I like graveyards. It's not like a morbid fascination, I just enjoy the stories they tell. Bravery, loss, love, hate, unity, respect, reverence, and yes — sometimes a chuckle. It is even more fascinating when you can walk these sacred grounds with people who share their stories and put a face or event to the etched names and dates.
Sharing, what an underrated commodity! Share: the first images I conjure are of generosity, the giving of money, goods, or food. Almost as an afterthought I include knowledge and experience. But, I think it's by far one of the most unselfish and valuable gifts we can give each other. I am richly blessed to have beautiful souls all around me that share their knowledge freely, enabling me to see and understand my world much deeper. Sometimes just making time and closing my mouth will create such an event. Such is the case on a recent jaunt with Lowcountry historian Suzannah Smith Miles. What started out as lunch at See Wee Restaurant on Hwy 17 concluded with this fascinating history lesson lying dormant a mere 500 feet behind the restaurant.
The sun spun fleeting shadows over the 325-year-old grounds of the Wappetaw Meeting House burial site. If it had not been for Suzannah, the grave stones and serene landscape—albeit fascinating, would have only vaguely intrigued me as a passerby. I’d have never known the history this one-and-a-half-acre plot holds—The intolerance of another shore, a shipwreck, kindness, and true naturalization that led this group of people to mold and melt into our community.
Suzannah explains, "Wappetaw Meeting House was settled in the 1690s by the original FFMP (First Families of Mt. Pleasant) who came from Essex County, Massachusetts. This was group of 52 who came from Salem, Ipswich, and Boston. Some of their names you'll easily recognize (like Whilden and White) and another is very well known , Legare, who was a silversmith in Boston before he came south with the Wappetaw group. They were basically Puritans-cum-Congregationalists and one of the reasons they came south was the aftermath of the Salem witch trials. Interesting stuff. The churchyard is beautifully cared for now by the New Wappetaw congregation, the church that was built in McClellanville to replace this one in the late 1800s."
Suzannah pointed out that the gravestones that remain are smatterings of what was. The faintly inscribed dates and names reflect time periods of a mere 150 years. The first 175 years of the grounds are reclaimed by the earth now. Worms have since rotted wooden bell towers and crosses, fire and war have consumed structures, hurricane and elements crumbled the earthenware crypts leaving once beloved remains as tombless grass-covered mounds that rise and fall across the terra firma.
The events of that walk through the graveyard lingered in my mind most of the evening. I thought of these settlers, what they must have felt when they trudged the surf to our shores from their shipwrecked vessel, how they were comforted, clothed, fed, and accepted by the Quaker Governor Archdale (for whom Archdale St. downtown is named) and given this land to settle.
Suzannah explained, "Before this group of 52 settlers arrived in the 1690s, there was no community at Wappetaw. There were however, Huguenots and Quakers in Charleston and other parts of the low country, also Congregationalists and Anabaptists and Jews. They made up about 50 percent of the population; the other 50 percent (generally) were Church of England (Anglican). Carolina had the most favorable laws concerning freedom of religion than any place in the colonies. Those laws, called the Fundamental Constitutions, were written by the humanist John Locke and were later used when writing the Declaration of Independence."
I can't help but wonder how such a tolerant diversified group of peace loving people ever embraced the hell of slavery? Maybe tolerance is a curse as well?
Anyway, back to this group that settled the grounds we walk today in East Cooper. These 52 shipwrecked Congregationalists escaped hatred and embraced acceptance. They thrived, molded, loved, and lost here amongst our first settlers. They fought our battles and died here. Are our communities practicing the same today? I ask myself, do we welcome and nurture other cultures? Do we embrace difference? Of course I can point to instances where some cling to prejudice and lance the wounds of hatred and past injustices lest they forget. But more so, I look to and am inspired by the generosity of the Lowcountry as a whole to stay unified and keep alive the spirit of oneness and community. I am so grateful for this platform, Charleston Grit—which has enabled me to meet wonderful teachers, drink in fascination their knowledge, and lastly, offer me the same opportunity to share freely.
Suzannah Smith Miles