Sandlapper
The Magazine of South Carolina

South Carolina Yesteryear

Early Ill Winds: Hugo's Ancestry

 

by Dr. Lewis P. Jones

Weather officials estimate a "significant and damaging" storm will hit the South Carolina coast every four years. The early ones lacked names; they were not lacking in fury.

 

Few ill winds have good side effects. Maybe it was despair over that fact that caused Charles Dudley Warner (not his associate Mark Twain) to proclaim his proverb, "Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it."

He was not quite correct. Today we do get "accu-weather" wisdom in living color, and more valuable information on approaching ill winds. But this is not an essay about the National Weather Service.

Maybe one early ill wind did have a beneficial effect - on literature. We refer to the horrendous experience of Sir Thomas Gates en route by ship to his new assignment as governor of Virginia in 1609. Encountering "a most terrible and vehement storm" near the Bahamas, after a dreadful and tragic voyage he ended up wrecked on Bermuda. Out of William Strachey's hair-raising account of this misadventure came the inspiration for William Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Not being aligned with the Wind Tunnel out of the West Indies, Gov. Gates' Virginia would not be mauled regularly by what one FFV in 1667 described in his lamentation as a "dreadful hurry cane." Three years later the colony of Carolina was established - lined up with those "pleasant tropical breezes" some resorts advertise so intriguingly. Sometimes the breezes, coming all the way from the Caribbean, can get up a good running start en route hither.

 

The Storm of 1686: "Wonderfully Horrid and Destructive"

Sixteen years after its founding, South Carolina in 1686 encountered its first "hurry cane" (which one settler correctly spelled, bless him, as "a grievous hurricane"). This great-great-granddaddy of Hugo was the first in what has been a long series. Perhaps some English settlers on the Cooper also judged their first one was not a totally ill wind, for it, like Strachey's, had a side effect: It wrecked a northbound Spanish expedition that had attacked a new settlement of Scots at Stuart's Town, near modern Beaufort. (True, the English in Charles Town did not get along harmoniously with those Scots, but at least they weren't "Papists.") The invaders had headed for Charles Town only to encounter a "wonderfully horrid and destructive" hurricane which caused "dismal dreadful and fatal consequences" and forced them back, leaving behind two Spanish galleons so high on land that the would-be invaders abandoned them there. That contemporary Carolina Cassandra also mourned that "the hand of Almighty God seemes to concurr with the Malice of our Enemies to hasten our ruin and desolation."

Despite satisfaction over the fate of the Spaniards, the Carolina observer of 1686 recorded, "The whole country seemes to bee one entire map of Devastation" so that "Your Lordships [the Proprietors] cannot imagine the distracting horror that these United Evills plunged us into." He seemed to be planning the SC-ETV Hugo production of September 1989, as he noted, "In some places 3 or 4 miles together there is scarse [sic] one tree left standing. All paths being impassable there is no traveling on horseback and scarse any on foot so that all society and communication with our neighbors, one of the greatest comforts of our lives, is for many years rendered extraordinarily difficult. With the fall of trees the foods of our hogs is likewise destroyed which will cause them to run wild...."

If this eloquent Jeremiah could have enjoyed the longevity of Methusaleh, he might have waxed truly eloquent about Hugo 303 years later.

The chilling thought of this is that we know only about those 303 years. Have we seen it all yet? Or the worst?

John Bartram, famed naturalist and explorer hereabouts in the 18th Century, reported that Indians had told Charlestonians that earlier there had been a storm that "raised the water over the tops of the trees where the town now stands." This should have given pause to those early settlers, or to those today contemplating purchase of an expensive lot on one of the barrier islands, lest they later wish to sell it by the gallon.

 

A Brief Respite, Then Triple Terror

After the 1686 blow, hurricane watchers did not get a long respite. The next one struck Charles Town September 14, 1700.

It must have seemed the last straw. The sequence of events in the preceding three years had included an epidemic of smallpox, a fire that destroyed one-third of the small town, and their first bout with yellow fever, which killed 160. Now came a "most terrible storm of Wind or Hurricane." The "swelling sea rushed in with great impetuosity," "over-throwing many houses and overflowing the town." According to one, "ye greatest Mischief fell amongst ye Shipping," with vessels "driven on Shoar & broke all in pieces."

Actually, the major loss was one ship - inappropriately named the Rising Sun. It was bringing back a remnant of colonists from the Gulf of Darien (off the border of modern Panama and Colombia), where in 1698 a Scottish company had planted a settlement, New Edinburgh, that was soon undermined by William III of England and forced out by Spain. Unable to cross the bar to enter Charles Town harbor, the ship anchored outside, waiting to be lightened. When the storm hit, it went down, "all ye Souls onboard (being about 100) miserably perishing."

