On the edge of Summerville, South Carolina, alongside
the Ashley River, is the site of a town that no longer exists. Once
the home to merchants and craftsman, planters and traders, and freemen
and slaves, the town of Dorchester now exists only in historical
documents found in archives and in archeological remnants buried
in the soil. The town site is preserved by the South Carolina State
Park Service as Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site.
Dorchester was founded in 1697 by Congregationalist
settlers from Massachusetts. They set aside a small part of the
4,050 acres they received on the Ashley to serve as a trading village
for their farming community.
Its advantageous location helped Dorchester to thrive.
Roads nearby led to the capital city of Charleston and to the interior
of the colony. The Ashley River provided a convenient highway for
the shipment of bulky goods and produce. Sailing ships and dugout
canoes tied up at wharves jutting into the river to load and unload
cargoes. Deerskins traded by Indian tribes and rice and indigo grown
on local plantations passed through Dorchester on their way to Charleston
for eventual shipment overseas. Manufactured goods imported into
South Carolina were brought to the town for sale in shops.
The merchants who sold these goods and marketed planters'
crops had stores and homes in Dorchester. Some wealthy local planters
also owned homes in town, as did craftsmen who served the outlying
agricultural community. And black slaves, who provided the labor
that ran South Carolina's economy, also lived and worked in the
Dorchester remained a small town through most of
its hundred-year existence. In 1728 a local minister called Dorchester
"the Pleasantest spot of Ground in the Settlements," even
though only six families lived in the village. A soldier passing
through in 1780 described Dorchester as containing only "about
forty houses and a church." Most of the area's population,
free and slave, lived and worked in the countryside.
Dorchester's location made it a strategic military
site. Fear of a possible French invasion prompted the construction
of a powder magazine and fort in Dorchester in 1757. The invasion
never came, though, and the town apparently saw little activity
until the coming of the American Revolution in1775. Then, as South
Carolina and other colonies prepared to fight for independence from
Great Britain, the little town was transformed into a military depot.
American troops assembled in town. Public records were sent from
Charleston for safekeeping in Dorchester. After Charleston fell
to the British in May of 1780, Dorchester became an outpost for
British and Loyalist troops. As American forces advanced on the
town in December of 1781, the British finally evacuated Dorchester.
The town never recovered from the war, though, and was gradually
The reasons given by historians for Dorchester's decline
are many and varied. They range from the devastation wrought by
British and Loyalist soldiers to the malaria that plagued the swampy
area. As Dorchester was abandoned, it was succeeded by a new town,
Summerville, that developed close by on higher, better-drained land.
Bricks from buildings in the older town were even removed for use
in structures in the new town.
Archeologists and historians with the South Carolina
State Park Service are engaged in an ongoing effort to learn more
about life in the town and early South Carolina. Some of the historical
documents and archeological artifacts they've discovered are available
to you here. They will allow you to take part in the process of
discovery and draw conclusions of your own on the life and death
of a village that no longer exists.
The Market Square
A large rectangular open space in front of Dorchester's
riverside lots was set aside as the market square or green. A common
feature of New England villages, the green was incorporated into
the design of Dorchester by its Massachusetts settlers. They most
likely envisioned using this public space for a variety of public
uses, mainly as a site for the sale of produce and livestock raised
on their farms.
A law passed in 1723 probably brought additional
activity to Dorchester's market square. Recognizing that Dorchester
was still a frontier village at that time, the law established markets
and fairs for the village "for the better encouraging the settling
of the town." The markets would be held every Tuesday and Saturday.
Then people could buy and sell produce, cattle, and merchandise
"at the publick market place already assigned and appointed
for that purpose" between sunrise and sunset. Fairs would be
held twice a year, in April and October, and last four days. "All
sorts of cattle, horses, mares, colts, grain, victuals, provision
and other necessaries, together with all sorts of merchandizes,
of what nature soever" were to be sold at the fairs, following
the customs of similar fairs that had been held in England for centuries.
Sales of human property also took place in the market
square. Slaves, often advertised for their particular skills, were
frequently offered for sale along with other possessions such as
livestock, tools, and furniture.
