Hurricane History - beach palm trees
Friday, February 10, 2017 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Recently [in early October 2016] we had a visit from a Category-one storm named Matthew. Fortunately, Matthew caused more disruption than damage in the Lowcountry. Some folks did sustain significant damage to their property, and a few lost their lives, but, by and large, most of us weathered the storm with few complaints. In the wake of such a storm, we all tend to commiserate and tell ourselves “it could have been worse.” Invariably, we share memories of past storms and make comparisons. Matthew’s winds were stronger than those of Gaston in 2004, for example, but the evacuation went much smoother than with Floyd back in 1999. But can we reach farther back in history, to make comparisons with hurricanes from centuries past? The answer isn’t easy, but it’s definitely worth the effort. If you’re searching for eyewitness accounts of these storms, there are surviving government reports, personal letters, newspaper descriptions, and back in 2006 Walter J. Fraser published a good book on this topic called Lowcountry Hurricanes.

We use the term “hurricane” to describe large cyclonic or rotating storms that form within the tropical latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean during the warmest months of our solar year. These “western hemisphere tropical cyclones,” as meteorologists call them, usually form off the west coast of Africa, near the Cape Verde Islands, and are thus sometimes called “Cape Verde” storms. In Charleston’s past, writers used the term “hurricane” along with similar phrases such as “violent storm,” or “ferocious gale.” For a brief while in the Victorian era, Charlestonians seemed to prefer the term “cyclone” rather than hurricane, but don’t be confused; the “cyclone” of 1885 was most definitely a hurricane when it smashed the high battery in Charleston.

The term “hurricane” is derived from the Spanish word hurricán, which in turn is derived from Juracán, the storm-god of the Carib or Taíno people, the indigenous population of the Caribbean islands. Since time immemorial the Taíno people have known about the annual season that brings fierce and destructive storms, and they appealed to the storm god, Juracán, in an effort to quell his wrath.

European mariners first learned about this annual storm season in the 1490s, with the earliest transatlantic voyages of Spanish explorers. By the time the colony of Carolina was established in 1670, European mariners were well attuned to the dangers of sailing through the Caribbean Islands during the summer and early autumn. They often planned their voyages so as to avoid arriving in or departing from tropical latitudes or the south Atlantic coast during the months of August, September, and early October. It was always safer to avoid the hurricane-prone areas, but if that wasn’t possible, then riding at anchor in a port like Charleston was considered safer than being on the open ocean when a big storm appeared.

In the 346 years since the founding of the Carolina colony in 1670, this area has experienced more than 30 significant storms. That’s an average of about ten years between memorable storms. It’s very difficult to compare or rate the strength of these historical storms because we lack specific data to compare such characteristics as wind speed, storm surge, and barometric pressure. Officials in Charleston began recording such meteorological data in the 1850s, but we really don’t have detailed measurements of hurricanes until the early twentieth century.

The current system of describing the strength of hurricanes, called the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, was developed in the early 1970s. Thus the idea of rating the strength of storms on a scale from one to five is thus a relatively new tool, but it’s possible to look back at descriptions of historic storms and make conclusions about their strength using this modern scale. For example, the hurricane that hit Charleston in mid-September 1752 might have been a strong category three storm, or perhaps a four. We simply don’t have sufficient data to be more precise.

According to our modern National Weather Service, hurricane season officially begins on the first day of June and continues to the last day of November. The mid-point of this season is the first of September, and that’s the beginning of the most common time for the arrival of the strongest storms. Charleston’s most significant storms have historically arrived between the latter half of August through the first half of October. More precisely, the worst storms in Charleston’s long history have arrived around the middle of September. At the time I’m recording this, we’re at the middle of October, and it looks like we’re probably in the clear for the rest of hurricane season. But then there’s next year, and the dangerous season starts all over again.

Rather than dwelling on the danger of future storms as yet unborn, let’s turn our attention backwards, to the distant past, and take a survey of the most memorable storms in Charleston history.

