Colonial Dorchester State Park

Posted by Mark Woodard

              Colonial Dorchester is located on Dorchester Road in Summerville,Fort Dorchester South Carolina South Carolina, just past Bacons Bridge Road and before you get to Old Trolley Road.

            John Smith was the first man to own this land.  He came to Carolina from England with his wife Mary in 1675.  He was especially recommended by the Earl of Shaftsbury, “as my particular friend.”  On November 20, 1676 he was granted 1,800 acres covering the Peninsula and future sight of the town of Dorchester.  It was John Smith who probably cleared the land at the top of the bluff, and built his house there.  John Smith, of Boo-Shoo, died prior to December of 1682. That’s when his widow, Mary, married Arthur Middleton.  Upon Middleton's death in 1684, Mary married Ralph Izard.  John Smith seems to have left no children and the 1,800 acres must have lapsed back to the state.

            Time was moving forward, the year was 1695.  The earliest record notice is in the first church at Dorchester, in the Massachusetts colony.  The records show that on the 20th of October 1695, Joseph Lord, Increase Sumner and William Pratt, were dismissed from the church in Massachusetts, to go to the church in Carolina.  Two days later, on October 22, “the day was set apart for the ordering of  Mr. Joseph Lord for to be pastor to a church gathered that day, for to go to Carolina to settle the gospel there.”

            After six weeks of preparation, the church set sail from Boston on December 5, 1695.  The ship they sailed on was a two mast, square rigged sailing ship known as a Brigantine.  It was named “Friendship” and was captained by John Hull.  They safely arrived in Charles Town on December 20, 1695.  When the “Friendship” arrived they fired a three gun salute.  They received a nine gun salute in return.  The people of Charles Town were very friendly!  After a week in Charles Town, two of the eight men (Pratt and Sumner) went up the Ashley River to the Newington plantation.  They were received and entertained by Lady Rebecca Axtell.  The two different locations were discussed.  One location was on the Stono River, with land owned by Joseph Blake.  The other land was on the Ashley River, formerly owned by John Smith of Boo-Shoo, but ownership had gone back to the state after his death.  Lady Axtell told them, that two other men wanted to get the property on the Ashley River, but she wanted the “disinters” to get it.  She said she would do everything she could, to help them.  The men went to visit the two locations.  The church spent nearly 4 weeks examining different places but Elder William Pratt told Reverend Joseph Lord, that the latter location would be his choice.

            In January of 1696, the church received a grant along the Ashley River.  The grant was made out to John Stevens for 1,800 acres of the Boo-Shoo tract and 2,250 acres of the Rose’s tract, making it 4050 acres in all.   The people decided the church should be built in the center of their land.  On Sunday, January 26, 1696, Reverend Lord preached his first sermon at the place selected for the building.

            Elder Pratt left Charles Town to return to Massachusetts on the 8th of February, 1696. Elder Pratt picked up his wife, Elizabeth Baker Pratt, and his daughter, Thankful Pratt.  He also picked up Deacon Sumner’s wife and children, Deacon Sumner's brother, Samuel Sumner with his wife and children along with Peter O’Kelly’s wife and six children, and others.  They set sail from Boston, on the 8th of January, 1697.                                   

            What was this church, of which William Pratt was an elder, and Joseph Lord was the Pastor? We need to go back to England, a couple of centuries before.  The Church of England was the state approved church.  The town of Dorchester, England traces its history back to 70 AD.  It was a stronghold for the Romans.  Years later, the Church of England would become the National Church.  The Anglican Church, or the Church of England, was very liturgical in their worship.

            The Puritans were meeting in Dorchester, England and they had their own form of worship.  They did not like High Church, or liturgical forms of worship.  This caused troubled times for their church.  In fact, this caused Judge George Jefferies to burn some people at the stake.  Others were “hanged, drawn, and quartered”, with their heads, (having been cut off) posted on the church building’s roof.  This time was known as the “bloody assizes” in England's history.

            Reverend John White had been the rector of St. Peter's Church in Dorchester for many years.  White considered himself “an earnest Puritan.”  In the 1620s he gave his assistance to the 102 original immigrants on the “Mayflower” when they left England for Massachusetts to gain religious freedom.  Neither John White, nor his wife Mary, ever came across the Atlantic Ocean to see Massachusetts.  Yet he was known as the “father of the Massachusetts Colony.”  The Puritans came to Massachusetts and started a town they named Dorchester for their old home place back in England.  Now nearly 100 years later some of the parishioners of the Massachusetts church were coming to Carolina.  They called themselves missionaries and they were ready to “settle the gospel.”

