Hugging the shore of eastern South Carolina, Little River still has the aura of a sleepy, fishing village.
It is one of the oldest settlements along the coast, with fishermen and farmers settling there in the late 1600s and 1700s. The wide tidal inlet, which narrows to a stream, was a cornucopia of fish and fertile land.
Indian tribes called the stream Mineola, meaning “little river” and that became its name.
Both pirates and shipwrecked survivors found this haven. The few settlers were forced to help pirates who demanded food and supplies; their weapons loudly spoke. Legends like Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, Stede Bonnette, and Anne Bonney supposedly dropped anchors here.
The village of Little River can trace its history back to 1734. It was then that a “young gentleman” from England recorded in his diary that he had stayed at Ash’s, or Little River, while traveling through the area.
In 1740, on his way to Savannah, Georgia, Rev. George Whitefield, an English Anglican preacher, apparently visited Ash’s inn also and wrote about his “pleasant journey” and how “wonderfully delighted to see the porpoises taking their pastime, and hear, as it were, resounding to shore the praises of Him Who set bounds to the sea that it cannot pass.”
The tavern where Whitefield and the “young gentleman” lodged was probably that of Thomas Ash. Ash received a land grant for 350 acres on June 19, 1733. It is believed that he operated an inn or halfway house (midway between Cape Fear and Winyah Bay).
Francis Marion (the Swamp Fox) had a brother, named Isaac, who settled in Little River in the mid-1700s with his wife and family. During the American Revolution, Isaac Marion maintained the “Boundary House” on the NC/SC border at the small hamlet of Little River.
President George Washington, on his southern tour in 1791, stopped in Little River. He entered South Carolina just north of Little River on April 27, 1791, where he stayed with the Revolutionary War veteran named James G. Cochran. Traveling the well-established coastal road, now known as the King’s Highway, he made his way south.
In his diary Washington stated, “In this tour I was accompanied by Major Jackson, my equipage and attendance consisted of a Chariot & four horses drove in hand – a light baggage wagon and two horses – four saddle horses besides a led one for myself and five – to wit – my Valet de Chambre, two footmen, Coachman & postilion.” The outriders wore bright livery of red and white which gave a touch of distinction to the procession. His carriage was described as a “white chariot.” (An impressive sight indeed!)
In 1826, Robert Mills, America’s first native-born trained architect, born in Charleston, SC, described the village of Little River: “There is another settlement made on Little river near the seaboard of about 25 persons, who carry on a considerable trade in lumber, pitch, tar, &c. … Little river admits vessels drawing 6 or 7 feet water up into the harbor, 4 miles from its mouth. There is a little difficulty at the entrance, but the harbor is perfectly safe from the effects of storms.”
The village became a prosperous port in the 1850’s, shipping fine lumber and naval stores to Northern markets. It had a sawmill, waterhouse, stores, school and bank. Several churches were organized and people built nice homes. The Civil War wiped out this progress. A large salt works produced much needed salt for the Confederate Army until it was burned by Union forces. Shipping and fishing were at standstill, with the coastal blockade.
In 1868 an Horry correspondent for The Marion (SC) Star [December 16] who signed himself Waccamaw wrote that Little River Village was “a flourishing commercial place, that bids fair to become of great importance in the industrial and commercial interest of Horry and of the adjoining counties in North Carolina. [It contained] four stores, one steam saw mill, two gum stills, one academy, church, no jail (!) and a curiosity, in a newfangled ‘Pinder Picking machine… Vessels of one hundred and fifty tons burden can come up to the village, and so make regular trips between this place and Northern cities, as well as to the West Indies. Waccamaw went on to describe the local food in a very favorable light by saying, “These [mullet], with the oysters, that were abundant, and the ducks, of which quite a number were killed, to appetites already good, and highly braced.”
The American Guide Series, 1938 tells an interesting story about Little River in the late 1800s. By then, seagoing steamers made regular runs between Georgetown, Little River and Wilmington, loaded with cargo and passengers. Sewing machines were something of a novelty in the South and greatly needed for family sewing. The few women who had machines would graciously invite friends and neighbors to share their use.
Summer afternoons found ladies gathered on wide porches, under sheltering oaks along the riverfront. The ladies might “piece quilts” or mend or sew for their families, taking turns to use the wonderful new Singer sewing machine. It looked like an old-fashioned “sewing bee.” Passengers on steamers coming into the harbor smiled and waved at the busy women, who happily smiled and waved back.
The influx of cars and roads severed the constant sea traffic into Little River, and now seafood restaurants bring in the travelers, along with opportunities for deep-sea fishing and charter boats. Two casino ships operate each day for further entertainment.
Twice this week at Little River, John and I have slurped up two seafood meals at Capt Juel’s Hurricane Restaurant.
A parade of boats entertained us. Those, on the restaurant deck, waved to the passengers on the boats’ desks. The water created a bridge for a sense of camaraderie, and no pirates decided to jump ship and detain us or our wallets.
W. B. Yeats wrote, “In the great cities we see so little of the world, we drift into our minority. In the little towns and villages there are no minorities; people are not numerous enough. You must see the world there, perforce. Every man is himself a class; every hour carries its new challenge. When you pass the inn at the end of the village you leave your favourite whimsy behind you; for you will meet no one who can share it. We listen to eloquent speaking, read books and write them, settle all the affairs of the universe. The dumb village multitudes pass on unchanging; the feel of the spade in the hand is no different for all our talk: good seasons and bad follow each other as of old. The dumb multitudes are no more concerned with us than is the old horse peering through the rusty gate of the village pound. The ancient map-makers wrote across unexplored regions, ‘Here are lions.’ Across the villages of fishermen and turners of the earth, so different are these from us, we can write but one line that is certain, ‘Here are ghosts.’ (“Village Ghosts”)”
Oh, those places of sanctuary in the villages where time moves like a snail.
These pictures of Little River will beckon us back again.