Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church
Allow me to introduce myself. My full Christian name is Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church and I live in Georgetown. No, not the Georgetown of high-powered meetings and martini lunches that sits in the shadows of the White House. My residence is on the coast of South Carolina, about two hours north of Charleston and just south of Myrtle Beach. Few in our country know much about my hometown, but back in the eighteenth century this area was one of the richest places in the colonies. Today, I’m in poor health and in need of some expensive repairs, but before I get to that story, I’d like to share a few things about the area.
Long before the white people arrived, Native Americans lived here. They fished from the nearby ocean and rivers, hunted in the thick forests, ate the local berries and fruits. They were a nomadic people and lived in large family groups. Today, their names—Pee Dee, Waccamaw and Winyah—are affixed to a few of our state’s natural and man-made landmarks. By the mid-1600s, English and French outposts sprang up to facilitate trade with the natives. In another century, not much would remain of the native people or culture.
In 1706, the English carved South Carolina into ten parishes. Prior to that time, there was no “state religion,” people were free to worship as they wished. Long-oppressed Jews moved to Carolinas, as did the French Huguenots and Quakers. But the Church Act of 1706, by making the Church of England our state’s official religion, rolled back those early freedoms. In 1721, Prince George Winyah parish was established.
The English had high hopes for exploiting the riches of the Carolinas, and such expectations were realized when a 16 year old Charleston girl, Eliza Lucas, figured out how to cultivate indigo. The blue dye that can be extracted from the plant was in high demand in Europe. By the early 1760s, Georgetown and surrounding areas would ship more than a million pounds of indigo a year. Took a lot of labor to produce that much indigo. Took a lot of slave labor to be precise.
A few Georgetown folks got very rich.
So did a few folks who didn’t live in town.
Some of the most famous pirates in American history, included Blackbeard, lurked offshore, waiting for the next overloaded and slow moving merchant vessel to appear on the horizon. It is estimated that as many 2,000 pirates once worked the area.
As for my place in early Georgetown history, our state’s preeminent historian Walter Edgar writes, "the Prince Winyah parish church was the only public building of any significance."
In the latter part of the 1700s, indigo, due to a glut in worldwide supplies, became far less profitable. With our abundant rivers, rich marshy lands and low to no-cost labor, rice became our area’s next big crop. In 1850, Georgetown District produced 33% of our nation’s rice! Nearly all of this came from 91 planters who produced at least 100,000 pounds each. Life was very good, for some. The plantations along the Waccamaw River averaged between 200-500 slaves each. But when the Civil War freed the slaves and a series of hurricanes injected salt water into fresh, rice too, became less profitable. The era of the large plantation ended.
I’ve seen some comings and goings, that’s for sure. Even remember when President Franklin D. Roosevelt, wishing to escape the pressures of World War II, visited for a few weeks in 1944. Older folks in town still remember the black Cadillacs rolling through our city.
To visit today’s Georgetown is to step back to a simpler America. Much of our downtown area has been included in the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Many of those plantations still exist. In fact, the women of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church organize an annual event where it is possible to visit these otherwise private places. Some of these proceeds are set aside to pay for my future repairs.
As for me, I am now over 250 years old. I’d like to think I will be around for another 250 years, but I’m not sure. Some experts from Charleston came to visit and found out I have termites in the support rafters. The cost to repair the damage will be over two million dollars. That’s a lot of money, even if I lived in the other Georgetown. Still, like the members of the congregation, I have faith.