Tuesday, April 06, 2010

South Carolina Explorations

Last Saturday I attended a small Sacred Harp singing at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Pendleton, SC. Pendleton is in the northwest corner of South Carolina, near Clemson University. My visit was a great opportunity to learn a little more about the history of my new state, and to reflect on how important history is to South Carolina. 

Remember, I'm from Southern California where few residents can trace a family connection back 70 years. Still today, many Californians are from somewhere else. Most of the oldest buildings date back to the turn of the 20th century, and old buildings are often razed to make way for new ones. 

Not so in South Carolina. Most people from elsewhere think of the Civil War when they think of the history of this state. That war and its aftermath was, indeed, hugely important. My father-in-law has filled me in on some of the gaps in my understanding of that terrible conflict: South Carolina started it; the opening shots of the war were fired at Fort Sumter, just off the coast near Charleston. South Carolina never surrendered. And the proper name for the conflict is The War of Northern Aggression. Monuments to Civil War incidents battles and other incidents abound. 

But South Carolina was first colonized by the English in 1670. So at the outbreak of the Civil War, the notion and the reality of South Carolina was already two hundred years old. The University of South Carolina was 60 years old in 1861. South Carolina was in the thick of the American Revolution, and several battlefield monuments commemorate that period. 

One thing I tend to forget is how small the US was in that time, how sparsely populated most of the country was, and how many of the major players were related to one another. A few examples: Both Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis served as superintendents of West Point before the Civil War. Jefferson Davis was married to Zachary Taylor's daughter. And at the start of the Civil War the standing army had only around 2,500 officers. 

And so my visit to Pendleton revealed to me some facinating connections among the movers and shakers of the South Carolina Piedmont and Blue Ridge regions in the first quarter of the nineteenth century. St. Paul's church was founded in 1822. One of the gentlemen at the singing told me that it was founded by Thomas Clemson and Floride Calhoun. Thomas Clemson was the statesman who left his fortune to found the institution that became Clemson University. (He did not specify in his will that women and blacks should be excluded from the school, unlike the founders of some other Southern universities.) Floride Calhoun was the cousin and wife of US vice president, senator and statesman John C. Calhoun, and a landowner and manager in her own right.

What my informant failed to mention was that Clemson was married to one of the Calhouns' daughters. So we have a close connection between these important individuals that sheds light on the society of the time. 

The church appears to be wholly original. We found a hand made nail on the floor. Examination of the pews and floor showed that this was the fastener used throughout. The joinery is careful, but amateur. This is not a monumental cathedral but rather a frontier church, built for use. It's surrounded by a graveyard still in use. Floride Calhoun traveled to New York to buy the hand-pumped organ. The organ was sent via ship to Charleston, then up country via river and road until it reached its home where it is still in use today.

As I drive around the state and get to know it, it's fascinating to see the juxtapositions -- old and new, history and today, city and country. South Carolina is bigger than I expected, and it's also more interesting, more diverse, more complex. I still have plenty to learn, and I'm enjoying the journey.

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