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Purrysburg marker and a web site

Another web site about the town marker

Purrysburg Cemetery.

The founding of Purrysburg

Upon a low bluff overlooking the Savannah River near Hardeeville, stands a marker of stone marking the site of old Purrysburg. The cross-shaped monument was erected in the 1940's by the Huguenot Society of South Carolina.


Not far away is the Purrysburg cemetery; quite expansive and still in use by the community. The Humbert, Ferebee, and Strobhar burial plots, which are Purrysburg-connected, lie a few miles north. In the latter-named, the oldest tomb is dated 1781.

In 1732, Colonel Jean Pierre Purry, of Neufchatel, Switzerland, persuaded the British government to subsidize a Swiss migration of 600 colonists to Carolina. Protestants, having fled religious persecution, agreed to come and to settle on the Savannah River. They were to build up a commercial town; to make hemp, indigo, cotton, silk and wines for export, and to defend the frontier from possible attack by the Spaniards of St. Augustine. The experiment seemed ill-fated from the beginning. The first Alpine newcomers, arriving in 1733, found the Indians friendly. But they had reckoned without the sweltering climate, the low-lying terrain, and the disease-bearing insects whose menace to mankind was not yet known. Scores died in the first months, and "agues and violent fevers" sapped the strength of those who tried to stick it out. Many were forced to move to other locations, when their township lands were encroached upon in violation of the agreement with Purry. (A small post office four miles below Ridgeland bears the name "Switzerland" today, indicating a second community effort by these hardy folk to put down roots. By industry and thrift some of them managed to prosper, later becoming prominent landowners and rice planters.)

These original Swiss-French and German colonists had been people of some means and literacy in their homelands. However, their grim struggle to survive in the strange surroundings hindered the retention of much interest in culture. The later shiploads of Swiss fared little better. The tragic story of the earliest corners is best told in letters and diaries of pastors on the scene. Two German pastors of the Austrian Salzburgers, who settled across the river at Ebenezer in Georgia, mention "Purysburg" or "Purrisburg" frequently, and sometimes quite disparagingly. Pastor Johann Martin Boizius, of Ebenezer, writes in 1734:

"Pastor Gronau sent to Purrisburg and found three families belonging to the evangelic Lutheran church. They think us fortunate to have our own pastors. Not so long ago they told of having had a French student as a pastor, but as he, they said, led a rather sinful life and got entangled in bad dealings, they discharged him and so were without a pastor . . . they have expressed again their desire that one of us would come to them and administer Holy Communion.

"Last night came three people of Purysburg after they had been lost for two days and had suffered a great deal with thirst. They knew not they were near us, fortunately the sound of our singing during evening prayer meeting reached them and they were guided by it.

Pastor Israel Christian Gronau noted the lack of education for the Purrysburg children, since many preachers and teachers had died. He recorded the efforts of "Mr. Pury" to supply a pastor, and the language difficulties when one was secured. Intermarriage was now occurring between the settlements divided by the river, to the deep concern of the rigid Salzburger divines. Pastor Boizius says, "Rauner came to me and confided that he would like to marry a widow from Purysburg and wanted my advice. I wrote to a good and pious man there and inquired of the character and past life of the woman. Schweiger's bride is the daughter of a school teacher who died soon after his arrival in Purysburg." Marital situations often became so involved as to defy solution by these pious, conscientious men. In 1736, Bolzius reported that it was difficult at times to decide whose wife a woman was.

"One of these women came to me and asked for advice should she return to her former husband, which she was very willing to do. I advised her against it-as it appeared that the man had willingly departed and she having married another. Should there be a prosecution she might stand the chance of punishment for bigamy."

Although considering the Purrysburgers somewhat wild and dissipated, the good Georgia pastors took in their orphan children, treated their illnesses, buried their dead, and chided them for rum-selling. As for members of their own flock, excommunication befell the Lutherans right and left for "being drunk in Purysburg." If a Swiss was accepted in the Georgia colony, he must "leave his old acquaintances and bad friends behind. . . and not to have them come over for rowdy visits to Ebenezer." Physical hardships in the Carolina colony are taken into consideration, however. "Kiefer. . . and his whole family are suffering from the fever. . . . Following a terrible cloudburst the land of Kiefer across from us is 'man high' inundated. . . he will send four of his girls to our school." No less a person than John Wesley deplored "the poor of Purrysburg. His journal recounts details of his trip from Savannah, and his overnight stop in "Purrisburg," on his laborious journey to Port Royal. ". . . O how hath God stretched over this place 'the lines of confusion, and the stones of emptiness!' Alas for those whose lives were here vilely cast away, through oppression, through diverse plagues and troubles! O earth! how long wilt thou hide their blood: How long wilt thou cover thy slain?"

Ten years after Wesley's visit, St. Peter's Parish was formed to include the township, and the settlers finally completed a church. Rev. Abraham Immer, who was Purrysburg's pastor in the 1760's, writes that nearly all the people were extremely poor.

The original settlers, he reports, "shine with a sufficiently ample knowledge. They excel in a deep and solid sort of piety; but the younger ones, in the deepest darkness of ignorance, rarely show forth works from which true and wholesome faith is apparent. Nor could this in any way be expected to be otherwise. He goes on to explain that the proper teachers had not been available. My ability to preach in both French and German is my welcome, especially to the Germans, who got nothing from my French predecessors. I teach the young three times a week, few of the French or English and none of the German youths being able to read. A wandering schoolmaster knowing only English taught here eight or nine months, charging twelve pounds currency for each little girl or boy; but many are so poor that they prefer to neglect their children rather than their property. Bibles are scarce. French or German ones would be preferred."

