Backcountry South Carolina in the Year 1722
I have spent a great deal of time trying to understand exactly how and when my Laurens County South Carolina Pettypool family arrived in South Carolina. The time-line is still somewhat vague and uncertain, but the probable first attempt to permanently settle occurred in the early 1770’s, in the Fair Forest region of the Ninety Six district, in present day Union County. Once that was established, the question arose: how did that region appear to my 4th great grandfather Peter Pettypool almost 2 ½ centuries ago? Fortunately, there are some brief descriptions of the region from an English naturalist, who traveled through the area about 50 years earlier.
In 1722 an English naturalist named Mark Catesby made a journey to South Carolina to collect plant and animal specimens on the behalf of the Royal Society. The work resulted in publication of The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands in London. Although he spent a great deal of his time in Charleston and the Lowcountry, Catesby did make expeditions into western South Carolina, penetrating as far as the Appalachian mountains.
I was much delighted to see Nature differ in these Upper Parts, and to find here abundance of Things not to be seen in the Lower Parts of the Country; this encouraged me to take several Journeys with the Indians higher up the Rivers, towards the Mountains, which afforded not only a Succession of new vegetable Appearances, but most delightful Prospects imaginable, besides the Diversion of Hunting Buffello’s, Bears, Panthers, and other wild Beasts.
Many spacious tracts of Meadow Land are confined by these rugged Hills, burdened with grass six feet high. Other of these Vallies are replenished with Brooks and Rivulets of clear water, whole banks are covered with spacious tracts of Canes, which retaining their leaves year round, are an excellent food for Horses and Cattle, and are of great benefit particularly to Indian traders1, whole Caravans travel these uninhabited Countries; to these shady thickets of Canes (in sultry weather) resort numerous herds of Buffalos, where solacing in the limpid streams they enjoy a cool and secret retreat. Pine barren, Oak, and Hiccory Land, as has been before observed to abound in the lower parts of the Country engross also a considerable share of these upper parts.
Catesby catalogs the principle agricultural crops of colonial South Carolina, but cotton, the crop most responsible for transforming western South Carolina into the considerably different terrain of today, is absent.
Even in the early 18th century, the impact of humans on the natural environment of South Carolina was well underway. Farming, Indian hunting practices and the early Colonial industry of pine tar extraction all radically altered the landscape.
In February and March the Inhabitants have a custom of burning the Woods, which causes such a continual smoke, that not knowing the cause, it might be imagined to proceed from fog, or a natural thickness in the air. Likewise the smoke of the Tar kilns contribute not a little to deceive Strangers, and possesses them with an ill opinion of the air of of Carolina. Add to these, an annual custom of the Indians in their hunting, of setting the Woods on fire many miles in extent.
The tall grass prairie, the buffalo and the panther are long gone, and the cane remains only in isolated patches in wasteland and waterways. Many former cotton fields are now pine plantations. But, as the following photograph, taken on a winter day near Peter’s property in Union County shows, this remains an attractive land.
Reprints of Catesby’s book are readily available from multiple reprint publishers, and scanned copies are available for viewing at several Internet sites.
1. Peter’s grandfather William is recorded as an Indian trader in South Carolina in 1710. See The William Pettypool Family of Southside Virginia: Lineage Reconstruction Based on Current Review of Evidence by Carolyn S. Hartsough, Ph.D, available from www.pettypool.com.