            There were plantations along the Ashley River but the immediate area must have been sparsely settled with the closest neighbors mainly being the Indians.  Indians like the Edisto, Kusso, Stono and Westo’s just to name a few.  The Kusso tribe was said to be loyal friends of the English and to help them fight off hostile Indians.  The Kusso Indians lived by the Kussobo River, now called the Ashley.   Two miles from where the church was built, the people decided to build their town on the bluff of the Ashley River.  As no surprise they decided to name their town Dorchester.  Dorchester was eighteen miles up river from Charles Town.  They built the church first, and then the town.  The place they built the town was at the start of the river navigation.  Boats that drew 6 feet of water or less could make it to Dorchester.  This was a great location for shipping deer skins and product down to Charles Town. The Puritans had to stake guards while building the church and town for there own protection.

Old Dorchester Layout            Old Dorchester was orderly laid out, with 116 quarter-acre lots between parallel and perpendicular streets.  The main thoroughfare was called “High Street” like it was in small British towns. They left an open area in the town, or common, for a market place. Fifty acre farm lots lined the riverbank.

            The first church the Congregationalists built was made of wood. The second church building was made out of brick and white plaster.  They called it “Old White Meeting House” or for short, “Old White.”  It was the first church in the area.  These people were called Puritans, religious-dissenters from the Church of England, or Congregationalists.  There were a few Anglican people in the area, but they went to “Old White.”  They thought it was better than staying home.  In 1706 the colonial legislature passed the Church Act declaring the Church of England the established church of Carolina.  For eleven years Dorchester lay within the upper part of St. Andrews Parish.  By the year 1717 the number of Anglicans had increased.  They petitioned the legislators to create their own parish.  That new Parish was named “St. George.”  The commissioners got someone to build an Anglican Church in Dorchester.  They bought Lot 99 virtually in the center of town.  In the Church Act of 1706 the state said each parish would pay for it own church buildings, and they would pay for there own ministers. 

            Construction of a small brick church began in August of 1719.  The Colony of Carolina was also changing.  In 1712 Carolina was split in two, making it North and South Carolina.  Each part would have it own governor.  South Carolina was its own state.  The Church Act of 1706 was still in effect.  Construction on the new church was completed in 1720; the sanctuary measured 50 feet long by 30 feet wide.  A chancel projected 15 feet by 5 feet from one of the walls.  The first pastor of the Anglican church was Reverend Peter Justian, coming in 1720.  Reverend Justian quickly found himself in problems as an Anglican pastor in a town started by Church of England dissenters.  He resigned as pastor within six months.  His successor, Reverend Francis Varnod, came to South Carolina in October of 1723.  He was the pastor of St. George for almost thirteen years.  During the time Reverend Varnod was pastor, the white population was almost equally divided between Anglicans and non-Anglicans.

            In 1723 the colonial legislatures approved weekly markets in Dorchester.  They would be held every Tuesday and Saturday on the common.  They also approved two four-day fairs starting the second Tuesday of April, and the first Tuesday of October.  You would find for sale, farm animals, grains, boats, personal items, and at times slaves.

            By 1708, black slaves outnumbered whites in the parish.  In 1726, the white population had grown to 537, while the black population had grown to 1300.  The number of slaves was growing each year because of the labor needed to grow and harvest rice, the cash crop.  This is why slaves from West Africa were so sought after.  They had the rice growing skills they had learned in Africa.  By 1741, 3,347 slaves lived in the parish, while the white population had decreased to 468.  In 1741, 88% of the population was slaves.

            The St. George church was repaired in 1734.  New pews were added and the church was enlarged.  Dorchester was an exciting village.  Reports say that at its height there were some 1,800 people who lived in the area.  The villageSt. George Church Bell Tower started a free school with Reverend John Allison as the first schoolmaster. (It was free for very few school kids, with the rest having to pay for their education) The school board which started the free school is still functioning in Summerville and is the oldest functioning school board in the country.  The residents of Dorchester also started a book library.

            In 1751, a stylish bell tower was added.  Over the years, the Puritans were called different names.  They had recently been called Congregationalists and that name stuck.

