Goose Creek -Past and Present – A Tribute to Mayor Michael Heitzler
South Carolina history teems with accounts about the Goose Creek Men. Who were they and why have their legacies lived on? At some points in history their legacy is shrouded in obscurity, and at others it’s ostentatiously preserved and showcased to the public. How did they influence the new Carolina settlement in 1670, and why should we care?
Charleston’s history is intoxicating. It can compel you to sway in the historical breezes of the past or sometimes cause you to wobble from a tailwind of its horrendous past. This place – the Holy City – is a relic of colonial greatness.
But Charleston’s history did not originate on Carolina shores. It was written during Europe’s exploration and expansion. England, Africa – West Africa, and the Americas became connected in the unfolding story which led to Charleston – to Goose Creek. Barbados became the colony where the British got a foothold in the Caribbean and then in Carolina.
Sugar brought about cataclysmic changes which impacted the whole world. Sugar plantations required a massive labor force which was secured from West Africa. The system of governance based on the subjugation and control of an indispensable labor force was contrived in Barbados and became the model – the “Barbados Model” — that was transported beyond the aqua waters and white sands of Barbados.
The British colonists settled Barbados in 1627 and experimented with different crops, but within a few decades sugar had changed their fortunes, and the British colonists began a quest for new colonies where their younger sons could seek their own fortunes. When Carolina was settled in 1670, younger sons of the British colonists, now called Barbadians, led in setting up the new Carolina colony.
They settled in what’s called Goose Creek today, and became known as the Goose Creek Men. When they arrived in Carolina they brought the knowledge of how to set up a slave-based society. They brought with them indentured servants and enslaved people of African descent from Barbados, and possessed an abundance of confidence and larger-than-life egos. From Goose Creek they wielded their power as they navigated the unchartered terrain of setting up the Carolina Colony — which has been called recently by historians a “colony of a colony” –Barbados. Historians also say that Barbados practiced the most horrific and inhuman form of slavery. Slave laws setting forth the methods of punishment that would be meted out to the enslaved population were adopted and adapted in the new Carolina colony.
The vast majority of early British settlers to Barbados left the island centuries ago. Most went back to England. Many migrated to other Caribbean islands, North America, and, yes, Carolina. A majority of Barbados’ population (90%) is primarily of African descent. There is indisputable evidence that the different groups that once populated the island comingled. “Creolization” began early in the island’s history and resulted in a hybrid population of people. The majority of the population now bears surnames derived from British, Irish and Scottish stock. A similar situation also played out in Carolina.
Recently, a group of contemporary Barbadians departed Barbados one day before Hurricane Matthew brushed the island on September 28th. They arrived in Charleston to face inclement weather. Immediately, they were captivated by the vastness of the land and how the rivers and waterways punctuated the landmass.
I invite you to join me as I retrace their visit to the Lowcountry and to Goose Creek. Come with me.
On day one the group visited Charles Towne Landing which is dubbed “the birthplace of South Carolina.” Before entering the museum, the group was presented with what constitutes shared Barbados and Carolina influences and how they would be able to identify those influences throughout their visit. The museum presented them with a stupendous historical backdrop and overview that served them well throughout their visit.
On day two the group toured Downtown Charleston. Historic monuments, cobble stone streets, colonial architecture, the Charleston single house, street names, parish churches, cemeteries, hidden gardens all harkened back to a past era. A tour through Historic Charleston’s well-preserved streetscapes revealed the historical footprints of some of these early settlers from Barbados. Many of the settlers decamped in the Goose Creek area, but also owned homes on the Charleston peninsula, which became the seat of commerce and trade– particularly the slave trade. Names that are very familiar to Bajans appear on the many narrow streets and alleyways as reminders of this early period. Based on the dates on many of these early homes, it can be correctly deduced that they had close relations with Barbados either through trade or commerce. The modern day visitors learned that some of the settlers were merchants and traders who owned interests in slave ships that transported enslaved people as well as other tradable commodities to and from the British West Indies.
Day three was a day of leisure and shopping. Bajans love shopping. It also afforded them an opportunity to reflect and digest what they had experienced by this stage of the tour.
On day four the group visited Magnolia Plantation and Gardens and Middleton Place Plantations. Each plantation provided a glimpse backward in time into the formation of the burgeoning colony in Carolina as it geared up to become the richest colony in North America. When it was determined that “rice” would be Carolina’s “sugar,” enslaved Africans were then brought directly from West Africa en masse to labor on Carolina rice plantations. These enslaved Africans brought knowledge about rice cultivation and they became the labor force behind Charleston’s rise as a colonial powerhouse.