Because of all the activity that took place on the
green, nearby town lots were probably considered very valuable as
potential business sites. When a merchant advertised the sale of
a lot facing the market in 1747, he took special care to note that
the site with its house and stores would be "convenient for
a Store-Keeper." Eight years later William Power advertised
his intention to open a store and tavern on Dorchester green.
The market square might have been the site where
local militia units assembled and drilled. A part-time military
force of able-bodied citizens armed and equipped at their own expense,
the militia was expected to supplement regular armed forces in emergencies.
When the "Gentlemen belonging to St. George's Troop" were
called in 1748 to meet "at the usual Place of Parade in Dorchester,"
it is possible that they assembled on the green.
During the Revolutionary War troops might have bivouacked
on the green. After the war, as Dorchester was gradually abandoned,
this once-open public space was gradually overgrown and its many
uses forgotten. Once again maintained as an open space, the green
gives visitors to Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site a sense
of the many public functions of the village.
The Fort at Dorchester
The fort at Dorchester looms up from a bluff overlooking
the Ashley River. It is the largest structure that still stands
from the colonial village of Dorchester and the best-preserved fortification
of its kind remaining in the United States.
In 1757 Great Britain and France were locked in a
war for control of the North American continent. In January of that
year South Carolina Governor William Henry Lyttelton warned the
colonial legislature that all of South Carolina would be in jeopardy
if Charleston, home of the colony's only powder magazine, were to
fall to an attack. Lyttelton concluded that "it appear'd that
the construction of another Powder Magazine, in some part of it
near the Centre, was indispensably necessary". The legislature
responded by appropriating funds for a fortified powder magazine
to be erected in the town of Dorchester.
The commissioners charged with oversight of South
Carolina's fortifications specified that the powder magazine would
be built of brick .They quickly decided that the walls enclosing
the magazine would be of another material, tabby. A concrete of
lime, sand, and oyster shell, tabby-also called tappy-was a cheaper
material than brick; unskilled laborers rather than trained bricklayers
could be employed in its use. A foreman skilled in tabby construction
was needed, though, to direct the work. The commissioners of fortifications
awarded the contract to oversee construction of the fort to local
planter John Joor. They fired Joor a little over a month later,
finding him "unacquainted with carrying on the Tappy Work at
Dorchester in a proper manner".
Work on the fort progressed from 1757 through 1760,
with local slaves providing most of the labor. The tabby mixture
was tamped into wooden molds called tabby boxes. The impressions
left by these boxes are still visible in the walls of the fort.
While local materials were used in the construction of the fort,
in design it was a simplified version of classic European fortification.
The walls formed a rectangle around the magazine, with sections
called half-bastions projecting from each corner. From these strong
points, soldiers could direct deadly fire down the length of adjoining
The feared French invasion never materialized. Dorchester's
fort and magazine, finished in 1760, apparently saw little use.
In his will, a planter named John Skene gave "to the Commissioners
of the Fortifications all my Great Guns for the Use of the Magazine
and Fort at Dorchester reserving to the Officers for the time being
of the St. George Troop of Horse the Liberty of Using them on any
publick day, especially on his Majesties Birthday, and the 23 of
With the coming of the Revolution, Dorchester was
transformed into a military outpost and the fort was to be made
capable of withstanding any sudden attack. Once again, the feared
attack never came. But when British forces took Charleston in May
of 1780, Dorchester became a British outpost. British and Loyalist
troops were finally driven out of the town late in 1781 as an American
force under Nathanael Greene advanced on the village .
After the war, the fort housed a tile yard, with
the magazine converted into a kiln for firing clay roofing tiles.
But like the rest of town, the fort was soon abandoned. Its history
was forgotten. Some people assumed it had been built by the Spanish,
and many asserted that it had been built to provide protection from
Indians. Locals eventually gave it the name "Fort Dorchester,"
even though it never had an official name while it was in use.
St. George's Anglican Church
A large brick tower is all that remains of St. George's,
Dorchester Church. It is a visible reminder of the religious life
of Dorchester and the religious divisions that existed in colonial
The church built by the Congregationalists who first
settled Dorchester stood on high ground about two miles from the
village alongside present-day Dorchester road. The promise of religious
toleration and the presence of other non-Anglicans probably helped
attract the Congregationalists to South Carolina in 1697. But soon,
political factions developed along religious lines, and the Church
of England became the established, tax-supported church of the colony
in 1706. Anglicans living in the area who wished to attend a church
traveled several miles down the Ashley to St. Andrews Church or
they attended the nearby Congregational meeting house. In 1717 local
Anglicans petitioned the legislature to create a new Anglican parish
in the area. St. George's, Dorchester Parish was the result, and
the site chosen for the new church was virtually in the center of
Dorchester. From their church, staunch Anglicans would oppose the
work of the "Dissenters," the non-Anglicans.
