Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 7 January 2014

Windmills in Early South Carolina

In recent weeks there has been much talk in the Charleston media about Clemson University’s new wind turbine testing facility at the old Charleston Navy Base. According to published reports, the high-tech facility is the world’s largest test bed for giant turbines designed to convert off-shore ocean winds into electricity. Its formal opening in November 2013 represents not just an important industry milestone for Clemson and Charleston County, but also a bold leap for the development of sustainable “clean energy” in South Carolina.

Detail from Zyl, Theatrum Machinarum Universale (1734)

Detail from Zyl, Theatrum Machinarum Universale (1734)

But wind-powered technology is not new to South Carolina. In fact, wind-powered machinery arrived in the Lowcountry along with some of the earliest settlers, as early as the 1680s. History records that several English and French Huguenot immigrants were granted land here on condition that they build windmills. In the early 1700s, Dutch engineers were recruited to South Carolina specifically to construct wind-powered sawmills, which were among the most technologically advanced machines in existence at the time. In eighteenth-century South Carolina, a number of windmills stood along our coastline from Cape Romain to Edisto Island, and several were located on the Charleston peninsula. Since these mills were principally used to saw timber, one could rightly say that windmills helped to build Charleston. The advent of steam-powered machinery in the early 1800s led to the rapid abandonment of wind power in South Carolina, however, and windmills became just another picturesque Lowcountry memory by the time of the Civil War.

One of the treasures in the Charleston Archive is a copy of Jan Zyl’s book, Theatrum Machinarum Universale; Of Groot Algemeen Moolen-Boek, Behelzende de Beschryving en Afbeeldingen van allerhande soorten van Moolens, der zelver Opstallen, en Gronden (“Great Universal Mill Book, Containing Descriptions and Illustrations of All Kinds of Mills, Their Elevations, and Plans”), which was published in Amsterdam in December 1734. Intended as a guide for the construction of various types of Dutch windmills, Zyl’s book contains instructions (in Dutch) and 61 meticulously engraved plates that offer visual testimony of the complexity of these ancient machines and of the ingenuity of their builders. In the near future we hope to digitize the entire book and share it with the public, but first the old book will need some repairs and conservation in order to stabilize it for future generations.

Want to learn more about Lowcountry windmill history and hear more about Zyl’s 1734 illustrations? You’re invited to join me for a free program, titled “Windmills in Early South Carolina,” at the Charleston County Public Library on Thursday, January 30th 2014 at 6 p.m. Please feel free to download and share the following flyer:

windmill flyer

Time: Thursday, January 30th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 15 November 2013

Gaillard Graves, Part 2

Remember the graves discovered in early 2013 at the site of the new Gaillard Center near Anson Street in Charleston? Who were those people, and when were they buried there? I’m happy to report that some of the answers to these questions will soon be released, and you’re invited to come hear the latest on Thursday, November 21st 2013.

You’ll remember that back in May 2013, Dr. Eric Poplin of Brockington and Associates and I held a public forum to discuss the history of the Gaillard site and the recent excavations there. Since that time, the exhumed remains have been subjected to laboratory forensic analysis, and some of the preliminary results will be made public soon. We may never know the names of those individuals buried on the east side of Anson Street, but wer’re slowly refining our understanding of who these people were and when they were buried. If you’ d like to hear Dr. Poplin discuss the  latest findings, please join us for a free event titiled:

Graves at the Gaillard Center, Part 2:

New Light on Old Burials

Time: Thursday, November 21st, 2013 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.


Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 3 November 2013

Remembering the “Black Loyalists”

In late 1782, in the final days of the American Revolution, the British Army in South Carolina gathered all of its troops and equipment on the wharves of Charleston and prepared to sail for New York. Among those boarding the transport vessels were several thousand former slaves—men, women, and children—who had defected from their American masters and sought refuge and freedom among the invading British Army. In New York in 1783 an official “Book of Negroes” was created to record the names of over three thousand “black loyalists” from the American south as they were delivered to their new home in Nova Scotia. There they established a new community of free people, and the memory of their lives in the colonial South soon grew dim. Fortunately, the Book of Negroes contains a record of the origins of each of these “loyalists,” and, with a great deal of diligence, their roots can be traced back to the southern plantations on which they were once enslaved.

Charleston native Ruth Holmes Whitehead has spent many years tracing the threads of these “black loyalists” back to the lowcountry of South Carolina. Having worked at both the Charleston Museum and the Nova Scotia Museum, Ms. Whitehead used her knowledge of the history of each community to plumb the silent names in the Book of Negroes and bring their stories of migration back to life. Many Canadians, especially those of the Maritime Provinces, are familiar with this important story; now it’s time for South Carolinians to catch up.

Want to learn more about this fascinating part of forgotten lowcountry history? You’re invited to join us at the Charleston County Public Library this week as we welcome Ruth Holmes Whitehead back to Charleston and celebrate the publication of her long-awaited book, Black Loyalists: Southern Settlers of Nova Scotia’s First Free Black Communities (Nimbus Publishing, 2013).

Time: Wednesday, November 6th 2013 at 3 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

Whitehead: Black Loyalists

Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 28 October 2013

Wetlands and Inland Rice Fields

Three centuries ago, early settlers and slaves began clearing cypress swamps and low-lying areas around Charleston County for what became an extensive network of inland rice fields flooded by a network of ditches and canals. The massive amount of labor required to clear these rice fields and to create their earthen embankments was staggering—rivaling the scale of the labor involved in creating the well-known pyramids of ancient Egypt. A century after these Lowcountry fields ceased to be used for rice, mother nature has reasserted herself and transformed them back into cypress swamps and forested wetlands. Many of us drive past or through these old rice fields during our daily commutes, but few look at the forests bordering our roads and remember the thousands of slaves who created and tended these fields and enriched their masters by harvesting Lowcountry rice. So how can you recognize and old inland rice field? Is there any way to preserve or protect this part of the Lowcountry’s landscape heritage? If you’d like to learn the answer to these and other questions, please join us at the Charleston County Public Library this Wednesday, October 30th, as we host historian Charles Philips of Brockington and Associates for an illustrated discussion of his recent field investigations of the remainders of inland rice fields in the Charleston Lowcountry.

“Inland Rice Fields of Charleston County”

Time: Wednesday, October 30th 2013 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.

Inland Rice

Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 21 October 2013

Butcher Town 2013

Halloween is a season for celebrating all things scary and grotesque, so what aspect of Charleston’s history might conjure appropriately horrific images? How about Butcher Town—Charleston’s movable feast of carnage and violence that was once an everyday part of our urban landscape. From the earliest days of our fair city in the 1680s until 1949, Charleston hosted a number of slaughter houses or butchering pens that daily dispatched all sorts of animals to feed the city’s human population. These abattoirs, to use the more elegant terminology, were historically clustered like a separate village around the creeks and inlets on the fringes of our residential neighborhoods. As the city gradually expanded northward, the location of “Butcher Town” crept up the peninsula until the industry was eventually forced out of Charleston for good. Although wholesale butchering doesn’t take place on the peninsula any more, the legacy of Butcher Town endures under many of the city’s streets and neighborhoods. After all, many, many tons of animal blood, guts, and bones were used to fill the low-lying areas of Charleston that we now call home. Want to learn more about Butcher Town and the gruesome details of Charleston’s slaughter houses? You’re invited to join Dr. Nic Butler, public historian at the Charleston County Public Library, for a free lecture on this curiously morbid topic.

“Butcher Town: The Slaughter Houses of Early Charleston”

Time: Saturday, October 26th 2013 at 1 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library, 2nd Floor Classroom, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at] or 843–805–6968.


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