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A Short History of Kiawah Island and Quash Stevens

South Carolina SC African-Americans About the Quash Stevens Letters History of Kiawah Island and Quash Stevens

Kiawah Island's English history begins with its "purchase" from the Kiawah Indians on March 10, 1675. The cost, "cloth, hatchets, beads & other goods and manufacturers," gave no hint of what the island would become in the twentieth century. The land, described as a 2700 acre plantation, was granted to Captain George Raynor by the Lords Proprietors on March 29, 1699. Some suggest that Raynor was a reformed pirate, welcomed in South Carolina because of his wealth. Regardless, he divided Kiawah, selling half to a Captain William Davis about a year after its purchase. The other half was passed to Raynor's daughter, Mary Raynor Moore.

By 1737 these two tracts of Kiawah were again united under one owner, John Stanyarne, a wealthy planter who lived on nearby John's Island and used his Kiawah plantation for cattle ranching and indigo production. When Stanyarne died in 1772, slavery was well established on Kiawah. In fact, Stanyarne owned 296 African-American slaves on his eight plantations and at his Charleston townhouse. His estate was valued at £146,246.9.2 – or about $2.5 million dollars.

Stanyarne's will passed the western half of Kiawah, including his settlement, to his grand daughter, Mary Gibbes. The eastern half of Kiawah Island was devised to his other grand daughter, Elizabeth Vanderhorst. This division of Kiawah into two plantations would last until the early twentieth century – and it also serves as the back drop for the history of Quash Stevens.

The first Vanderhorst's on Kiawah, Arnoldus Vanderhorst II and his wife Elizabeth built a plantation house and had upwards of 30 slaves tending cattle, growing subsistence crops like corn and peas, and planting indigo. This plantation was destroyed by the British in 1780, during the American Revolution. By about 1785 Arnoldus Vanderhorst was again planting Kiawah with 40 slaves, although his new plantation house (still standing on Kiawah today) was not begun until about 1801. At that time a letter from the plantation's white overseer talking of being "obliged to flog several of the [African-American] carpenters" to keep them working.

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century Vanderhorst expanded his efforts on Kiawah, beginning to plant cotton. The number of slaves increased to 113 in 1810. But conditions were far from good and an 1801 letter remarks:
We have had a distressing time for this 8 or 10 days past With Sick negroes. chem is dead and Isac is very sick with apluricey. I was oblige to blister him this morning. big feby Has been very ill but is something better - I would send Isac down but it will not do to remove him in such weather. I first gave him a dose of salt and tartar and when his tongue was yet foul I gave him a second dose of hip and gallah. Gabo gave him spirits of turpentine with sweet oyl and also a sirup made of hour hound life everlasting alder and gave him. As it an ecelent remedy for the cold on the stomach. peter's got better, but Cupit is laid up. it is distressing to See So much sickness, and many worker calls about.
Toward the end of his life, Arnoldus manumitted seven slaves: Hagar Richardson and her three children, Sarah, Eliza, and Peter, as well as three additional slaves, Stepney, Molley, and Peter. Money was set aside to care for Hagar and her children and one of Hagar's children, Peter, legally took the Vanderhorst name upon reaching the age of 28. There is some evidence that at least Peter was a mulatto son of Arnoldus.

Upon Arnoldus' death in 1815, Kiawah was passed to his son, Elias Vanderhorst, who in 1821 married Ann Morris. Elias and Ann divided their time between Kiawah, their Charleston townhouse, and a summer retreat on Sullivan's Island. By 1830 they were also spending time at a house on Edisto Island's Eddings Bay.

Letters from the 1840s and 1850s present Kiawah as a rather forlorn island that produced few subsistence crops and even less cotton. Elias wrote in one letter that, "everything goes wrong here - no less than four prime hands [slaves] in the houses for life - two with snake bites, one with dropsy and the other with chronic sore throat." Later he would write that Kiawah "must be considered the Botany Bay," a reference to the Australian penal colony that the British government abandoned as unlivable. This may explain why the number of Kiawah slaves dropped from 115 in 1820 to only 46 in 1840.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Elias removed his slaves from Kiawah, sending them to his Ashepoo plantation, Round-O. In March of 1864 Elias was notified by his factor that he had a $31,754 credit on their books. Six days later he purchased $34,500 of Confederate War Bonds – a tragic mistake that would damage the Vanderhorst fortunes well into the next century.

It is toward the end of the Civil War, in August 1864, that Ann Vanderhorst made a deed out to her son, Arnoldus IV to "give and deliver unto him my slave, a Mulatto Man, named Quash." Piecing together the fragments of history, Quash was apparently Arnoldus' half-brother, being the son of Elias Vanderhorst, Ann's husband. Previously Quash had been at the Round-O plantation, but would from then on be a focal point of activities on Kiawah. There are inconsistencies in the various records, but Quash was apparently born in either May 1840 or 1843.