The original sanctuary of St. George's was a small
brick structure measuring only thirty feet by fifty feet. The poor
condition of the building and the growing flock of Anglicans soon
convinced Rev. Francis Varnod of the need for a new, bigger church.
The colonial legislature approved an act to build a new church in
1733, but only a year later the governing body passed another act
to simply "repair and new-pew the present church of St. George
parish in Dorchester, and make an addition to the said church."
(Letter of Varnod re repair of church) Renovations to the church
continued through the 1730s. By 1751, the bell tower had been added
to the church, making it the tallest structure in Dorchester. A
traveling minister described St George's in 1765 as "a very
handsome Brick Church, with a Steeple, 4 Bells, and an Organ."
St. George's Church was central to the lives of local
Anglicans. Many of the most important rituals of their lives were
conducted here under rituals prescribed by the Anglican Book of
Common Prayer. Infants were baptized in the church, couples were
married here, and the dead were buried in the cemetery just outside
the church walls.
St. George's Church was more than a religious structure.
It also served as a social and political enter for locals residents.
The free school established in the village had its origins in the
Anglican church. And because the church was such a large, imposing
structure, it was used for other purposes far different than those
it was meant to serve.
As Dorchester was being turned into an armed camp
for American forces at the beginning of the Revolution, a plan was
submitted for fortifying St. George's Church. Exactly how the church
was to be fortified remains a mystery, for the plan has never been
found. When British troops occupied Dorchester later in the war
they used the large church and damaged it before they evacuated
the village in December 1781.
The church was eventually repaired but, like the
town around it, was soon abandoned. Scavengers removed bricks from
the decayed sanctuary just as they took away bricks from other buildings
in town. An 1858 magazine article on Dorchester noted, "Rumor
says, they were afraid to touch the tower, because there was a chance
of its falling on them, and therefore it remains." The 1886
earthquake that devastated Charleston split the tower along its
height. For many years after, it was held together with iron straps
until it was repaired in the early 1960s.
Lots 74 - 79: The Vanvelson and Rousham Lots
Work that kept Dorchester functioning took place on
six adjoining pieces of land in the northern corner of the town,
lots 74 through 79. They were owned in the mid-1700s by Edward Vanvelson
and his son-in-law, James Rousham. Vanvelson was a tanner and shoemaker
and Rousham was a carpenter.
A tanner, a craftsman who turned rough animal hides into usable
leather, was an indispensable craftsman to a community of the 1700s.
Leather was needed to make shoes, clothing, harnesses, and other
items that were used every day.
Edward Vanvelson might have been plying his trade
at the site where an earlier tannery had operated. In 1732 a tanyard
in an unknown location in Dorchester, owned by a recently deceased
man named McColume, was offered for sale. A bridge crossing nearby
Dorchester Creek was known as McCollum's Bridge. This same bridge
was later called Vanvelson's Bridge.
Edward Vanvelson died sometime in 1748, leaving his
tanyard to his son Charles once the boy turned twenty-one, if he
decided to become a tanner like his father. If not, the property
was to be sold. Proceeds from the sale of Vanvelson's property were
to be used to support his children and grandchildren until they
turned fourteen. They were "then to be Bound out Apprentices
to trade untill they shall attain the age of twenty-one years."
Although Edward Vanvelson had mastered a craft, operated a business,
and acquired substantial property, including eighteen slaves, he
apparently never learned to write. He did not sign his name to his
will; he left a mark.
Among the children Edward Vanvelson provided for
in his will were the offspring of his daughter Catherine Rousham.
She was married to a carpenter named James Rousham, who owned lots
78 and 79 near his father-in-law's property. Rousham was in Dorchester
by the early 1730s. In 1732 he placed an ad in the newspaper requesting
information about his tools that had been stolen from a house in
Did Rousham thrive as a carpenter in Dorchester?
