Formed far back in the depths of time, the result of the confluence of 4 rivers which bring water from as far away as the foothills of Appalachia, and named after a tribe of Native Americans which used to inhabit the area around the Black and lower Pee Dee Rivers, the area around Winyah Bay is one of the oldest European-settled places in North America, and arguably even the oldest. Yet despite the fact that humans have been here so long, Winyah Bay and its environs are one of the most unspoilt, naturally beautiful areas of coastline on the whole eastern half of our continent...
Winyah Bay is an interesting combination of natural habitats and diversity; a coastal estuary where fresh water rivers meet ocean-girdling salt marsh, where a drowned coastline hides behind the sanctuary of white sand barrier islands, the end point of the second largest river basin on the East Coast, a place where 4 rivers (the Waccamaw, Black, Pee Dee, and Sampit) join forces to battle the ebb and flow of 4 daily tides. Bordered on the north by the 17,000 acres of the Hobcaw Barony land trust, and to the south by the 63,000 acres of the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge, Winyah Bay is an area truly unto itself, and like no other.
The upper regions of the Bay are defined by the fresh water rivers which feed it; a mixture of black, tannic swamp water and muddy brown alluvial silt flows past the loblolly and longleaf pine trees which line its craggy, often undercut sandy banks. The upland animals live here; deer and squirrel and rabbit and turkey, denizens of the high grounds. As the rivers move closer to the ocean, those same banks have fallen and become grass-bearing mud flats, where islands of cypress and tupelo stand guard over the swaths of green which stretch as far as the eye can see. Down here in the sucking mud and high humidity are the swarms of mosquitos and yellow fly, the feral boar, the alligator and turtles and other life which thrives in a soggy land.
At the other end of the Bay, the nature of the great ocean which lays beyond the shore asserts itself far up from the entrance between North and South Islands. Twice daily the ocean spills over the bar and into the Bay, carrying in its salty, tidal water the seeds of future pelagic life, spawn of fish and crustacean and all manners of sealife vertebrate and invertebrate, taking them uphill and into the creeks and marsh grasses, to a place where they can grow to a point where survival at sea is much more assured than if it had had to stay in the trackless open of the deep blue. Twice daily also the sea rushes back, taking with it nutrients in the form of dirt and plants and all manner of floating detritus, taking it all back to the sea.
All of these things are timeless, events and facts and life which has been Winyah Bay since before man began to remember, and gave remembering the name of "history". History is defined by the people who keep it, though, and people have been in this area perhaps longer than any other in America. While Native Americans and their predecessors had probably lived in the Winyah Bay area for ~50,000 years, recorded history comes much, much later than that. Some evidence exists which points to the possibility that a Spanish settlement was present on the Waccamaw Neck (the thin peninsular sliver of land now known as the Pawleys Island area) as early as 1526, founded by people who later moved down the coast to establish what is now know as St. Augustine, Florida. If this band of Spanish settlers had persisted in the Winyah Bay area, the history of our country may well indeed have been far, far different from what it is now. That they didn't stay, however, led to the fact that it was almost 200 more years before settlement by Europeans in the area became permanent.
By the early 1700's, the port of Charles Town (now Charleston) had grown and developed to the point that English traders from there were pushing out and establishing new trading posts with the Indians in the Lowcountry areas to the south and north. These trading posts eventually became settlements as more Europeans came to live in the New World. It was in 1721 that a new parish officially named "Prince George, Winyah" was granted for the area now known as Georgetown and Winyah Bay, and the first permanent European settlers began to live in the area. By 1729, Georgetown had become an official city.
Much of the known history of the Winyah Bay area comes from after this point in time. Trading with Indians was a relatively short-lived prospect, and settlers soon learned how to use the fertile river delta lands around the 4 rivers of Winyah Bay to raise agricultural crops. Indigo, a plant used to create a beautiful deep blue clothing dye, was the main crop grown in the area, followed by rice as the second most grown crop. At the time, indigo was rare and much coveted by the wealthy, and due to this it was in high demand worldwide. From 1735 until the time of the American Revolution, indigo was such a high profit item that this area was one of the most wealthy in the entire world due to the industry created from growing and processing this plant.
After the American Revolution, however, rice became a more important commodity than indigo. The Lowcountry area around Winyah Bay was ideally situated with regard to both geography and climate for successfully growing rice on a large scale. The cultivation of rice is a labor intensive job - from the clearing of swampland for fields, to the creation and maintenance of a dike system for field flooding, to caring for, tending to, and harvesting the grain - and slavery is what made possible the tremendous rice plantations of the area and time. Rice was such a large crop in this area, that by 1840 the Winyah Bay area was producing nearly one-helf of the total rice crop of the United States.
The Civil War and resultant emancipation of slaves led to the decline of the rice culture, and by the turn of the century the growing and harvesting of rice as a money crop was mostly a distant memory. The last industry to largely use the land and waters of Winyah Bay was lumbering. Early in the 20th century, lumbering became the predominant industry in the area, and it remained that way until the Great Depression. After that time, Winyah Bay has become somewhat of a backwater, and pleasanty so - a place where some species of fish and shellfish are still collected commercially, but which otherwise has been allowed to rest from the encroachments of industry and mankind, and so today gives us all the blessing of seeing a large ecosystem healthy and vibrant, in a place that produces much in the way of life-giving nourishment of both body and soul.
Harvest Moon, a side-wheel steamer, was built in 1863 at Portland, Maine, and was purchased by Commodore Montgomery from Charles Spear at Boston, Mass., 16 November 1863. She was fitted out for blockade duty at Boston Navy Yard and commissioned 12 February 1864, Acting Lieutenant J. D. Warren in command.
Assigned to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, Harvest Moon departed Boston 18 February and arrived off Charleston 25 February 1864. Next day Rear Admiral Dahlgren made the steamer his flagship. After putting into Washington Navy Yard for repairs. Harvest Moon began her regular blockading duties 7 June 1864 off Charleston. For the next 9 months the steamer served off Tybee Island, the North Edisto River, and Charleston harbor. During this period she also acted as a picket and dispatch vessel as well as Admiral Dahlgren's flagship.
While proceeding in company with tug Clover shortly after 0800 on 29 February 1865 Harvest Moon struck a torpedo in Winyah Bay, S.C. Admiral Dahlgren, awaiting breakfast in his cabin, saw the bulkhead shatter and explode toward him. The explosion blew a large hole in the ship's hull aft and she sank in 2½ fathoms of water. One man was killed. The Admiral, and the crew, were taken on board Nipsic. Harvest Moon was stripped of her valuable machinery and abandoned 21 April 1865.
In 1963, nearly 100 years later, a project was initiated to raise Harvest Moon from the mud at the bottom of Winyah Bay and to restore the ship, but has made little headway.