The History of the Ashley River Corridor

Colonial Era (1670-1775): The district through which the Ashley River runs is directly associated with the foundation of the Carolina Colony in 1670. That year, the first permanent European settlement, in what is now South Carolina, was established at Albemarle Point on the lower Ashley River, just north of present-day Charleston. Ashley Barony, the 12,000-acre land grant formally made to Anthony Ashley Cooper in 1675 remains a largely undeveloped area in the northwest corner of the district. From the Ashley Barony and numerous other grants established along banks of the Ashley River, settlers pursued the deerskin and fur trade with local Indian tribes, produced salt pork and beef, and converted other natural materials into the key commodities and naval stores that maintained the colony‘s economic subsistence.

Also during the Colonial era, settlers experimented extensively with the cultivation of the staple crops that might secure a more lucrative future for the colony, and make it less financially dependent upon the plantation economy of the British West Indies, to which Carolina was initially closely aligned.

The city of Charleston and its surrounding areas became the scene for many major and minor military actions throughout the American Revolution. Many of he plantations along the Ashley River were occupied by British forces between 1780 and 1782.

Antebellum Period (1776-1865): Subsequent development of rice, indigo, and cotton agriculture defined the material and social culture that emerged from the Colonial plantation system and which was refined through the Antebellum period. Proximity to Charleston and the ability to reach the port city by either water or the road systems built on both banks of the Ashley River (Dorchester Road on the north; Ashley River Road on the south) advanced the district as a desirable location to settle. Cultivation of rice left permanent changes in the landscape, in the form of rice dikes and berms, which are still visible today. These landscape features are the some of the earliest elements that remain in the district and remind us of the connection of the district to Colonial and Antebellum activities.

Although evidence does remain of early tidal rice fields along the Ashley River, this land was not suited for large-scale agricultural pursuits because of the sandy soil and high marl content. The settlements along the river thus became the location of the country seats for the area‘s emerging aristocracy and were connected with the land on the south side of Ashley River Road. The inland savannas and dry grounds of the district were developed as the primary location for agricultural activity which was overseen from the country seats on river. The inland area provided essential economic support for the showplace edifices erected along the river, and was also organized and managed as the location for the numerous slave settlements required by the plantation system.349 Much of these elements in the landscape remain today as well in the form of archaeological sites and artifacts, building remnants, and landscape elements such as oak allées, boundary berms, phosphate mining ditches and spoil piles, ect.

Postbellum Period (1865-1900): Following the Civil War and the destruction of the slave-based agricultural economy throughout the south, the marl that lay beneath the lands of the region was extensively strip-mined so that the mineral could be processed into phosphate fertilizer. This vital activity restored many of the fortunes destroyed by the war until the local phosphate industry was eclipsed by more profitable sources for phosphate in Florida and Tennessee in the 1890s.350 Small African-American communities developed from the former slave settlements and phosphate mining camps located throughout the district. Former slaves and their descendants, and Irish and Italian immigrants supplied the labor force for the phosphate industry, and the commercial timber industry that succeeded it. 

Two major recreational activities emerged in the district after the Civil War that helped retain the historic land use patterns of the region: heritage tourism and hunt clubs. By restoring, expanding, or re-creating the designed landscape features of a number of the Colonial and Antebellum plantations, and through the stabilization, preservation, and interpretation of the architectural remains of these periods, the area was popularized as a tourist destination in the 1870s. The earliest of these tourist destinations were Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place, both of which were frequented by visitors each spring who were brought up the Ashley River via steamboat.

Twentieth Century (1900-1953): At the turn of the 20th century the most well-known and enduring hunt club was established: Middleton Hunt Club. This club leases land from Middleton Place and Millbrook Plantation and continues to hunt the land regularly. Other clubs have emerged since World War II and hunt on land in and on the periphery of the district at such places as Bulow Plantation (Bradley Pasture Hunting Club), and Watson Hill (Paper Maker Hunt Club).

Small tenant farms were scattered throughout the region during the first few decades of the 20th century creating another layer within the landscape. The vast majority of evidence of these small farms was found within the boundaries of Millbrook plantation and Middleton Place. Some of these plots are associated with names such as Singleton, Bradley, Stelling, etc.

Another significant industry in the region during the first half of the 20th century was timber farming. Companies such as the Cooper River Timber Company and West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company (later Westvaco and today Mead Westvaco) began converting pulp into paper and board lumber. To supply their mills, these companies purchased thousands of acres within the Ashley River region. Parcels were also being leased for timbering well into the 1940s. Evidence of the activity remains on such parcels as the Cook property and Bulow Plantation in the form of timber roads. Timber farming continues on a few parcels in the region today, particularly at Runnyemeade.

In the 1940s, building on the success of Middleton Place and Magnolia Gardens, Francis Pelzer Barry attempted to re-create the gardens of the Wragg family at what was historically Wragg Barony, and renamed Mateeba Gardens. These gardens (as well as the Wragg family cemetery) endured as a popular tourist destination into the 1960s when much of gardens were destroyed.

The Second Half of the Twentieth Century: Many of the activities that took place or began during the late-19th century and early-20th century continue in the region today. Recreation and tourism are the most predominant activities in the region. Places like Drayton Hall, Middleton Place, Magnolia Gardens, and Colonial Dorchester continue to preserve and enhance their sites through constant research and analysis, and archaeological investigation. Hunt clubs continue to hunt the land regularly with new clubs having formed in the second half of the 20th century. The commercial timber industry and sand mining are the most significant extractive economic activities in the region which have continued on a limited scale at Middleton Place, Runnyemeade, and Millbrook Plantation. All three sites have paid careful attention to retain the historical integrity of the landscape.

Activities that took place in the region after the Civil War and into the 20th century such as heritage tourism, extractive practices, and recreational activities greatly augmented the financial viability of several large historic tracts of land along the south bank of the Ashley River as well in the interior. These activities provided incentives to retain historical land use patterns in the district, thus avoiding a great deal of development in the region. As a result the Ashley River Historic District maintains a high level of integrity as a unique historic cultural landscape that spans the late-17th century through the mid-20th century.

Conservation Spotlight

Poplar Grove and Watson Hill: A Case Study In Coalition Building and Land Conservation

Two converging development threats in the Ashley River Corridor beginning in 2003 catalyzed a major conservation effort led by the Coastal Conservation League, Ducks Unlimited, the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and others…

Established in 1947, Historic Charleston Foundation is dedicated to preserving and protecting the architectural, historical and cultural character of Charleston and its Lowcountry environs, and to educating the public about Charleston’s history and the benefits that are derived from preservation.

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