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Our Human History on Spring Island

Human History

The deep waters of Port Royal Sound attracted European explorers as early as 1521. During the mid-16th century the Spanish drove the French from the region and established Santa Elena, the first European colony in the United States. The original colony, located on Parris Island, was abandoned in 1587, in part because of raids along the nearby Florida coast by the English privateer Sir Francis Drake.
The English did not return to South Carolina until 1663, when Captain William Hilton sailed into Port Royal Sound. Hilton described the Port Royal area as a “sub-tropical fairyland”:

“Lands are laden with tall Oaks, Walnuts and Bayes, except facing on the Sea, it is most Pines, tall and good. The land generally, except where the Pines grow, is good Soil covered with black Mold…The Indians plant in the worst land because they cannot cut down the Timber in the best, and yet have plenty of Corn, Pompions, Watermelons, Muskmelons; although the land be overgrown with weeds through their laziness, yet they have two or three crops of corn a year, as the Indians themselves inform us. The Country abounds with Grapes, large Figs, and Peaches: the woods with Deer, Conies, Turkeys, Quails, Curlues, Plover; Teile, Herons: and, as the Indians say, in winter with Swans, Geese, Cranes, Duck and Mallard, and innumerable of other water-Fowls…Oysters in abundance with a great store of mussels: a sort of fair Crabs, and a round Shellfish called Horsefeet…”

Larry Rowland

From History of Beaufort County, Vol. 1

The English established their first permanent South Carolina colony at Charleston in 1670. In St. Augustine, Florida the Spanish encouraged their Indian allies to raid the settlers and their allies in coastal South Carolina. To reduce this threat the English recruited Scots who settled in Beaufort County and became Indian traders. Brazen attacks on Indian villages in Georgia were led by the new Scottish settlers in an attempt to capture Indians as slaves. This soon led to a brutal retaliation by the Spanish and their Indian allies in the 1683 massacre of Stuart Town, the Scottish community in Beaufort.

In 1706, Scotsman John Cochran obtained a King’s Grant for 3,000 acres of upland and 3,000 acres of salt marsh surrounding what became known as “Cochran’s Island,” and, more recently, Spring Island. When Cochran arrived he would have encountered a landscape that resembles the landscape of today in some ways, although there were some noticeable differences.

The maritime forests ringing the perimeter of the Island are largely unchanged. The slash pine savanna still dominates the low-lying areas of Big Neck and Little Neck.

The upland section of Spring Island, however, looked quite different in 1706. Here, like elsewhere throughout the southeastern Coastal Plain, Cochran would have found a park-like, longleaf pine savanna maintained by regular seasonal fires started by lightning strikes or by Indians.

Cochran, like many of his countrymen, was lured to the region by the British government that continued to attempt to maintain a buffer between Charleston and Spanish Florida by using  “expendable” Scots. The financial attraction to the area was the lucrative trading with the local Indians.

The Yemassee tribe had formed a trading network with tribes as far west as the Mississippi Valley. In 1684 they began moving to the Port Royal area to trade with the English.

In 1715, after years of being exploited in unfair trade practices and losing farmland to the English, the Yemassee joined with the other Muskhogean tribes of the Southeast and initiated a war in 1715 to drive the English from the region. Their first action was to lure a group of traders, including John Cochran and his wife, to their village (near present-day Gardens Corner) where they were summarily massacred. The region remained in turmoil until 1728 when a South Carolina regiment destroyed the last Yemassee stronghold outside the Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.

Spring Island remained in the Cochran family for almost 200 years. John Cochran’s nephew inherited it and upon his death in 1739 his three heirs, Cato, John and Mary Ash, each obtained shares of the Island. Cato and John did not retain their shares, and Mary Ash was soon the sole owner.

Mary Ash married George Barksdale and died some time before 1757 shortly after her daughter, Mary Cochran Barksdale (known to all as “Polly”), was born. In 1773, Polly married John Edwards, a Beaufort merchant.

John Edwards died in 1787 and Polly died on Spring Island in 1791. She probably lies in one of the unmarked graves still visible in the Old House Cemetery. Polly left three small children, one of whom was George Edwards.

