Island Life with Daufuskie

Salt water sprays the faces of those at the bow of the Daufuskie Difference Ferry, the Silver Dew as it gently glides through other vessels’ wakes, such as this one, on the Cooper and Mungen rivers en route to an eccentrically enchanting place; an island only accessible by watercraft.

Inasmuch as the history of Daufuskie Island can be said to be written, it’s written in water and blood. But more often, the history of Daufuskie isn’t written. It’s passed down. It’s shared on long golf cart rides down roads nearly bereft of cars, or expounded upon in stories over scrap iron moonshine that grow ever more colorful and fanciful in the telling. There are magic in these stories, in this history. 

The first tales written in water will be felt in the sea spray that peppers your face on the ferry over. No bridge has ever served Daufuskie, and it’s only in more recent years that those without their own boat could rely on a ferry. The Daufuskie Island Ferry will take you across the waters, leaving from the Hyatt riverfront pier under the hand of Captain Tyler Gibble and first mate Teron Daley. And it’s on this near-mystic voyage that you will encounter the first of the stories, told in the patois of tour guides Jennie Tarver and Pat Gunn, a Gullah storyteller who traces his roots to Daufuskie. There aren’t many left who can say that, the Gullah having all but vanished from the island once pollution from the Savannah River forced the federal government to close down the oyster beds.

But like anyone visiting Daufuskie today, they were brought by boat. From 14 different tribes across West Africa they were enslaved to the rice patties and the sea island cotton fields that made antebellum Daufuskie rich. And when all that wealth slipped away under the tide of war, all that remained were the Gullah and fertile fields in which to grow their culture.
This history is written in water, but also in blood. The blood of an early 18th century Indian raid which led to the name Bloody Point. The blood spilled between Revolutionary War patriots on Hilton Head and loyalists on Daufuskie over a series of savage sneak attacks and brutal assassinations. And, of course, the blood of those enslaved to the island’s plantations.

The water washes away blood, as it tends to, and has left behind stories. Stories of a little island lost in time, which remained nearly untouched until the failed developments of the 1980s. The developers did eventually find purchase, but the bones of abandoned Melrose Resort serve as a cautionary warning behind an old curse, “no white man will ever make money on Daufuskie.”

Maybe it’s a curse, maybe it’s a story. But that’s what Daufuskie is all about. Stories. 

The boat passes by Cathy Lamas’s house; a legendary location where the old post office used to be and the only phone on the island for so many years, so the story goes. Others moved to Daufuskie long after, like Wick Scurry, developer of Broad Creek Marina in Hilton Head and owner of half of the island, who took up residence in the late 1970s. On an island defined by stories, he tells some of the best. 

“Back in the day it was open range,” Scurry explains. “You could sit on the porch and you’d see a cow walk by, and then you might see a horse, and some kids barefooted chasing them.”

The heart of Scurry’s operation is Daufuskie Landing, where he owns the marina, a restaurant and a golf cart rental company, among other ventures.

“It’s like downtown Daufuskie,” smiles Wick Scurry, surveying the center of his Daufuskie operations. “It’s also home to the only gas station and the only general store.” Nearby Shark Tooth Island beckons as passersby comb the beach looking for prehistoric teeth. It’s a breeding ground for the great ocean-dwelling creatures off the Calibogue Sound.

 “Artists and writers come here to get away,” Scurry continues, of later times in the island’s history. “They land here for the solitude.” The island is home to others, such as Chase Allen—one of the artists in the Historic District who creates sculptures made entirely from iron and where everything is on the honor system if you want to buy one of his pieces. Daufuskie is also the part-time home of singer John Mellencamp and former hockey player Mark Messier. Sallie Ann Robinson, Gullah/Geechee cookbook author, chef and cultural historian also calls the island home. Daufuskie Blues—purveyors of Indigo-blue-dyed clothing—is another great stop to peruse for extraordinary finds. Famed author Pat Conroy also used to call Daufuskie home. All of his books were inspired by his time on the island, especially his novel “The Water Is Wide.”

The waters around Daufuskie are also home to one of the largest masses of Quahog clams or hard clams on the eastern seashore. Once a year, Progresso Soup and the Campbell Soup Company harvest these clams for their canned goods. It’s also a great location to gather Atlantic Red Mussels.

Descendants of the late 1840s and early 1850s Spanish Iberian horses known as “Carolina Marsh Tackys” were also brought to the Sea Island area. Horses, clams and oysters weren’t always the staples of Daufuskie, however. Indigo, the plant infamous for the color blue was one of the first crops on Daufuskie. Sea Island Cotton would come next—one of the longest and strongest varieties of cotton in the world, and with it huge economic growth. Live Oak trees were traded from this tiny island, lending their naturally curved branches to the building of American wooden tall ships.

“It’s an eccentrically enchanting place,” comments first-time island homeowners Jason and Dena Hipskind. There’s a local vibe here, and the 400-odd year-round residents that call this place home wouldn’t want it any other way. There’s no grocery store, no pharmacy. It’s a different way of life, and that’s what makes it so unique.

 

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