Bring no Dogs with you- they are very troublesome- and I shall
fineinform the Magistrate of those who do it, for it is an Affront to the Divine Presence which We invoke…”
Perhaps if you have ancestors who lived in the backcountry of South Carolina during the colonial era, you will find the journal and sermons of the Reverend Charles Woodmason interesting. Charles Woodmason was an Englishman who arrived in Charles Town South Carolina about 1752 with the intention of establishing himself, and to then to have his wife and son join him. Woodmason held a variety of positions in colonial SC, establishing himself first as a planter and country store owner, followed by a number of political, military and governmental appointments. However, when he accepted an appointment as agent for the Stamp Act of 1765, he found himself in a swift fall from grace: “… the Americans being very fond at present of all who declar’d … against the Stamp Act. As I was intended for a Distributor, I thereby lost their Affections, and shall never more regain them”.
Woodmason’s family never joined him in Charles Town. Shortly after his arrival, a kick from a horse left him with an “incapacity for Nuptial Rites”. Upon hearing of this, his wife declined to join him, and later died in London. Woodmason sought to remarry for the remainder of his time in America, but never found a suitable candidate. First, “An Old Gentleman… took me home to his House… introduced me to his daughter (an agreeable girl) and offer’d her in Marriage- But I declin’d the Offer- she being too Young for me…” Then he “… courted two Ladies , and fairly told my Case- who declared they chose not to live as married Nuns…”. Eventually he found a “Handsome and Agreeable” 28 year old woman and became engaged, but discovered that his “… Fair One had had a Lying In in Virginia… and had no Nuns flesh about her…”, which caused the very proper Woodmason to call off the engagement.
After the disasters of the Stamp Act and the kicking horse, as well as some business reversals, Charles Woodmason decided to become an Anglican priest, traveling to London for ordination in late 1765. On June 10, 1766 he set sail on his return trip to Charleston, and shortly after arrival departed for the backcountry of South Carolina.
Woodmason was an itinerant minister, traveling primarily in the Camden and Cheraws districts, along the Pee Dee and Lynches Rivers. He was loosely based at Pine Tree Hill- later Camden- but ranged as far as the Waxhaws, occasionally crossing into North Carolina. His journal, covering the years 1766- 1768, along with his collected sermons and correspondence, give a vivid, but not unbiased, view of the residents of colonial South Carolina. His initial reaction on arriving in his district was overwhelmingly negative. He was repulsed by the people- “…I have not yet met with one literate or travel’d person…”, finding instead only “… Indolence and laziness…”. He hated the food- “No Eggs, butter, Flour, Milk or anything, but fat rusty Bacon, and fair water, with Indian Corn Bread, Viands I had never before seen or tasted.” The way of dress of the residents brought instant censure- “… And all their clothing, a Shirt and trousers Shift… and Petticoat. Some perhaps a Linsey Woolsey. No shoes or Stockings- Children run half naked”. “Young Women have a most uncommon Practise, which I cannot break them off. They draw their shift as tight as possible to the Body… to shew the roundness of their breasts, and slender Waists (for they are generally finely shaped)… so that they might as well be in Puri Naturalibus…”.
The backcountry religious practices- or lack thereof- shocked Woodmason. He found that a large majority spent Sunday “…Hunting fishing fowling, and racing- by the Women in frolicing and Wantonness… other in Drinking Bouts and Card Playing”. And when he did manage to get a congregation, there was “…no making of them to sit still during Service- but they will be in and out- forward and backward the whole time (Women especially) as Bees to and fro to their Hives”. “After service they went to revelling Drinking Singing Dancing and Whoring- and most of the company were drunk before I quitted the spot…”. Indeed, Woodmason ruefully admits that “…In this article, both Presbyterians and Episcopals very charitably agree (Viz.) That of getting Drunk”.
Woodmason met with, and sparred with, Quakers,Dunkards, New Light Baptists Independents, and “an hundred other Sects”, but he positively loathed the “Pack of vile, levelling common wealth Presbyterians” that seemed to be everywhere he went in the backcountry. And the Presbyterians gave him cause. They staged dog fights outside the building where he was preaching, hid the church keys, posted false notices canceling Woodmason’s meetings, often “…halloing and Whooping without Door like Indians…” while he tried to preach. However, the Baptists came to be blamed for a particularly devious trick: two men , “… entering the House where I was when in Bed- stealing my Gown- putting it on-and then visiting a Woman in Bed, and getting to Bed to her, and making her give out next day, that the Parson came to bed to her.”
The backcountry was a difficult and dangerous environment, which a Charleston city dweller like Woodmason could find daunting. The Sandhills of central South Carolina were a particular trial: “Between them [potential parishioners] and me lyes a sandy barren Desart 40 miles over, without Tree, Bush, Water, House or Inhabitant – So that without a guide I should be utterly lost and perish… this syrtes cannot be travelled in the Summer on Account of the Flies and Musketos, which are so numerous, they would sting Man and Horse to Death…”. One particularly harrowing experience occurred when he had to cross a flooded creek: “The women then stript me Naked, and gave Him [ the horseman] my cloathes which he carried on his head [across the creek on horseback]… and he returned, I got behind him and the horse carried us both over very safe… but I was almost stiff and torpid with the Cold , and being in the cold water- the Wind blowing very sharp… and Ground cover’d with Ice”. This incident occurred in February.
The backcountry was a dangerous place. Many parts were overrun with “…Horse Theives Cattle Stealers, Hog Stealers- Branders and Markers”, along with those Woodmason labeled as “…Idle, profligate, audacious Vagabonds! Lewd, impudent, abandon’d Prostitutes Gamblers Gamesters”. Many other residents agreed with Woodmason’s condemnation, and eventually the South Carolina Regulator movement sprang up to combat the lawlessness. Initially, Woodmason was cool to the movement, but over time he changed his view, and eventually he became perhaps the most eloquent and persistent advocate for the movement with the Charles Town government. He wrote many letters and preached many sermons in support of the Regulators, writing to such well known figures in Charles Town as Henry Laurens, Christopher Gadsen and John Rutledge. He often did not spare them the same sharp tongue he had once used on the backcountry people: “…O Ye Charlestown Gentry, who go in Scarlet and fine Linen and fare sumptuously ev’ry day… Ye overgrown Planters who wallow in Luxury, Ease and Plenty”. He was frustrated with the slow pace of reform from Charles Town: “Have Patience- Have Patience! Has for many Years been the Prescription of our Political Quacks”. He wrote John Rutledge: “You call us a pack of Beggars- Pray Sir look back to your own Origin”.
As the quotes above illustrate, Woodmason was hardly an unbiased observer of life on the frontier of colonial South Carolina. He was an obstinate, easily offended, pompous man, prone to invective, convinced that the future of America resided with the English monarchy and the Anglican church. But despite his biases, over time he grew to respect and defend the backcountry people. Allowing for exaggeration, his writings provide a vivid picture of life in colonial South Carolina as the forces that led to the Revolution gathered momentum.
^ 1. Charles Woodmason, Sermon Book II, p 431-32, quoted in The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution, edited by Richard J. Hooker, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1953.
^ 2. The journal, July 3, 1768.
^ 3. Letter to an English Friend, Parish of St. Mark. S. C., March 26, 1771.
^ 4. This quotation, and all subsequent quotations used in this paper, are taken from the Richard J. Hooker edition of Woodmason’s writings, The Carolina Backcountry on the Eve of the Revolution, Charles Woodmason, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1953. Reprints are for sale from various book vendors, and Internet editions are available.