In the early 1800s George Edwards transformed Spring Island’s landscape by clearing most of the upland areas to plant sea island cotton, a crop from the Caribbean that was introduced into the region in the 1790s. By 1830 Edwards owned more than 300 slaves. By the 1850 census, over 70% of the land on Spring Island was agricultural fields.

Many written and first person accounts give us a picture of life on sea island cotton plantations. Enslaved men, women and children lived in slave “rows” or quarters. They hailed from West African tribes such as Bakongo, Ibo and Wolof. Each tribe brought distinct ways of life and spiritual beliefs. Gullah tenant farmers lived in the old settlements well into the 20th century. Contemporary lowcountry arts and crafts (such as basket and net weaving, pottery and cooking) still draw inspiration from these traditions.

Shortly after the death of George Edwards in 1859, his son, George B. Edwards, sold 96 slaves in an effort to settle his father’s estate. George B. Edwards died in 1860, only a year after his father’s death.

November 7, 1861 became known by the local slaves as “The Day of the Big Guns.” Residents of Spring Island looked eastward across the waters toward Hilton Head to watch as the U.S. Navy bombarded Confederate troops at Fort Walker. This was the first naval battle in which ship-mounted artillery defeated a land-based force. The resulting Union occupation of the Beaufort County sea islands lasted throughout the Civil War.

Collins Mitchell, also known as John Fripp, was one of the Edwards’ slaves. Mitchell and his family were born into slavery on the Edwards Plantation and sold in Charleston just before the outbreak of the Civil War. He escaped to join the Union Army and served in the 21st Regiment, United States Colored Troops (USCT), participating in the siege of Charleston. In an extraordinary story, against remarkable odds, the family later reconnected, returning to Spring Island following emancipation. Collins Mitchell died a free man on Spring Island in 1910. He is buried in the Old House Cemetery.

In 1862, the Federal government initiated “The Port Royal Experiment” in Beaufort with the establishment of the first school for freed slaves. This original school became the Penn Center, which still exists on St. Helena Island.

Following the Union victory at Fort Walker, many white residents fled Beaufort County, leaving the slaves to fend for themselves. General Ormsby Mitchel established the African American community of Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island near the Union encampment. Many of the former slaves enlisted in, or were employed by, the Union Army.

After 1861, slaves stopped tending many of Spring Island’s fields. Live oaks began to encroach on the cotton fields, soon transforming them into today’s iconic Spring Island live oak forests.

In 1874, Spring Island was sold to Elizabeth Hammond Inwood, a descendent of John Cochran. After her death in 1885, ownership passed to her son, Henry Creode Trenhold Inwood. Henry was the last descendent of the Scottish Indian trader, John Cochran, to own his island.

Thomas Martin, the first “outside” owner, purchased Spring Island in 1895. The Island was conveyed to Spring Island Barony Club in 1902. After passing through the hands of a liquidator, Spring Island became the property of Alice M. Townsend, who died in 1917. William M. Copp purchased the Island from the surviving executor of her estate in 1920.

During the next 23 years Mr. Copp grew potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes. When profits from truck farming dwindled, he turned to cattle and hogs. In 1931, he raised approximately 80 Hampshire brood sows and more than 200 Black Angus cattle. Island fields were planted in oats and corn to feed the herd. Mr. Copp built a large frame house at Bonny Shore Landing in 1927. At that time, 35 former slave families continued to live on the Island.

Otillie M. Copp Mills, Mr. Copp’s wife, sold the Island in 1943 for $81,250 to Minnie E. Carter. The Island then passed to Percy A. Horswell in 1945, to Robert M. Lee in that same year, and to John F. Lucas in 1946. Mr. Lucas raised free-range cattle and hogs on the Island. In addition, he logged it extensively. 

In November of 1964, Mr. Lucas’s widow sold Spring Island to Mr. and Mrs. Elisha Walker, Jr.