Again there was a spin-off. The day before the hurricane, the Calvinists of the "Old White Meeting" had invited the Rev. Archibald Stobo, a Presbyterian divine returning with the ill-fated Darien group, to come ashore to preach for them. Their small boat fetched him, his wife and several others into Charles Town. His first big task, however, would be to bury his fellow travelers on James Island, where their bodies washed ashore.

The church at the time was without a minister. Maybe because of Calvinist predestination ideas, members concluded that his having been "spared the terrible fate" was a Divine sign, and thus, "obedient to the finger of Providence . . . [and] amazed at the success of their own intervention," they called Stobo to become their minister and considered him "a heavenly addition."

Stobo was to be minister at the Independent Church from 1700 to 1704. The congregation was divided over ecclesiastical government between Congregationalism (favored by those from New England) and Presbyterianism (favored by those from Scotland). Stobo moved on and founded several Presbyterian churches. In 1731 other Scots pulled out and formed the First Presbyterian (Scots Presbyterian) congregation. The majority remained at the "Old White," today the Congregational Church on Meeting Street.

Carolina was struck by significant hurricanes in 1713 and 1728, both severe. Damaged fortifications were said by Mark Catesby to have saved Charles Town from tidal inundation in 1713, but 70 drowned. Near Cape Fear, one ship was driven three miles into the woods.

But the "Big One" of that century was yet to come. It arrived in 1752.

 

"A Very Melancholy Situation . . . ."

By the middle of the 18th Century, the province had prospered once it had developed staple crops for export. Its town likewise was flourishing (despite another fire in 1740 which consumed 300 houses) and had developed charms peculiarly its own. (Read George Rogers' bewitching book Charleston in the Age of the Pinckneys.) It was an important port, but not a huge city. By the first census in 1790, it had grown to a population of 14,000.

Thundering into the colony September 15, 1752, "the most terrible hurricane that ever was felt in this province . . . reduced this Town to a very melancholy situation." Thus spoke the S.C. Gazette, the weekly newspaper founded in 1732 and one of only seven in the colonies in 1752. It was a melancholy scene indeed.

Every ship in the harbor except one was driven ashore. (That one had seven anchors.) All the fortifications were wrecked. Cannons were dismounted and their carriages lost. Magazines and ordinance likewise were carried away - leaving this outpost of the Empire defenseless. The loss of trees was severe, and the countryside for 30 miles around was devastated. Ships miles up the Ashley were driven aground - but the storm was not felt 100 miles away.

The Gazette described strange antics of navigation. A "sloop, loaded for Jamaica, drove through . . . General Pinckney's stables . . . [into a house] where she was crushed to pieces, and left her mast through the balcony door." A brigantine battered down several houses and came to rest on Church Street.

Another ship was "driven with anchor ahead from White Point through Vanderhorst Creek." In passing, she carried away the southwest corner of the new Baptist church and grounded on the west side of Meeting Street. (Now, that one had a perceptive skipper: Trying to save his ship from being stranded, he was wise enough to head for a Baptist church seeking water, rather than to an Episcopal structure.)

Equally remarkable was a voyage on the Cooper. The Pest House, built of wood, stood on Sullivan's Island - until that day. (The Pest House was the quarantine station for new arrivals, who were kept there temporarily until authorities were certain they did not bring diseases. Such restraint reminds one of modern doctors' offices, with patients squirreled away in tiny cubicles up and down the halls.) The Pest House, with 15 aboard, went to sea. It washed away, and parts of it were blown several miles (some say six miles) up the Cooper River. Nine of the 15 "passengers" drowned.

 

A Heavy Toll

In all, it was estimated that 92 drowned. Most of James Island was underwater. An oft-quoted graphic description provides the drama: "The inhabitants, finding themselves in the midst of a tempestuous sea, the wind still continuing, the tide...being expected to flow 'till after one o'clock, and many of the people already being up to their necks in water in their houses, began now to think of nothing but certain death: But . . . they were soon delivered from their apprehensions; for, about 10 minutes after 11 o'clock, the wind veered to the E.S.E, E., and S.W., very quick, and then . . . the waters fell about 5 feet in the space of 10 minutes, without which unexpected and sudden fall, every house and inhabitant in this town, must, in all probability, have perished."

A few days later the local press laid an anathema on "divers wicked and ill-disposed Persons, regardless of the Laws of God or of this province, and divesting themselves of all Humanity for their Fellow-Subjects have taken advantage of the Calamity with which it has pleased God to afflict the Inhabitants, by the late dreadful Hurricane, and go about picking up, purloining, and plundering..."

