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Wachesaw Plantation: Resident digs into local history
By Jason Lesley
Katherine Durning looks forward to hard rain showers near her home at Wachesaw Plantation.
Modern irrigation keeps the community’s golf course and lawns green year round. For Durning, the showers serve another purpose. They might expose a tiny piece of history that has been buried for hundreds of years on this former Native American burial ground and home to rice plantations Richmond Hill and Wachesaw.
Durning likes to get out after a storm and look near the footings of the former Richmond Hill Plantation house near the golf course’s picturesque 16th tee, a view the owner Dr. John McGill enjoyed from his back yard before the Civil War.
“After a hard rain you can find ceramics and pottery,” said Durning, who has become the community’s unofficial historian because of her keen interest in the people who lived there over the centuries. Evidence is everywhere, from the blue crockery used to keep milk and butter in a spring house near the Richmond Hill master’s house to the foundations of earlier settlers found by archaeologist Jim Michie during his work in the 1990s.
Michie called Wachesaw and Richmond Hill archeological gold mines, some of the most important discoveries in South Carolina and possibly on the East Coast, Durning said.
“It’s one of the things that impressed us when we were looking for a retirement home,” Durning said. She and her husband, Doc, came to Wachesaw from Delaware in the spring of 1988 after he retired as a “country physician.”
Durning can remember former owner William A. Kimbel’s “hunt box” on a bluff overlooking the Waccamaw River and his house and dock a little ways down the hill. Kimbel’s, the meeting place for today’s Wachesaw community, has replaced the “hunt box”. Condos occupy the old Kimbel homeplace.
“I needed to know where I was living,” Durning said. In Delaware, she had been a supporter of the Wintherthur Museum founded by Henry Francis du Pont and had volunteered at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. After moving here, she took Lee Brockington’s course on rice plantations at Hobcaw Barony. “I was hooked,” she said.
Durning’s interest in her new community’s history started with evidence of Native Americans. “They came here for a ‘posquito’ — it was like a new beginning — from all over: the Upstate, the mountains, the coast of Georgia. They discussed things that were important to them. Native Americans are buried all over the place. They found five large burial urns in the 18th fairway up the hill when Mr. Kimbel lived here in the 1930s. Evidence that this was a sacred place is strong. Wachesaw means “Place of Great Weeping”.
“At the end of the ceremony,” Durning said, “they would take back embers from the fire to their home villages. They were known as ‘People of One Fire’. Most were gone by 1720 because of disease decimating the tribes and Europeans pushing them out.”
The next chapter begins with the arrival of John Murrell. Footings from the foundation of his house built in 1733 are on display near Kimbel’s. “He was a well-to-do man, judging from some of the things that were found, like very expensive English ceramics and Sterling teaspoons,” Durning said. “He was known as Captain Murrell, having something to do with the water though never in the service.” She has met some of Murrell’s descendants from Marion and studied the family genealogy.
“When he died, the property was divided between three children,” she said. “He owned all this land from the river to the ocean, 2,400 acres.”
A second set of footings on display at Wachesaw belonged to the Rev. Allard Belin, who purchased Wachesaw Plantation around 1800 before he moved over to the inlet and built a church. Durning found Belin’s letters at the South Carolina Institute of Anthropology and Archaeology asking for permission from the Methodist Church to build a house of worship, a dwelling, a kitchen, a stable and other outbuildings on property known as Cedar Hill. Also in the file were letters from a builder in Marion by the name of Dixon and some torn documents from Dr. John McGill, owner of Richmond Hill Plantation, agreeing to harbor Belin’s slaves until he could erect housing for them at the inlet.
“Just fascinating,” Durning said.
The high ground remained an important trading place on the Waccamaw River. Clarke A. Willcox of Marion bought The Hermitage at the inlet and Wachesaw in 1910 for $10,000. He operated a store and post office at Wachesaw Landing. Its dock pilings are still visible today along the riverbank.
Durning has a photo of a man and ox cart who had been sent from Murrells Inlet to pick up the mail. She called the photo “a treasure find.”
Across the Waccamaw River is a wooded Richmond Island, formerly rice fields. The late Sister Peterkin, who was Willcox’s granddaughter, told Durning that she could remember when trees started growing over there.
Durning takes visitors around the community in a golf cart to show them the sites, or what’s left. She points out a house sitting on what was a Chapel of Ease, an offshoot of All Saints Church that Allard Flagg received permission to build. “We have a stone at Kimbel’s that was one of the steps,” Durning said. “The others are at The Hermitage and the Belin cemetery, moved over there by the Willcox family. I found the church silver at All Saints. That was really interesting.”
Durning has a knack for finding people with links to the history of the plantations. She found a son of a former caretaker, one of 14 children, and spent two hours listening to stories. “Mr. Kimbel kept pigs over on Richmond Island,” Durning said, “and when they wanted a pig, he would send this man’s father over to get the pig.”
She shared the Richmond Hill history with a great-great-grandson of its former owner, Dr. McGill.
“There are lots of stories,” she said, “about Dr. McGill being the cruelest owner on the Waccamaw Neck. He had slaves drawn and quartered. He starved his slaves.” She’s not sure the stories are true. He was, after all, a physician who had taken the Hippocratic oath to do no harm.
Durning agreed to meet McGill’s great-great-grandson at the clubhouse on a Saturday morning a few years ago. “I said to my husband, ‘I’ll be about an hour and a half’ and got home at 5 o’clock that afternoon. He asked if this had been an interview or a rendezvous.”
Durning took the man to see the restored foundation of the Richmond Hill plantation house. “He stood there,” she said, “and he simply couldn’t talk.”
Richmond Hill land remained wooded, Durning said. “Kimbel had not farmed it. The timber was never cut. It had not been compromised like Wachesaw had over the years. It was undisturbed from the rice era until it was developed as a golf course.”
Durning said that when a new house was being built on the site of the plantation overseer’s house, she would look around in the dirt and find fragments of the same ceramics the owner had. “He was probably helping himself to things because the owner was not there,” she said.
The slave street produced more archaeological evidence of the time. “Excavations show slave cabins on both sides with all the trash thrown out in front,” she said.
The fact that Richmond Hill was undisturbed for decades helped preserve the Civil War fortification. Cannon emplacements looked down on the river but were never fired. “They were deathly afraid Union boats would come up the river and fire on the rice fields,” Durning said.
Remnants of Wachesaw Plantation have been harder to find, Durning said. Kimbel burned what was left of Allard Flagg’s house, the plantation’s slave cabins and rice barn in the 1930s. Durning and others have sifted through the 80-year-old ashes to find hinges, locks, and all sorts of interesting stuff, from hog bones to pipes to Coca-Cola bottles from the A.J. Crawley Bottling Co. in Georgetown. The Coke bottles came later, she said, as the old fire pit became a gathering place.
“I thought it would take us a couple of weeks,” Durning said of the fire pit’s excavation, “and we worked for two winters digging through bricks and stuff. I can’t tell you how much fun it’s been.”