Available historical evidence doesn't allow us to make any definite
conclusions. In 1733 he mortgaged most of his house and most of
his personal property to secure a debt. In 1745 he was doing well
enough to own a small schooner, a six-ton vessel called the "House
Carpenter." The following year he offered for sale two slaves,
some livestock, buildings, furniture, tools, and a pew in St. George's
Shortly before he died, Rousham wrote a will in which
he left his two lots in Dorchester and all the structures on them
to his wife; the property was to pass to his daughters upon their
mother's death. His inventory, an item-by-item list and appraisal
of his personal property, shows the most valuable things in the
carpenter's possession: a slave, a light carriage called a "riding
chair," and a pew in St. George's Church.
Vanvelson's and Rousham's lots are not currently
accessible by the public and are overgrown with trees and shrubs.
Lots 17 and 18 - The Izard Property
In his 1706 will, a pioneer planter in the area named
Ralph Izard left two town lots in "Dorchester upon Ashley River"
to his son Walter. It is first known reference to lots 17 and 18
in a historical document, and it marks a prominent family's long
association with the properties. Four generations of the Izard family
would own these two lots; it was an association that would be broken
only by war.
Ralph Izard migrated to South Carolina from England
in the early 1680s and quickly became a prominent landowner and
politician in his new home. His son Walter established his family
near Dorchester. Like his father, Walter Izard was a wealthy planter
and landowner and played a strong role in the politics of the day.
When he was only in his thirties he was one of the largest slaveowners
in the parish, with a force of ninety-one slaves in 1726. Also like
his father, Walter Izard was a staunch Anglican. He was appointed
to the commission that created St. George's Dorchester Parish and
located the parish church in the center of the village. When Walter
Izard died in 1750, he left behind a huge estate which included
"two Lotts of land in Dorchester with my Dwelling house &
all other Improvements thereon." He willed the lots to his
The younger Ralph Izard transferred lots 17 and 18
to his brother John, who in turn bequeathed them to his daughter
Elizabeth. She would be the last Izard family member to own the
In 1769 Elizabeth Izard married Alexander Wright,
son of Governor James Wright of Georgia. When the Revolution broke
out in 1775, Alexander Wright remained loyal to the Crown. When
British troops moved into South Carolina in 1779, he joined them
and eventually served as a scout. For his actions in the war, Wright
was punished by the state of South Carolina. He was banished from
the state and all his property was confiscated. Among Wright's land
that was seized and sold were lots 17 and 18 in Dorchester.
Alexander Wright and his wife petitioned the British
government to compensate then for the property they had lost during
the war. Witnesses who spoke on the Wrights' behalf described the
house at Dorchester as a wooden house on a brick foundation that
had at one time been rented to a local doctor named Archibald McNeil.
The Wrights received only a portion of what they
claimed to have lost. Alexander Wright fled to Jamaica and never
returned to South Carolina. Elizabeth Izard Wright died in 1794
on a plantation not far from Dorchester.
In 1992 ground-penetrating radar pinpointed the foundation
of a large structure just beneath the surface on lots 17 and 18.
State Park Service archeologists and volunteers excavated portions
of the foundation in 1993 and 1994, uncovering the remains of a
large building that measured forty-three feet by thirty-five feet.
A central hallway divided the house into a roughly symmetrical arrangement
of four rooms per floor. Two chimneys provided heat for each room.
Archeologists concluded that the structure had been a wooden house
on a brick foundation, like the one described in the Wrights' loyalist
claim. There was no evidence of a major fire, but abundant evidence
indicated that bricks had been dug out of the foundation by scavengers.
Modern markers trace the location of the foundation walls discovered
on these lots.
A prime waterfront property in the colonial village,
lot 11 is often referred to in conjunction with the adjoining lot
12. Like many of the town lots, the history of lot 11 is incomplete.
It might have been lots 11 and 12 that Jeremiah Milner offered for
sale in 1738. Milner didn't identify the lots by their number. He
simply described them as "Two Lotts joining together in Dorchester-Town,
fronting the Bay, with 3 Dwelling houses, one Kitchen and Stable,
all under good Cypress saw'd Pales." When the map of Dorchester
was drawn in 1742, lots 11 and 12 were owned by a person named Charnock.
