Slavery existed. And so did efforts to escape it.
In acknowledgment of these truths, the National Park Service has been working for some time to share the legacy of the Underground Railroad in America. And within the past decade, nine sites in South Carolina have been recognized on a national level for their connection to the resistance to enslavement.
Although its name may suggest it, there was no train and no railroad. The Underground Railroad refers to the efforts of enslaved African Americans to escape bondage and gain freedom.
The Park Service has used its Network to Freedom program to collaborate with government entities, individuals and organizations to promote and preserve this history of resistance. More than 695 locations in 39 states have been recognized by the service for their verifiable connection to the Underground Railroad.
Since 2020, three sites in South Carolina’s Lowcountry have been added to the network.
Seizure of the Planter Marker (2021)
Robert Smalls is a familiar name to many in the Lowcountry. And his story plays an integral part in Charleston’s rich history.
During the Civil War, Smalls, an enslaved man in Confederate Charleston, seized the 149-foot transport ship the Planter from a dock near The Battery and sailed it to freedom with his family and several other enslaved people onboard.
A marker in front of the Historic Charleston Foundation said Smalls and six enslaved crewmen took the vessel before dawn when its captain, pilot and engineer were ashore.
“They had been thinking about escaping for a while,” said Sheri Jackson, a program manager for the Network to Freedom. “And so they chose this opportunity. They left early in the morning, and they kind of just sailed out of the Charleston Harbor.”
Smalls delivered the Confederate boat to the Union blockade squadron. He became the first African American skipper of a United States-flagged ship when he was made captain. Smalls later became a congressman and represented South Carolina during Reconstruction.
Stono Slave Rebellion at the Elliot and Rose Plantations (2021)
The Caw Caw Interpretive Center in Ravenel is located on the site where the former Elliot and Rose plantations once stood. They both were listed on the Network to Freedom for their relationship to events surrounding the 1739 Stono Slave Rebellion.
During this time, a group of men and women from Africa decided to leave the Elliot and Rose plantations and head south to St. Augustine, Fla.
“The Spanish said, ‘Hey, if you can make it to St. Augustine, you’re free,’ ” Jackson said.
The terms of the agreement were that the enslaved people had to convert to Catholicism and serve in the Spanish military once in St. Augustine.
It is believed that the freedom-seekers robbed the Hutchenson Store along the banks of the Wallace River for arms, ammunition and other supplies for their journey. They killed the shopkeeper and apparently walked back toward Charleston to “Mr. Godfrey’s plantation” to kill him and his daughter before marching southward, according to Thomas Thornton, the Caw Caw Interpretive Center facility manager.
Thornton said that before noon, the group ran into colony Lt. Gov. William Bull and his party. They rounded up the militia and were battling by noon near the Edisto River. It was all over by nighttime.
“There’s an account that says that a lot of the freedom fighters were beheaded and their heads were put on pikes back to the road into Charleston to be scary,” Thornton said. “And several people escaped for several years before they were caught.”
As many as 100 people were involved in the rebellion by the end. A lot of accounts say 40 to 50 enslaved people were killed. Others that could prove they were sort of “pressed into” the rebellion were pardoned, Thornton said.
The Stono Slave Rebellion increased fears of slave uprisings among White people, leading to the establishment of stricter slave codes.
The Elliot and Rose plantations are the only formally documented Stono Rebellion sites, and that history weighs heavily in interpretations at the Caw Caw Interpretive Center. Thornton said the center interprets the rebellion as a watershed event that changed the face of American slavery and the way the colony functioned socially and politically.
Four Holes Swamp (2020)
Four Holes Swamp was believed to be a place of refuge for freedom-seekers. The swamp is located within the Francis Beidler Forest in Harleyville.
Researchers believe enslaved people used the forest as a corridor for travel and a place to build encampments. But much of the history still needs to be uncovered, according to Matt Johnson, director of the Audubon Center at Francis Beidler Forest.
Johnson said he believes freedom-seekers took advantage of the abundance of natural resources available in the swamp, including food and plants.
“I think there were multiple different kinds of uses (for the swamp), from just being here for a day or two to staying for longer periods of time, or sometimes just as a way of travel,” Johnson said.
Today, the forest and swamp look basically the same way they did for freedom-seekers hundreds of years ago. An elevated, 2-mile boardwalk is there now, but the forest has never been logged and still contains 1,000-year-old trees that may have been touched by Native Americans and people who were enslaved.
“To me, it’s really interesting because we do have that ability today to see a landscape that looks as it would have looked to people on the Underground Railroad,” Johnson said.
Being listed on the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom is just one step toward what the Audubon Center wants to do more of: telling a more complete history of the land.
“It’s an important piece of history in South Carolina,” Johnson said. “We want this to be something that people know about. And I think the use of swamps and other wetlands as places of refuge is not as well known.”
Audubon has installed temporary interpretative signage along its boardwalk that shares some of the stories of the forest’s relationship to the Underground Railroad. The organization is working on something more permanent by the end of the year.
Other sites listed on the Network to Freedom include Brattonsville in McConnells; Robert Smalls’ Burial Site in Beaufort; Hampton Plantation in McClellanville; and the Heritage Library, Fort Howell and Mitchelville on Hilton Head Island.
There are likely several other sites in the state that are connected to the Underground Railroad. But to be recognized by the National Park Service, the site must be nominated by an individual or entity, and an application must be submitted. Applications are accepted twice a year, by Jan. 15 or July 15.
Because of the program, many people are looking at the Underground Railroad in so many different lights, Jackson said. They are people who are studying geography, water routes, written materials and even advertisements.
“So we’ve started a conversation about looking at the Underground Railroad differently,” Jackson said. “It’s more than just going 3 miles and spending a night in somebody’s house. A lot of people were involved.”
There is a need to preserve the places connected to the Underground Railroad, and the Park Service hopes an official designation on the Network to Freedom could be a step toward that direction.