth Connor and Billy Judd.
Cecy Guerry received her undergraduate and graduate degrees for Clemson University and Emory University. After a career centered on high school teaching and library work, she now spends her time as a researcher for authors including Dr. Porcher, Norman Walsh and others.
Working in the field of GIS for more than 20 years, Robert Hauck received his geography degree from Auburn University. Currently, he serves as GIS Director for the city of Charleston.
Dr. Porcher opens the book by dedicating it to his three grandchildren; and to David “Little Son” Washington (1922 - 2014) and his family for the plethora of information they provided about of the black settlements in the basin before the lake came. He writes:
“Our Lost Heritage is dedicated to those who witnessed their heritage of Middle St. John’s Parish vanish beneath the muddy waters of a man-made lake. Our Lost Heritage is a celebration of the voices of those who called St. John’s home for two-and-a-half centuries. Those of us today will never fully understand what they experienced ¾ try as we might ¾– as the waters rose over the lands of their ancestors and the lands they had planned to will to their children. This was true not only for the planter descendants but also for the African Americans who lived in Middle St. John’s prior to the lake and shared the same fate. Middle St. John’s was the land of their enslaved and freed ancestors and the only homes they had known.”
Dr. Porcher says, “Of all the work that went into this book, I’m proudest of being able to tell the story of enslaved people, freed people, the blacks who once called the land flooded by Lake Moultrie their home. Their history is important and worthy of being remembered.”
In Dr. Porcher’s opening paragraph of his book he offers an eloquent glimpse into what readers can expect if they choose to traverse the 630-page scholarly tome, in part or its entirety. It reads:
“Our Lost Heritage asks: Is a man-made lake, an unnatural system, a better use of the land than might be used today by farmers, timber companies, environmentalists, tourists, cultural historians and hunters. Is Lake Moultrie today truly a ‘wilderness experience’ as marketers tout? A land that might have been designated a historic district, with tourist attractions. Agriculture and tourism are current mainstays of the South Carolina economy. Our Lost Heritage does not answer these questions, yet they are pertinent question because today so much of our natural and cultural heritage is threatened or faced with extinction by unbridled and unwise development. Recall the plight of the Phillips Community in Charleston faced with virtual extinction if a planned five-lane road is created through the community. Hopefully, this book will make one realize what was lost when the St. John’s Basin was flooded and help prevent destruction to similar cultural and natural treasures of South Carolina! Or anywhere!”
We see passionate words from a passionate naturalist, historian and teacher. A perusal of the book leaves most readers wondering the same things.
The self-published volume of Our Lost Heritage is itself a wonder. Well-plotted from start to finish, the book is filled with documented information and period photos enveloped in the perspective of a scholar of the region. For the novice, the book provides a deep dive into the region, from its Native American roots through the Reconstruction Era to the flooding in 1942. For those who are enticed to want more, the book offers 25 pages of appendices and comprehensive index for easy cross-referencing to make the journey forward easier. To secure a copy of Our Lost Heritage, please send your request to the following: firstname.lastname@example.org.