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Overview

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to merchants and craftsman, planters and traders, and freemen and slaves, the town of Dorchester now exists only in historical documents found in archives and in archeological remnants buried in the soil.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 village.

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 abandoned.

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 walls.

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 April."

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 South Carolina.

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 the village.

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 Church.

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 son Ralph.

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 property.

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.

Lot 11

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 Hunter.

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 in 1764.

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.

Lot 8

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.