Rev. J. Adam de Martel gave no better account to the Bishop of London in 1769. "The heat here in Purrysburgh is terrible. The only food is as bad. The only liquor is rum, for drinking which in excess many die. My parish is about 200 miles in circuit, and houses ten miles apart. . . . Many of the inhabitants of this country seldom see anybody at their habitations: it is the cause they are almost savages. Some have but very little religion, some none at all, the most part are what is called Anabaptists. My time is entirely taken up. Sometimes I am fasting since the morning till the night."

Since climatic conditions proved adverse to the crops planned in the beginning, the colonists had taken to cattle-raising at which many did well. However, silk culture with the attendant mulberry tree-planting continued in the township until after the Revolution. In 1772, old manuscripts state that these industrious Swiss, despite depletion of their numbers by illness and hardships, exported through "Charles-town" 455 pounds of raw silk.

During the Revolution, Major-General Robert Howe fled with the remnant of his forces from Savannah to Purrysburg, after Georgia was taken by the British. When Howe was replaced by General Benjamin Lincoln, there was a period of watchful waiting on the Carolina side, to see just where the British would strike. Later, Lincoln was replaced by Moultrie. Ramsey's "Revolution in S. C." gives this terse account of the militia's abandonment of the place, when Charles-town was threatened: "Having retreated from Black Swamp, and learning that the enemy had crossed at Two Sisters Ferry, Moultrie marched to Coosawhatchie. Col. McIntosh, posted at Purysburg, marched to join him that night. Both retreating and invading forces concentrated toward Charles-town."

President Washington, completing his trip through the state, mentioned crossing the Savannah River near Purrysburg. Possibly the actual site was Beck's Ferry. It is certain that he made a stop at the township settlement. The story goes that, despite hardships, depletion and reverses, these partisan Swiss presented him with a beautiful gold watch.   Purrysburg as a village disappeared in the 1830's, but the river landing was destined to remain in use throughout another war. Confederate regiments were established in training camps nearby, early in the War Between the States. Old letters are in existence today, written by a young officer, Oliver P. Bostick, to his relatives at Black Swamp, and headed, "Camp Lee No. 2 at Purysburg." Extracts from several of his missives during 1861 and 1862 describe the life in camp:

"We drill twice every day. Our morning drill comes on at 10 o'clock and lasts till 12, evening from 3 1/2 o'clock to 4 1/2 . . . tell Cousin Harriet that Henry left Hardeeyule with a part of his company today for Port Royal Ferry, their destination will be Beaufort so I understand from two of the company. . . . [already, Hilton Head was in possession of Union forces] . . . We hear cannonading more or less every day . . . the Yankee fleet was off the bar; seeing the light supposed that our army was in possession of the island and that they would shell them out but they were mistaken as there was no person on the island, and all their firing was in vain. . the forces have had several engagements with the Yankees-the largest skirmish was at Port Royal; 2000 of our men whipt 3500 Yankees and ran them at the point of the bayonet back to their boats. Our loss was eight men killed and 1 wounded-I do not know what the Yankee loss was. I do not know when I will get home as our squads are broken up for the present."

Strife and violence were rampant throughout the section during Reconstruction days, but by then the town was only a memory. The late Pierre Robert of Robertville wrote for the Hampton Guardian in 1879 a series of articles on trips up and down the Savannah River. He called these features "Memorials."

"Another mile takes us to the site of old Purrysburg today scarcely ruins enough remain to show where it stood, tho quite a quantity of ranging timber, steamboat wood and turpentine is still shipped from its wharves. . .

Fifty or 60 years ago a large flat was converted into a steamboat by one of the enterprising citizens of Purrysburg. It was called the 'Cotton Plant', and ran regularly for a long time from Savannah to Purrysburg up one day and down the next. If all the vessels of every description, ever built, were moulded into one and came flying into Charleston today, it would not create more wonder and amazement than the 'Cotton Plant' did to the good people of Purrysburg and the surrounding country. . . . Purrysburg has always been noted for the large number of sturgeon caught opposite the town.

Compared to other townships more fortunately situated, perhaps the Purrysburg experiment was a failure. But if it were so considered, how is one to explain the roster of distinguished names it furnished for the pages of history? Among these are Brabant, Henry, Bourquin, DeSaussure, DeTreville, Huguenin, Strobhar, Verdier, Humbert, Holtzendorff, Dominick, Mingledorif, LeBorde, Gourdin, and others. English settlers came later to the locality, and beside the Swiss names, Zant, Brebner, Buche, Kieffer and Keller in the old cemetery one finds Blake, Raymond, Jones and Cooper.

And some names of these Swiss, French and German silk-makers are still borne by numerous residents of Jasper County. They include: Maurer (modern spelling, Moorer), Kieffer, and Malphrus. An old tradition is that whenever a Malphrus moved, he made sure that his mulberry tree moved with him, as a memento of the ancestral occupation at Purrysburg. Perhaps it served as a reminder of perseverance through grim, colonizing experiences, even as it served a practical purpose; for children, as well as silkworms, have an affinity for the tree with the tart, sweet fruit.

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Copyright ©2012, The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Rowland, Moore, and Rogers, USC Press 1996.