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South Carolina – James Island History

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The Early History of Morris Island

In April of 1670, the 200-ton frigate Carolina eased into a beautiful harbor in the New World. After sailing past islands later to be named Coffin, Morrisons, Boones, and Sullivans Islands, the Carolina eased into a river the Native Americans called Kiawah (later to be renamed the Ashley River). Entering the first creek on the southwestern side, the Carolina's passengers debarked on Albemarle Point to begin the first European settlement in Charleston. By 1671, the colonists started two additional settlements: one on James Island called Jamestown; the second on what is now called The Battery, then Oyster Pointe, named for the Indian shell midden there.

The first recorded mention of 'Morris Island' was in August of 1670. Lord Carteret, on the ship Carolina, stopped there to cut grass for cattle and was attacked by the Westo Indians. By 1673, the colony had authorized a light to be burned every night on a small sandy island, later named Morris Island, six miles southeast of Oyster Pointe at the mouth of the harbor. This simple beacon was a burning "fier ball" of pitch and ocum lit in an iron basket. Each ship entering and leaving the harbor paid a small tax to help support the beacon and its attendant.

By 1700, there were two channels into the harbor: one running south by Morris Island and the second running east by Sullivans Island. In 1700, the Rising Sun, transporting 98 passengers, anchored in Charleston Harbor. One passenger, a fiery preacher named Archibald Stobo, was invited to preach a service at the Independent (Circular Congregational) Church. That evening a hurricane hit Charles Towne destroying the Rising Sun. The next morning, the captain, crew and remaining passengers were washed up, drowned, on Morris Island. Archibald Stobo, in Charleston during the hurricane, escaped the fate of the Rising Sun. He remained in Charleston and is credited with starting at least six Presbyterian congregations in the area, including James Island, Johns Island and Willtown.

What we know as Morris Island was actually three smaller islands divided by narrow creeks. The northern most island, named for Captain John Cumings, was Cumings Island or Cumings Point. The middle island was Morrison's Island and the third, farthest south, called Middle Bay Island. By the end of the 18th century, these creeks were silted-in forming one larger island. The name was shortened from Morrison's to Morris Island.

The main shipping channel into Charles Towne harbor near Morris Island was called Pumpkin Hill Channel, named after an early plantation there. A French Navigational Map of 1776 shows the location of the Charleston Light on Middle Bay Island and in the vicinity of the Pumpkin Hill Channel. The map noted on the side of the channel is a reef of rocks warning, "If struck, you will sink immediately."

The "fier" baskets, to aid ships, were utilized into the 18th century. By 1716, the keeper began to use huge tallow candles. The candles were a maintenance improvement over the "fier" baskets, but did not provide enough light or cast light far enough out to sea. Spider lamps burning fish oil soon replaced them. In 1750, His Majesty's legislature in Carolina passed an act calling for a permanent beacon to be built. Never acted on and about to expire, another proclamation in 1757 then authorized the construction of a permanent beacon extending the time for its construction to 1765. However, in late 1757, the funds for the beacon were diverted to complete the steeple at St. Michael's Church.

The Charles Towne port became extremely busy, more than 800 ships clearing the port annually. King George III ordered that a permanent lighthouse be built. On May 30, 1767, the cornerstone for a permanent beacon was finally laid on Middle Bay Island. Historians know from a lead plate discovered in the 19th century that this first lighthouse was octagonal in shape, designed by Samuel Cordy, and built by Adam Miller and engineer Thomas Young. The tower was 42 feet above low tide and burned whale oil in lamps suspended from the dome's interior.

The "Charleston Light" was one of 10 pre-Revolutionary lighthouses built in the Colonies. The 10 Colonial Lights and dates of construction were:

  • Boston Light on Little Brewster Island 1716
  • Brant Point Light in Nantucket Harbor 1746
  • Tybee Island Light, Georgia 1748
  • Beavertail Light, Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island 1749
  • New London Light, Connecticut 1760
  • Sandy Hook Light, New Jersey, New York Harbor 1764
  • Cape Henlopen Light, Delaware Bay 1767
  • Charleston Light, Morris Island 1767
  • Plymouth Light, Massachusetts 1769
  • Cape Ann, Massachusetts Bay 1771

Once the Revolutionary War began, the colonists extinguished the 10 lights so as not to aid the British ships.

On Sept. 15, 1775, fearing for his safety, Royal Governor William Campbell fled to the HMS Tamar, anchored in Charleston Harbor. The same day, the colonists' Council of Safety ordered the seizure of Fort Johnson. A small force led by Colonel William Moultrie captured the fort and the Charleston Light was extinguished. The Charleston Light remained extinguished until 1780 when the British lighted it after a successful siege on Charles Towne. The Charleston Light was one of only two lighthouses to survive the Revolutionary War.

While known as serving as home to the lighthouse, Morris Island, by the early 19th century, was the site for a marine hospital and the quarantine station pest house. Of course, Morris Island was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Civil War at Battery Wagner. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the island was also home to the Life Saving Station and the Sheltering Arms Orphanage of the Episcopal Church.

In future articles, we'll explore these other facets of Morris Island and the role of the jetties in the loss of the island itself.


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