The Vanderhorst family was broken by the Civil War. Elias and Ann's daughter, Raven, died during the burning of Columbia. They lost virtually all of their possessions and Kiawah was occupied by black freedmen. Elias wrote that, "Nothing was saved in the country, not even my old shoes," and remarked in the same letter, " I hope that Quash remains faithful." Because of Elias' failing health, the day to day operation of Kiawah was taken over by his son, Arnoldus Vanderhorst IV.

In fact, Quash did remain "faithful," although his reasons for doing so are obscure. In 1865 he was writing from Georgetown asking if he should live at Round-O or Kiawah, noting that he could "do well" on either plantation raising cattle. By November 1866 he was on Kiawah, reporting that his potatoes were doing well, but that it was hard to find laborers.

Arnoldus died on December 3, 1881 from a hunting accident. Although newspaper and oral history accounts are at odds, it seems that Quash had previously warned Arnoldus of the "hair trigger" on his shotgun, as well as advised him not to hunt alone. Arnoldus ignored the advice and mortally wounded himself crossing a fallen tree while hunting alone. Others have suggested that, broken by the war and his relentless, yet unsuccessful, efforts to restore Kiawah, Arnoldus committed suicide – an act covered up by the press and inquest which was held in Charleston. Regardless, Kiawah passed to his widow, Adele.

Quash became a prominent figure in the history of Kiawah. He rose from the ranks of a mulatto slave to become both educated (as evidenced by the changing spelling and grammar of his letters) and knowledgeable. He lived his life around the Sea Islands south of Charleston. By 1880, at the age of about 40, census records reveal that he had four children, Eliza (16 years old), William (12 years old), Annie (9 years old), and Laura (7 years old). Although his wife is not listed in the census, Quash speaks of her in his letters.

While Quash was clearly a careful overseer and very dedicated to "Miss Adele," Kiawah fell into the trap of trying to raise only cotton, while purchasing necessary subsistence crops. Quash's careful oversight and love of Kiawah was also unable to compensate for the ineptitude and disagreeable nature of Adele's son, Arnoldus V, who inherited the island after his mother's death in 1915.

A letter written in 1900 from a relative of Adele Vanderhorst staying on Kiawah commented that Quash was the "Cassique [chief] of Kiawah," and that "he yet bears the loyal affection of the family, whom our branch represents to him, more truly than the young [Arnoldus V] Vanderhorst." The census of that year reveals that Quash had been married to his wife, listed only as J.W. Stevens, for 35 years and that while she had given birth to six children, only two were still alive. The census indicates that both Quash and his wife could read and write. They were still living on Kiawah Island.

The next year Quash left Kiawah, purchasing his own plantation, Seven Oaks, on nearby Johns Island with his son, William F. Stevens. The 839 acre plantation, situated on the Stono River, cost $3,000. Quash's letters express bitter disappointment with the treatment he received from Arnoldus, pointing out that he knew far more about the land and those living on it than did Arnoldus. Apparently Adele interceded and Quash agreed to continue overseeing Kiawah for an additional year while Arnoldus looked for a replacement. Quash's departure from Kiawah marked the end of the island's productivity and a series of white overseers employed by Vanderhorst were never able to restore Kiawah to a place of prominence.

Quash's life after Kiawah is less well known. A plat of the Seven Oaks plantation shows that it contained a number of dwellings, the main settlement, and even a country store. In 1903 Quash and his son sold the timber rights on the plantation to the Dorchester Land and Timber Company for $1,000. Timber deeds such as this were fairly common, providing farmers with ready cash. The renunciation of dower attached to the deed tells us that Quash's wife was Julia W. Stevens and William's wife was Lilla L. Stevens. In November 1909 Quash and William sold Seven Oaks for $3,500. There is no indication in the deed why the plantation was sold, but Quash died on March 20, 1910, only four months later. His death certificate indicates that he died of heart failure and that he was buried at Centenary Cemetery.

Although little is known of Quash's life, his grandson, Harold Arnoldus Stevens, born on Johns Island, became the first black to hold a seat on the New York State Supreme Court. A newspaper article in 1955 mentioned that his father, presumably William F. Stevens, Quash's only known son, was a blacksmith. Harold Arnoldus Stevens was born on Seven Oaks Farm in 1907 and graduated from Benedict College (in Columbia, S.C.) in 1930. He went on to receive a law degree from Boston College in 1936. At the time of his appointment, he was licensed to practice in both Massachusetts, New York, and South Carolina (suggesting that he maintained his ties with his home state). Harold A. Stevens also served in the New York State Assembly in 1946 and 1948, and in 1950 was named a judge on the General Sessions Court of New York.


About the Quash Letters
History of Kiawah Island and Stevens
Quash Stevens' Letters
What These Letters Tell Us
For More Information
The Chicora Foundation


Understanding Slavery
Free Blacks in Charleston
Preserving Black Cemeteries
Mitchelville Experiment
Quash Stevens Letters