In 1963, Elisha and Lucile Walker accepted an invitation to go shooting with longtime family friends Ed and Betty Greeff near Ridgeland, South Carolina. Herbert L. Pratt, at that time president of Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, had purchased Good Hope Plantation in 1910 during an era when many northern industrialists and financiers were acquiring hunting preserves along the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. Elisha Walker, an avid bird hunter, fell in love with the South Carolina lowcountry during his visit to Good Hope. By the time he returned to his home on Long Island he was determined to have his own plantation.

On August 14, 1964 Elisha and Lucile Walker purchased Spring Island for $401,500. The original purchase included a lot at the mainland Chechessee Creek community because there was no bridge to Spring Island. The Walkers’ visitors boarded a boat known as “The Gobbler” on the mainland and stepped out onto the Spring Island boat landing some 15 minutes later. 

Walker hired Gordon Mobley, a native of Waynesboro, Georgia, as Spring Island’s plantation manager in 1966. Gordon moved to Spring Island with his wife and their daughter Donna. Later the Mobleys had two more daughters, Sara Anne and Pete.

Gordon had all the skills required to develop a hunting plantation. In addition to being a first-rate dog trainer and handler, he knew how to farm, how to oversee quail hunts, how to entertain and how to be a diligent host. With help from his wife and three daughters, Gordon made sure that the “red carpet of hospitality” was rolled out for all guests. Gordon’s cooking, his stories and his passion for Spring Island created lasting memories for all who visited Spring Island.

Elisha Walker’s vision served as the template for today’s Spring Island landscape. When he arrived in 1964, many of the original fields created for quail hunting by William Copp in the 1930s and 1940s were overgrown with young trees. Free-range cattle and hogs still roamed the woods. Tabby ruins were hidden by a jungle of spindly saplings. There were no habitable buildings. The old  Copp Mansion, in the area that is now called Bonny Shore Landing, was in ruins and only three old tenant houses from the early 1900s were still standing.

In 1966, even before the Walkers completed their residence (known as the “Walker House”), Elisha was busy reshaping the landscape of Spring Island. He supervised the building of roads, the construction of dikes to create ponds and the restoration of fields that had become overgrown. He oversaw the construction of the gazebo at Bonny Shore Landing. Elisha also created the plan for the live oak allee along today’s Mobley Oaks Lane.

Aerial photos taken by the New York engineering firm Lockwood, Kessler & Bartlett from 1969-1973 show the dramatic transformation of Spring Island. By 1973 the Island had a number of elements in place that made for great hunting and fishing. There were long fields planted in corn in the center of the Island and a matrix of small wildlife plots planted with soybeans throughout the forested areas. A series of saltwater ponds around the perimeter of the Island were ideal for fishing and duck hunting. The Duck Ponds, an interior set of seasonally flooded fields, were planted with corn in the summer and flooded to attract ducks in the winter.

Elisha Walker, who was a very religious man, commissioned New York-based Italian sculptor Clemente Spampinato to create an outdoor chapel with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi. The statue’s marble base was shipped directly from Italy to Savannah. “St. Francis” was completed in 1971 and two years later the first service was held there. Sadly, the dedication of the chapel was also a memorial service for Elisha Walker, who died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1973 at the age of 62.

Following Mr. Walker’s death, Mrs. Walker spent much of the year on Spring Island. After her death in 1982, the family began offering weekly rentals of Spring Island to small groups of hunters. Additional staff was added because Gordon Mobley couldn’t manage both the hunts and the plantation. It soon became apparent that rentals would not generate sufficient revenue to support the operation and Spring Island was put up for sale.

The Enmark Corporation of Columbia, South Carolina acquired an option to purchase Spring Island from the Walker Trust in 1985. They obtained zoning for 5,500 housing units and two 18-hole golf courses. Road access was dependent on a high-rise bridge from the mainland, but the purchase option period expired before a permit to build a bridge was issued.

In October of 1985, Jim Chaffin, Jim Light and Dr. Peter LaMotte purchased neighboring Callawassie Island. After Enmark’s option to purchase Spring Island expired in 1988, they secured a purchase option for Spring Island from the Walker Trust in the following year.

The Founding Member program was launched in July of 1989, leading to the purchase of the Island in March of 1990. Spring Island’s current era began.

Spring Island

Spring Island Trust
40 Mobley Oaks Lane
Okatie, SC 29909