By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Photo Credit: Lloyd Wainscott
The common thread in the stories of Hilton Head’s first families is that most of the stories are interwoven with images of lives defined by a love of community, and a love and respect for the simplicity of island life. All of the families embody the value of hard work and their stories show a determination to survive against incredible odds.
The families that were here before the bridge survived because they developed the skills and talents they needed to survive, and they used all the natural resources that were available to them. They were isolated from the mainland, but physical isolation did not deprive them of lives that were rich and full.
The Stewart family is both unique, and representative of typical Native Islander family life before the bridge, and their story incorporates several facets of island life and shows a common theme. Everyone worked hard, and everyone had a traditional role to play; the men farmed and fished and the women took care of the family, quilted and made sweet grass baskets.
Cora Lee Stewart, the strong, yet gentle matriarch of the family, was known for her expert sewing skills and the beautifully intricate quilts that she made by hand. For the women, “evenings were spent sitting around talking and sewing, she was very handy with a needle,” says granddaughter, Frances Stewart Allen. Cora Lee spent her evenings quilting, but she spent her days working at the oyster factory so she could save enough money to by the family land. “Before she died, she made a quilt by hand for each of the grandchildren,” said Frances.
Cora Lee’s family remembers her strength and character. They remember her slow, and deliberate way of walking and the way the ocean breeze, caused her skirt to sway gracefully. But that easy-going manner changed when she walked into the yard to find a chicken for the night’s meal. She would call out, “here chick, chick, chick,” and suddenly, in a single motion, Cora Lee would reach down, grab a chicken by the neck, and expertly swing the chicken in a large arc breaking its neck.
“I remember that those chicken dinners were the best ones that I ever had,” says Frances.
Cora Lee’s husband, Charles, was the head of his family, and one of the community’s religious leaders. As a founding member of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, he served as a deacon whose dedication and service continues to be remembered.
Charles instilled strong values in his children, and he taught them important life skills. Foremost among them is that respect for the water is as important as learning how to fish. His sons, Henry, Arthur, Benjamin and Washington became experienced fisherman who learned to make a living off of the water in boats that were named after each of their wives.
For the Stewarts, and most of the male Native Islanders, survival meant living off the bounty of the land and sea. Developing the skills needed to fish and navigate the waters was how they were able to put food on the table, and earn a living to support the family. The Stewart family was different, because however, and one of Charles’ sons, Arthur Stewart, turned fishing the family business that served the needs of the community, and his wife, Isabel worked alongside him as a deckhand. This was unusual because, in those days, most native islander women were not taught to swim or fish.
Quiet and reserved, Isabel down-played her unique role in the family and on the island. Isabel demonstrated her strength of character by working on the boat during the day, raising eight children, and taking care of her home.
Her days usually began at 3:00 AM when she cooked for everyone on the boat. This meant cleaning the shrimp, shucking oysters and occasionally “holding the wheel.” She spent 12 hours on the water, and after taking care of her family, she usually got only a few hours’ sleep, before starting her day all over again. “Sometimes I would go to sleep at 2 am. It was a lot, but I did what needed to be done,” said Isabel.
Sometimes the entire family was put to work either out on the shrimp boat or back on shore. Once the boats docked, bringing in almost 300 pounds of fish per boat, they sold their day’s catch to waiting customers in Port Royal and Daufuskie or from the shrimp house that they had set up behind their house. “Shrimping was the best money that you could make on the island,” says Arthur.
There was a time when fish was plentiful, and Arthur’s brother Washington, also a fisherman, would come home with “wheelbarrows full of fish and shrimp” according to his wife, Margaret. She shared stories about the dangers of being a fisherman, and recounted one day that Washington was adrift on the water for over six hours because of engine problems. When he did not return as usual, she asked Arthur to search for him. Eventually, the two brothers returned safely. Her story shows that regardless of your skill level, being on the water can be dangerous, one of the values of the island community, is that its members took care of each other.
Even though we can still look out on our local waters and see the occasional trawler harvesting its catch for the day, most islanders don’t depend on the water for a living anymore. Today, people are more likely to take a leisure boat trip or spend a day fishing for sport.
After the bridge, these simple lifestyles changed dramatically. The Hilton Head Fishing Co-op dissolved, and people adjusted their lives to a new reality. Life is more complex, but certain things remain intact: a sense of community; a love of family, and an undying love for the land and the sea.
Addendum 2020: The land that the Stewart Family has lived on for over 150 years lays adjacent to a proposed roadway widening project. The family and the community are fighting to prevent them from being displaced.
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