Today we are going to set off on an adventure to explore one of the most special gems in the Lowcountry, Morris Island!
Hello Adventures! Today, we are going to be taking an adventure to a gorgeous location that is not only apart of our expeditions, but is also full of its own rich history, lore, and dare we even say it? Pirates! While we might not find any gold today, who says you might not on your next expedition out with us to the one and only Morris Island! While you can get to Morris Island in other ways, one of the best ways to explore this amazing and historic island is with Coastal Expeditions! Your trip will begin at our flagship location in Shem Creek at 514 Mill Street Mount Pleasant, SC 29464. The moment you step onto our boat, you’ll be transported away from the everyday hustle and bustle. Departing from our Shem Creek docks, you will enjoy a naturalist-led excursion while being surrounded by the natural beauty of the Lowcountry. You might even see some Eastern brown pelicans, bottlenose dolphins, and manatees! You will also get amazing views of the downtown skyline, Fort Sumter, the Ravenel Bridge, and much more.
Once you reach Morris Island, your Coastal Expeditions guide comes along with you to teach you how to spot fossils and shark teeth, and many other treasures. You are welcome to interact with them as much or as little as you want, they are an excellent resource to learn about the whole ecosystem around you! You will also have plenty of time to soak up the island, explore, and relax before we head back. It’s a very special and unique tour in Charleston, and you won’t soon forget adventurers! We are so excited for you to join our next expedition, have you signed up yet? Make sure to do so before all the tour spots fill up! Before we head out, you might want to learn a little more about this unique island, its history might make you love it even more!
The History of Morris Island
While today it is a protected and coveted island for naturalists and history buffs, it has a very rich, albeit bloody, history thanks to the Revolutionary War, Civil War, and pirates. The island sits at the mouth of the Charleston Harbor and is only accessible by boat. It is small, underdeveloped, and is constantly under threat and attack of becoming developed, and you can see its very famous lighthouse across the Lowcountry. While today it stands wild and continues to shrink due to erosion, did you know that it used to be home for many families and at least 15 buildings that included a school, barns, and homes?
The very first settlement in what is today modern-day Charleston was in 1670, and the first settlers arrived on what would become Morris Island in 1673. Before the 1800’s Morris Island was three separate islands until they silted in and created one large island. The very first lighthouse on the island was built in 1762 with orders by King George III and stood 42 feet tall, and stood until it was destroyed in the Revolutionary War. It was finally replaced in 1838 with a lighthouse 60 feet taller than its original. However, it too was destroyed during the Civil War. The Confederate army tore it down to prevent Union troops from using it as a lookout tower. Thankfully, it was replaced very quickly after the Civil War ended with the lighthouse that still stands today. This lighthouse was in operation between 1866 and 1963 when it was decommissioned and a brand new modern lighthouse was built on Sullivan’s Island. The final Morris Island lighthouse stands at 161 feet tall and was once accompanied by a stunning three-story home, both costing around $150,000 to build. Many families of the lighthouse operator lived in the home over the years. In 1880, the lighthouse stood 2700 feet away from the water, but by 1938 it was at the water’s edge, according to the Charleston Museum. The cause of this erosion was the jetties that were constructed at the entrance to the Charleston harbor. A very steady erosion began after they were built, displacing much of the island’s sand. Today, the lighthouse is its own island, standing about 1600 feet offshore.
Before the final lighthouse was built and much of the island eroded, the island played a very crucial role in the Civil War. On July 18, 1863, 650 African American soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers stood on the beach of Morris Island with 5 other Union regimens. Their goal that night was to overcome and take Fort Wagner. The 54th regimen was the first-ever African American unit that had been recruited in the north, and the very first to lead a major attack. The fate of the Civil War was going to hang on the outcome of this attack. If they could take Fort Wagner, it would drive a stake into the heart of what was left of the confederacy. If the Union army could take the fort, they could finally break through the harbor, take the city, and attack it by land. Thanks to the incredible bravery of the 54th, the Union Army finally took over the fort around 1 AM. It was an incredibly bloody battle with an extreme amount of casualties, but it led to a huge upswing of African Americans joining the fight. According to the Smithsonian, almost 180,000 African Americans would fight for the Union Army, and 21 would win the Medal of Honor.
Today a battle continues, but between that of historians and conservationists against land developers. However, the coalition that is still fighting strong to keep the island safe knows the fear of losing the island. It is considered one of the most important historical sites of the Civil War in the whole of South Carolina. If it would be flattened and built upon, all of its history and the legacy it holds would be lost. This would be a devastating blow to the historical blueprint of the area and the local ecosystem. Many believe, along with the numerous artifacts that the ocean has turned over in time, that it is hollow ground that needs to be excavated. Many believe that it is hollow ground, as it served as a grave for many fallen soldiers. Thankfully in 2008, the Trust for Public Lands bought the island on behalf of the city of Charleston to protect the island, its natural resources, and its rich history.
Myths, Ghosts, and Pirates
With such a gruesome and impactful history, it should be no surprise that the island and nearby Folly Beach has a few ghosts and ghost stories attached to them, here are just a few!
It is said that a soldier during the Civil War named Yokum, learned of six treasure chests buried on Morris Island from an elderly black woman who lived on the island at the time. No one took the treasure, she said, because a pirate’s ghost guarded them. The night before the famous attack on Morris Island began, Yokum and a friend went looking for the treasure. They began to dig, but a silent storm come upon them as they started. In a silent flash of lightning, Yokum and his friend saw the pirate standing and watching over them as they dug. As quickly as they saw him they ran away and never returned. Yokum wouldn’t tell his story until 50 years later.
The injured, sick, wounded, and dying were all brought to Folly Beach after the attack on Morris Island. Many of these soldiers who didn’t make it were buried in an unmarked grave, but no one knows just how many were buried there. Between the end of the Civil War and up until 1987, these unmarked graves would be discovered due to erosion and storms. In 1987, 14 unknown soldiers were uncovered, 12 of them were missing their skulls and other body parts.
The western side of Folly Beach was used as the convalescent and field hospital after the massive Morris Island attack, and many spooky things are heard there. Some have heard voices in their homes and yards, and some can even smell burning flesh in their kitchens from time to time.
In 1832, a ship named The Amelia that was headed to New Orleans from New York wrecked right off the coast near Folly. Instead of being helped, the 120 survivors were forced to fend for themselves on the island, due to rumors that some had Cholera. 20 of the survivors died and are said to haunt the island.
As we mentioned earlier, the island remains but is now only 840 acres. While it is very small to what it used to be, that doesn’t mean its history or its story isn’t important. It’s a stunning piece of land that captures the unique and beautiful ecosystem of the Lowcountry, and it also holds the history of some of the most daring, brave, and important battles of the Civil War. As time naturally erodes this barrier island away, we strive to help fight for its protection, the lighthouses’ protection, and to save the island altogether. Are you ready for your next adventure? Morris Island is waiting for you, and it needs you to know and feel its stories so you can help preserve it, save it, and make sure it is never forgotten. Until next time adventurers, don’t be afraid to go looking for gold, you never know what you might find!