The owners of these iconic plantations along the Ashley River were Goose Creek Men who also owned country mansions in the Goose Creek area. The Middleton family owned a number of plantations, including Middleton Place Plantation. Three plantations they also owned around the Goose Creek area were The Oaks, Otranto, and The Elms. “Settlers arrived from every island in the English Caribbean…(From The Goose Creek Men – Founding Fathers of the Deep South booklet by Michael J. Heitzler).” Some notable Barbadian names who maintained their interest in Barbados are Colleton, Daniel, Drayton, Gibbes, Moore, Smith and others. Not listed here are those who settled from other Caribbean islands.
The long awaited visit to Goose Greek occurred on the last day of the tour. The Bajans headed to City Hall, Goose Creek. They were introduced to Mayor Michael Heitzler, the esteemed and indefatigable gatekeeper of Goose Creek for more than 38 years. The honor didn’t escape the Bajans, and the hospitality of the eminent mayor was liberally and selflessly lavished upon them. His Sunday was to spent imparting from his vast and deep reservoir of knowledge of research about Goose Creek and the Goose Creek Men. His expansive work is well documented in a number of books, including two large volumes of history: “Goose Creek – A Definite History – Planters, Politician and Patriots.”
Led by Mayor Heitzler, tour guide extraordinaire, each stop along the tour provided opportunities to reflect upon the plantations and the inhabitants who rose to prominence during the colonial period. As the layers of history about the Goose Creek Men were peeled back, the colonial mindsets and attitudes which these “Barbadians” brought to Carolina were also laid bare. Land aplenty was available in Carolina. Leaving Barbados, which is 166 square miles, and arriving in Carolina must have been mind boggling. It was also eye opening for the Bajans on this tour. Just imagine the difference in scale– Barbados would fit into McCormick County, South Carolina’s smallest county, more than two and one-half times. Astounding!
The Bajans learned more about the complexities of the relationships that emerged between the planter class, the merchants, and the Native tribes they found along the coast during this early period. They also learned about the interaction between the enslaved labor force and the indentured servants. Missing from the history, but ever present in the stories that were told, were the ghosts of people in the shadows – nameless and faceless people who traversed the surrounding lands.
Historical records indicate that the Middleton Family owned hundreds of acres and thousands of slaves. Enslavement was not a happy and rewarding lifestyle. They toiled and suffered on these plantations, and many planned and plotted how to escape from their fate. Some navigated the treacherous swamps seeking routes of escape to capture the elusive dream of freedom. Their descendants are the Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands.
Rivers, creeks and estuaries still bear the names of Native tribes, but the actual people are not here. This is the history of the dispossessed Native people of Carolina. Descendants of some of these Native people, for example the Wassamasaw Indian Nation of South Carolina, whose identities have been erased by laws instituted by the governing class, continue to seek recognition. Some of the dispossessed are descendants of both Native people and enslaved people brought to area. They can be recognized by the distinctive features which attest to the ancestral kinship among the dispossessed.
A visit to the iconic St. James Anglican Church, Goose Creek, built in 1710, was noteworthy. This church is recorded as one of South Carolina’s oldest churches, and it is a National Historic Landmark. It is not opened for regular services, and is small when compared to the larger more ornate St. James Anglican Church, St. James, Barbados. In Barbados, St. James Parish Church is a functional place of worship and a popular tourist attraction on the island.
At this stop the curious and informed Bajans seized the opportunity to engage with Mayor Heitzler’s who graciously afforded them the opportunity for questions and answers. Mayor Heitzler noted he wasn’t expecting such an engaged group. The exchange was enlightening to all.
The tour ended with lunch at Gilligan’s Restaurant in Monck’s Corner. The group was joined by a number of Bajans now living in South Carolina. One of Charleston’s folk singers, Mr. Mark Mason, and his wife joined us for lunch. Mark entertained the group with familiar folk songs from Barbados and the Caribbean and some of his own from South Carolina, to the great delight of the Bajans.
Ms. June Clarke, the Barbados tour operator, wrapped up an unforgettable tour to Charleston by presenting Mayor Heitzler with a beautiful bottle, engraved with his name, of 12-year rum made at Nicholas Abbey, Barbados. This tangible link to Barbados is symbolic in many ways. Nicholas Abbey was formerly owned by Sir John Yeamans, one of Carolina’s first governors. It was this very John Yeamans, one of the Goose Creek Men from Barbados, who introduced slavery, as practiced in Barbados, to Carolina. Today Yeamans Hall, a gated community and golf course in Hanahan, SC stands as a reminder of this shared history.
Here at the intersection of the past and the present, I peer into the future utilizing my virtual tools, I hope this visit opens yet another opportunity for people from Barbados and people from South Carolina to explore, to understand, and to respect our shared historical links. May ignorance not chain us to past and present injustices. On behalf of the contemporary Barbadians who were privileged to visit Goose Creek, I extend my heartfelt thanks to a most gracious and knowledgeable host, Mayor Michael Heitzler.
Rhoda A. Green
Founder/CEO of The Barbados and the Carolinas Legacy Foundation.
November 24, 2016