In 1762 Ann Charnock sold the two lots to John Thomson and James
Thomson and Hunter were business partners, operating
stores in Charleston and Dorchester. Even before they purchased
Mrs. Charnock's land they were running a store in the small town,
perhaps on the two lots they would later buy. After Thomson's death,
his surviving partner sold the two lots. John Joor bought lot 11
Merchant, planter, and landowner, John Joor amassed
his wealth through a variety of business ventures. At one time he
owned a schooner that could carry 90 barrels of rice. He was given
the contract for the construction of the fort at Dorchester-until
the Commissioners of Fortifications determined that he lacked the
necessary skill to oversee the tabby work and cancelled his contract.
On lot 11 in Dorchester Joor had a warehouse where local planters
could store their rice until it could be shipped down the river
to Charleston. He also owned a wharf nearby that ships could use
to load and unload their cargoes. Joor offered free use of the wharf
to ships that loaded rice into his warehouse; others had to pay
a fee. And he was making money off the land, growing rice and indigo
on his plantation just outside of Dorchester.
John Joor was a wealthy man when he died in 1772.
In addition to his plantation, there was lot 11 in the village,
complete with a house, a kitchen, and warehouses big enough to hold
four hundred barrels of rice. There were also several undeveloped
pieces of land, thirty-nine slaves, livestock, furniture, and "an
exceeding good PEW, in St. George's Church, Dorchester, situated
in the north ile." He was buried in the churchyard cemetery
at St. George's, next to a wife who had preceded him in death. His
will called for his estate to be sold with the proceeds divided
equally among his six children. Five years after John Joor died,
his executors were still trying to sell portions of the man's property,
including his rice warehouses on lot 11.
State Park Service archeologists examined lot 11
in 1992 and found something totally unexpected: the remains of a
brick-making operation. So far no historical documents have been
found that refer to this use of the lot.
Low tide reveals the remains of a log wharf that once
stuck out into the Ashley River at lot 8. It is all that is left
to indicate the river-borne commerce that once made Dorchester an
important trading center.
The 1742 map of Dorchester shows lot 8 belonging
to "Baker" and identifies the wharf running into the river
from the south end of the lot as "Baker's Wharf." Captain
Richard Baker was a prominent planter from a prominent local family.
He was the heir of Archdale Hall, a large plantation on the Ashley
south of Dorchester. He also owned several lots in the village,
including this one.
A house and kitchen stood on the lot, along with
a warehouse that could hold 1000 barrels of rice, the crop that
provided the surest path to wealth and social prestige in colonial
South Carolina. Once it was harvested, rice from local plantations
was shipped to villages such as Dorchester. Navigable rivers such
as the Ashley were the highways for the transport of rice and other
bulky cargoes. In Dorchester rice was stored in a merchant's warehouse
until it could be loaded aboard a ship bound for Charleston. There
it was placed in the hands of another merchant who shipped the crop
overseas on consignment for the planter.
Since he was wealthy enough to have his own rice warehouse,
Richard Baker did not have to pay local merchants any middleman's
fees for storing his rice before transporting it to Charleston.
Other planters who did not own warehouses, however, would have to
pay Baker or a local merchant for the privilege of storing their
crop until they could be loaded on an out-bound vessel.
And because Richard Baker owned a schooner, a two-masted
sailing ship used in the river trade, he could sell his harvest
directly to Charleston and avoid paying for the shipment of his
crop. Planters without boats would have to pay Baker or another
ship owner to take their rice to Charleston. Skilled slaves, valued
for their abilities as boat pilots and deck hands, might have been
members of the crew of Baker's schooner.
By the spring of 1748, Richard Baker was planning
to move to Charleston, perhaps because he was growing wealthier
and wished to live in the more affluent colonial capital. A little
over four years later, Baker was dead. What became of the prime
piece of Dorchester real estate called lot 8 is not yet known. Who
owned the lot and its wharf after Baker? How did they use it? We
don't know. What is certain is that lot 8 and other riverside lots
continued to be occupied and used. In 1772 lot 8 was advertised
for sale. At the time a woman was paying rent to live there.
The remains of Baker's wharf show how such structures
were commonly built in the village. A framework of notched logs,
assembled like a cabin, was built from the riverbank and filled
with dirt and rubble to create a solid surface where ships could
dock to load and unload.