The Edge of America: A History of Folly Beach, South Carolina

The history of Folly Beach Island is not an average tale of peaceful development. It is a story of pirates, shipwrecks, disease and soldiers. But despite all of this, and the effects of a hurricane, the island has grown to become a thriving beachside community.

Early Days
When settlers approached their new homeland by sea, one of their first sights here at the edge of America was a coastline densely packed with trees and undergrowth. As the Old English name for such an area was “Folly”, this six mile stretch of Folly Beach real estate became known as Folly Island. The first official document that mentions the island, however, did not appear until 9 September 1696. It shows that King William III of England gave Folly Island to William Rivers, a man with investments in Bermuda plantations.

Pirates and Shipwrecks
The island had little commercial use to Mr Rivers so he eventually sold it. For many years, in fact, ownership passed from hand to hand. But despite this lack of interest, Folly Island was not deserted. In the 1600s, the Bohickets, a Native American tribe, lived there. They left only when the increasing number of Europeans in Charleston forced them to move elsewhere.

Pirates also used Folly and the nearby islands as hideaways and stopping points. The stories about these buccaneers include tales of buried treasure but a hoard of gems and gold is yet to be unearthed!

Other inhabitants found themselves on the island unexpectedly – but with relief. These were the survivors of the shipwrecks that occurred regularly in the ocean off Folly Beach. Unfortunately, the luck of the 120 sailors and passengers who made it to shore after the wreck of the Amelia in 1832 soon ran out. Officials in Charleston blocked access to and from the island and put a stop to any supplies because some of the wreck’s survivors had cholera.

Coffin Land
These poor people must have felt abandoned and horrified, especially when they realized that they had struggled to an island that was also known as “Coffin Land”. This alternative name was in such common use that it even appears on the deeds of the island when it was sold to Henry Samsway in 1744. A local map dated 1780 also refers to the island simply as Coffin Land.

The story behind the name refers to the plague and other infectious diseases. Before ships entered Charleston Harbor, they would leave on the island any passengers and crew who appeared to be ill. In this way, the ships avoided quarantine delays. On their return from the harbor, the ships would collect those people who still lived. Many, of course, had died in the meantime and were in their coffins.

The Civil War
With such an historical background, Folly Island must have seemed a daunting place to the Federal troops who first occupied it in 1863. And these troops not only had the island’s reputation to consider: the jungle-like foliage, exposure to the Atlantic and lack of accommodation and sanitation made them yearn for the comforts of home.

But the Federal army considered the island to be vitally important. Before long, the soldiers constructed roads, forts, an artillery battery and the Pawnee Landing supply depot. As a result, Folly Island soon had the capacity to hold up to 13,000 troops and their equipment.

Fighting on the island was limited to a brief engagement between a Confederate reconnaissance team and some Federal pickets on 10 May 1863. But the artillery battery was put to use shelling Fort Wagner. This engagement was part of the Battle of Morris Island: from July to September 1863, the Federal army used Folly Island as its main strategic base for the battle. When the island’s artillery and troops overcame Fort Wagner, the Federal forces moved the battery to the captured fort and began attacking Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor.

Federal soldiers did not move from Folly Island until the end of the Civil War. One unusual reminder of their occupation came to light in May 1987 when construction workers discovered 14 bodies at the western end of Folly Beach. A subsequent investigation by the South Carolina Institute of Archaeology and Anthropology established that the remains were of soldiers from the 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment. What was surprising, however, was that 12 of the bodies did not have skulls and other body parts. The bodies also had no obvious signs of battle injuries. Just why the bodies were buried in this manner is currently a Civil War, and Folly Beach Island, mystery!

A Community Develops
For many decades following the war, Folly Beach Island was virtually abandoned. But interest slowly arose in what some people began to realize was an island beach retreat in close proximity to a major city. Homes started to appear and in the 1920s, the first Pavilion was built. This was followed in the 1930s by a relative boom in tourism. Although only nine families actually made the island their permanent home, the construction of the Atlantic Pavilion, the Pier, the Boardwalk and the Oceanfront Hotel were clear evidence that holidaymakers were attracted to the area.

One of the most famous people to visit Folly Beach Island during these years was the composer and pianist, George Gershwin. It was while staying here that he composed the classic opera Porgy and Bess.

From the 1940s onward, the building work steadily proceeded, reaching a peak in the 1960s with the construction of the Ocean Plaza with its amusement rides, boardwalk, shops and pier. Since then, the arrival of the Holiday Inn in 1985 on the site of the former Oceanfront Hotel confirmed that Folly Beach Island is here to stay.

There have been serious problems in the past fifty years, however. In 1957, the Oceanfront Hotel, the Pavilion and Joe’s Restaurant burned down. In 1977, there was a fire that destroyed the Pier. And finally, in 1989, Hurricane Hugo devastated Folly Beach and the surrounding districts.

Nonetheless, the strength of this community is such that Folly Beach Island fully recovered from these disasters. The island’s history therefore continues, and in a way that reflects its status as a destination for vacationers and a desirable place to live.

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