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History: On the trail of the Swamp Fox

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Francis Marion made his name for being elusive. British Col. Banastre Tarleton chased him for one entire night before giving up and cursing that “damned old fox.”

Despite Marion County’s claim on the Swamp Fox, he belongs to Georgetown County as much as any other. Marion County was carved from the Georgetown District as Liberty County in 1785 and renamed for the war hero in 1800. There are 35 towns and 17 counties in America named for him. Marion grew up in the city of Georgetown and invaded it twice trying to rout occupying British forces. His legacy is solid as an American hero, yet the celebration of Marion and the re-telling of his story remain, as the old fox himself, elusive.

Georgetown has a theater group and a tour of the historic district named for the Swamp Fox; a small park at Front and Broad streets and a convenience store at Highways 701 and 51 borrow his full name. That’s about it.

Nathan Kaminski, president of the Thomas Lynch Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution, calls Marion “a Southern George Washington” for his role in winning America’s independence. Marion lived with his men, withstanding the same hardships of the war. “Marion is a hero figure,” Kaminski said. “He doesn’t have feet of clay.”

In order to buy time for Gen. Nathanael Greene to come south, Marion and his band harassed British positions between Camden, Georgetown and Charleston. Two particular choke points on the supply lines were on the Santee River near Charleston and the Black River near Georgetown. The Georgetown County Museum has a handwritten letter from Marion responding to orders from Gen. Greene. It is signed “your obedient servant,” according to museum volunteer Mary Boyd.

The British chased Marion through parts of 10 counties from Florence to Charleston. The South Carolina Legislature recognized the potential of Marion’s legacy and created the Francis Marion Trail Commission in 2005. Plans called for maps that led to interpretive centers at Florence, Moncks Corner, Georgetown and Manning. They were to be entry points to the trail outlining Marion’s life story and events of the war relating to the particular region. Each of the centers was to have a museum containing exhibits and a small movie theater to bring the legend of the “Swamp Fox” to contemporary visitors. One idea was to put Georgetown’s center near the site of a British fort, thought to be near Morgan Park at the mouth of the harbor. Archaeologists are still looking for evidence of it. The county even included a Francis Marion Trail center on its capital improvement program wish list.

Georgetown County Administrator Sel Hemingway was a member of the trail commission. The idea, he said, was to lure travelers off Interstate 95 at Florence with an interesting and educational alternative route that connected points of interest regarding Marion’s actions during the war. “It was supposed to guide you along a path of pertinent sites, swinging through Georgetown to Charleston, to Moncks Corner, Eutawville, the burial site, to Manning and back to Florence. It was moving along and making plans,” he said. There was to be a phone app that guided tourists to specific sites and told a story. At the interpretive centers, live hosts would be in Revolutionary War costume. Hemingway said the trail commission lost traction when its funding was cut during the recession of 2008.

Heritage tourism is in Georgetown County’s wheelhouse, says Lauren Joseph, the county tourism director. “A lot of people come here not realizing Francis Marion was in this area,” she said. “When they find out all there is to learn, they plan to come back for a two- or three-day visit.” Joseph said heritage tourists are “high value visitors” who come in spring and fall, the shoulder seasons. Another group she is aiming to attract with history is the vacationing family at Myrtle Beach that is sunburned and tired of miniature golf. “It’s not just Francis Marion,” she said, “but all our history. All these connections between the Revolution and Georgetown is something we should play up.”

For every small step forward there is at least one back. A visitor came to the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce looking for Marion’s plantation at Pond’s Bluff only to find it’s under Lake Marion.

Karen MacNutt, a lawyer from Massachusetts who has studied Marion’s family extensively, said he is Georgetown’s hometown hero. Though he was born in Berkeley County, Marion lived in Georgetown from ages 6 to 20 when he moved up the Santee River with his brother. His sister married an Alston and later a Mitchell. Two of his brothers married Alstons. The family, she said, is interconnected with some of the county’s major historical figures but doesn’t seem prominent because of male children dying young and females taking husbands’ names. “So,” she said, “the name was lost.” In MacNutt’s study of the Marion genealogy, she debunked some assumptions. Marion never lived near Belle Isle south of Georgetown. That land was owned by the Horry family. His brother, Gabriel, owned Belle Isle Plantation in Berkeley County.

MacNutt recently spent three days in Georgetown on a tour of Revolutionary War sites. “It’s very pretty,” she said, “and the area surrounding it. The trees give a graciousness to the landscape. If you lay out a proper trail that takes people on an extraordinarily beautiful trip, they will come. The Revolutionary War sites take you to all those places.”

Residents of other counties have embraced Francis Marion far more fully. George and Carol Summers began a symposium dedicated to him more than 15 years ago in Clarendon County. “We had to figure it out as we went along,” she said. “It’s not a flash. It took a lot of hard work. George has done a lot of research to find out how close Marion sites are. We just thought the local populace wasn’t aware and didn’t appreciate what Francis Marion had done.”

She said the effort in Georgetown County needs a mother hen to do research, carry the banner and encourage people to visit. “If Georgetown can pick it up,” she said, “we’d love to work together in promoting it.”

Lake City has its champion. Paul Graham inherited a family farm and discovered his ancestors had fought in the Revolution. Among family papers in an attic was a handwritten receipt from Marion for two bushels of corn and dinner for 11 men. The Swamp Fox used the farm as a staging area before invading Georgetown. “That’s a cool connection,” Graham said.

The second annual American Heritage Festival will be Dec. 2-4 at the Graham farm 10 miles from Lake City on McCutcheon Road. Battle re-enactments will take place with 12 regiments participating. Events will include speakers, musicians, demonstrations, British and Continental encampments, and a colonial village.

“It’s a ton of work,” Graham said. “I like history, and this fell in my lap. You’ve got to have contacts that help support the event, get sponsors and public entities that will work with you. And you’ve got to have the history.”

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