            In 1752, the Congregationalists church was facing several problems.  They needed more land and they thought their current area was sickly.  The fathers got together and decided to move the church to Midway near Savannah, Georgia.  They could get a lot more land there.  Of course not every one went with them, some stayed here.  So from 1752 to 1756, the Congregationalists church moved.

            The town of Dorchester grew.  By 1765, the bell tower had four bells in it.  The church also now had an organ.  The main road to Dorchester was called the “Broad Path.” Later it was known as the” Charleston Road”, and today, we call it “Dorchester Road”.

            The oldest church in Summerville is Summerville Presbyterian Church.  It traces its roots back to 1696 and the “Old White Meeting House.”  The state of South Carolina gave the “Old White” cemetery to Summerville Presbyterian.  The second oldest church in Summerville is St. Paul's Episcopal Church which dates back to 1720 and the Anglican Church.  Both of these churches have an outstanding past, and both churches, are currently very active sharing the love of God to the world through the message of Jesus Christ. 

            South Carolina was one of the original 13 colonies.  We were not a state because the “United States of America” had not been formed yet.  In the Colonial Period England owned South Carolina.  But the Spanish and French wanted to own us.  In fact in 1757 people in Charles Town heard rumors of the French attacking us.  The fathers of Charles Town got together realizing they only had one gunpowder magazine.  They knew that if the French attacked and captured it, South Carolina would have no gunpowder.  They decided to build another fort with a gunpowder magazine in it.  The town of Dorchester was the place they would build it.  Between 1757 and 1760, a tabby fort was built.

            Tabby is a mixture of oyster shells, lime and sand.  Shells were burned to create lime.  Boats were commissioned to transport the thousands of bushels of oyster shells needed for the project.  The fort was built by local slaves and is still standing today.  The wall is 8 feet at its highest and is 2 feet to 2'10" at the bottom.  It encloses a rectangular area of more than 10,000 square feet.

            The fort came into play in the late 1700s during the Revolutionary War. Fort Dorchester The fort was a rendezvous point for local militia units who either camped in tents on the common, or were billeted in the town's largest buildings.  During the Revolutionary War, many famous men served at Dorchester.  Men like Francis Marion “the Swamp Fox”, William Moultrie, Nathaniel Greene, Henry “Light Horse” Harry Lee (the father of Confederate General Robert E. Lee),Fort Dorchester and Wade Hampton (grandfather of the Confederate General Wade Hampton).

            The fort first fell to the British, when Charles Town fell in 1780.  The British held the fort until 1781, then left.  The Patriots came back and took control of the fort.  The British came back taking control of the fort, making it a British outpost.  It was at this time the people in Dorchester left for good.  When the British left this time they destroyed most of the town.  They burned the houses and they burned the church, leaving only the bell tower.  While staying in Dorchester the Redcoats left their mark.  They used the gravestone of “James Postell” as the chopping block for the camp’s meat.  You can still see the hack marks today.  The grave is located in front of the bell tower.  The growing town of Summerville absorbed much of the remaining population.  After the town shutdown, people were notorious for going back and digging up the brick and taking it for building their homes in Summerville.

            Charleston, Summerville, Dorchester, and other cities will not soon forget the great earthquake of 1886.  It was about 9:30 Tuesday night August 31st when the earth started shaking.  The “Old White Meeting House” crumbled.  Any buildings or partial buildings in Dorchester came down. The bell tower did stay standing but lost a block of bricks that fell, and is still on the ground behind the tower.  There was not a chimney left standing in Summerville, even St. Paul's Church was knocked 4 inches off its foundation.  But Summerville made it through the earthquake and continued to grow.  But Dorchester, forgotten by time, lay abandoned with brush covering it.

            The “Colonial Dames of America” began to come and clear brush away from the fort in the 1920s.  Westvaco now owned the property.  At the request of a Mrs. Simmons, Westvaco gave the “Colonial Dames of America” custody of the property. 

There have always been some people who wanted to learn more about our past.  In the 1950s, Dr. Lawrence Lee of The Citadel conducted exploratory excavations at the town sight.  Because of this interest, the state of South Carolina first leased the property, and then bought the property from Westvaco.  The property is now a preserve and protected as “Old Dorchester State Park” with Ashley Chapman as park ranger.  According to historian and author Dan Bell, “the fort is considered the best preserved tabby-fortification in the country.”