In such circumstances, 20th-Century people expect government to "do something." So did they then. Gov. James Glen promptly called the Assembly in special session to deal with "Ruin and Desolation here." In his message to Council and to the Commons House of Assembly, he said, "It has pleased God lately to visit this province with a dreadful hurricane, which proved fatal to the lives of several of His Majesty's subjects, damaged a great number of houses, entirely demolished our fortifications, ruined the high roads, broke down bridges, and in a great number of places spoiled the crops. But who can say to Him that doth according to His will, 'What does Thou . . . ?' It is therefore the duty of all of us, upon this solemn and awful occasion, to humble ourselves before Him."

Gov. Tryon of North Carolina was less pious about his storm; he attributed it to "the effect of a blazing comet."

 

Government's Response

Gov. Glen spelled out to the Assembly various duties in order to carry out "this great and necessary work." The next day the Commons House passed a bill to prevent "exportation of Corn, that the Poor may be able to purchase Provisions at a moderate Price." Later, they stopped temporarily the exportation of "Peas, Potatos, small Rice, Flour and Biscuits."

One loss was what today we would call "the archives," which ended up under four feet of salt water in the surveyor general's office: warrants of survey, duplicates of plats and reports of quitrents. The finances of the province were also in disarray, since Jacob Motte, public treasurer, was impoverished by his losses in the hurricane. He had been using money from the treasury as capital for his private business ventures - an accepted practice of the 18th Century. To make matters worse, he kept inadequate books and records. Thus financial chaos stemmed from this 1752 tempest. It sounds like a shocking way to run a government (unless one contemplates the affairs of HUD and the S&Ls in 1989).

Particularly distressing was the loss of all fortifications. The Commons House adopted an almost fawning petition to the Crown for reconstruction of fortifications. Action first was delayed by jurisdictional wrangles between the governor and the House, as well as a disagreement over the employment of William Gerard De Braham, a German engineer rejected by the House as a suspicious foreigner.

The king ultimately refused to pay for new forts and cannon and was unwilling to provide disaster relief for Carolina. After being defenseless for two years, the colony faced up to the fact in 1755 and undertook to pay for all the military work, increasing taxes to do so. It is ironic that London acted in such cavalier fashion, since by 1754 Britain was at war with France, an ally of the Spanish at nearby St. Augustine.

 

Blasts & Splashes: Some Footnotes

A few final words about hurricanes. The abrupt decline of the wall of water and the accompanying shift of winds saved the town from total destruction in 1752. Modern weather experts probably could have told thereby where the eye of the storm was. (It was likely just south and west of the town.)

Hurricanes are not tornadoes, but they are cyclones - a special breed, tropical cyclones, rotating counterclockwise around the eye. (The eye first was explained by scientists in 1801; some observers earlier referred to it as a vacuum.) The entire storm - elliptical, oval or circular - can be as much as several hundred miles wide but normally is about 50 miles in diameter.

Tides rise above normal and are highest in the right front quadrant of the storm and lowest in the left rear quadrant. (Note the contrast between tides at McClellanville and Kiawah during Hugo's visit.) The "surge tide" - a wind-driven mass of water forced upon the coast - is more likely in that right front quadrant.

Scientists in 1961 calculated the force of a Texas hurricane was "equivalent to several hundred nuclear devices."

Tornadoes may develop within hurricane circulation. Some have spun off and hit South Carolina from nearby hurricanes that remained over the sea. Although tornadoes - most visible in a mild form as waterspouts - are the most violent storm produced by nature, they usually have a diameter of only 50-400 yards. Nevertheless, the whirling wind at this narrow circle can be moving at 450-500 miles an hour.

Oliver Hart, a notable Baptist preacher, described a tornado that struck Charles Town in 1761, coming down Wapoo Creek from the southwest with "an impetuous column, and its prodigious velocity gave it such a momentum as to plough the Ashley River to the bottom and lay the channel bare." Wreaking destruction on land and harbor, its passage lasted three minutes or less, followed by a clear, calm, sunny afternoon.

An official of the Weather Bureau in 1964 calculated that since the 1686 hurricane, South Carolina has been "adversely affected" by at least 160 "tropical cyclones" (hurricanes). One that is "significant and damaging," he said, strikes every four years, on the average; one causes major damage every nine or 10 years.

 

Centennial "Champions"

One can pick the winner for each century. In the 18th Century, it was the one of 1752, noted in this article. In the 19th, it was the catastrophe of 1893, when between 1,000 and 2,000 people died on the sea islands. A contemporary description: "Hundreds of corpses were strewn among the farms, unknown except to the vultures. . . . The coroner [of Beaufort] has sworn in an army of deputies, and these are hunting the dead."

The natural disaster thus far in the 20th Century, of course, is Hugo.

The word "hurricane" comes from the Spanish "hurican," which in turn may have come from "hunraken," the Mayan term for "the storm of god." Some say it is based on the Taino word "huracan" in Haiti, a term for "evil spirit." Either is appropriate.

 

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