The early European settlers of South Carolina experienced their first significant storm in mid-September 1686. The only information we have about this storm comes from official reports sent home to England, and they contain very few descriptive details. Considering how few people and houses there were here, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at the lack of details. Eyewitness reported that a furious storm slammed into Charleston at daybreak on September 5th (that’s September 15th on the modern Gregorian Calendar). High winds stripped the wooden shingles from houses and toppled trees into the streets. The storm surge, arriving near high tide, overflowed the Cooper River waterfront and flooded the streets, driving many sailing vessels onto high land. In town and in the surrounding countryside, people as well as animals were drowned and injured by flying debris, but we have insufficient data to determine the extent of the casualties.

The storm was certainly a cataclysmic event for the nascent colony, but there was also a silver lining to this story. Fortunately for the us, the arrival of the hurricane in 1686 coincided with the arrival of a small fleet of Spanish forces from St. Augustine who sought to attack South Carolina and to drive the English out of the country. After burning and looting on Port Royal Island, Edisto Island, and Wadmalaw Island, the Spanish fleet was about to set sail for Charleston when the sudden arrival of the powerful storm smashed their ships and foiled their plans. The storm of 1686 may or may not have been the most powerful hurricane to ever hit this coast, but it was very definitely a significant storm in a cultural sense, because it contributed directly to the preservation of South Carolina. To the early settlers, the miraculous appearance of this hurricane to destroy their enemies provided ample proof that some heavenly power looked kindly on the infant colony.

The hurricane of mid-September 1700, sometimes called the “Rising Sun” hurricane, is the first storm for which we have several narrative descriptions from eyewitnesses in Charleston. Even without technical data of the wind speed and storm surge height, these descriptions give us a graphic picture of the extensive damage that occurred. In a letter to his wife in England, a newly-arrived colonist named Edward Hyrne described the scene vividly:

“On Tuesday Septemb: 3d [that’s September 14 on the modern Gregorian calendar] here happened a most terrible Storm of Wind or Hurricane wth continual Rain; wch has done great Damage to ye Country. Thousands of Trees have been torn up by ye Roots; many Houses blown down & more damnified; much Rice Corn &c. spoiled, but ye greatest Mischeif fell amongst ye Shipping of which about a Dozen Sail (of all Sorts) were riding at Anchor before ye Town, some of wch were driven on Shoar & broke all in Pieces, some were carryed a great Way up into the Marshes & One (a Brigantine of about 80 Tons) driven clear over ye Point of Land wch parts ye Two Rivers into Ashley River [that is, over what is now White Point Garden], in her way breaking down a Pair of Gallows on wch 8 Pirat[e]s at once were hanged since my com[i]ng here)[.] Some [vessels] were turn’d Bottom upwards & lost. [Captain] Bell lost all his Masts & was turn’d Bottom upwards, but they have got her to rights again, & I believe she will be ye next Ship for England. . . . Being Spring Tides ye Water was very high & raging, so that if ye Wind had not shifted as it did about 2 Hours before high-Water, it is thought the best & greatest part of ye Town would have been washed down into ye River, as One or 2 Houses were & others very near.”[1]

At the same time that Henry Hyrne was writing to his wife, the legislative Council of South Carolina was writing a letter to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina in London. In their letter, they described the fate of a Scottish ship carrying refugees from the failed Scots settlement of Caledonia, or Darien, in what is called Panama today:

“On Tuesday ye third of September last we had a great Storm of wind and rain which hath done a Great deal of damage to ye Planters as well [as] Trade[.] Most of ye Vessels in ye harbor were driven ashoar or Sunk & five wrecked, a Scotch Frigatt called ye rising Sun Mounted with 60 guns about 220 men belonging to her which [came] from Caledonia . . . lost all her Masts Came & lay before our Barr of Ashley river designeing to lighten so as that she might Come into our harbour to refitt [and] was in ye Same Storm at Anchor broke all to Peices & 97 men with ye Comander Capt. James Gibson then aboard her all Lost.”[2]

The next big storm to hit Charleston landed in 1713, again in mid-September. Eyewitness Thomas Lamboll described the event in a manuscript journal, which was later transcribed and published by historian David Ramsay. Lamboll recorded that on 5 September came a “great hurricane, which was attended with such an inundation from the sea, and to such an unknown height that a great many lives were lost; all the vessels in Charlestown harbor, except one, were drove ashore. The new Look out [tower] on Sullivan’s Island, of wood, built eight square and eighty feet high, blown down; all the front [fortification] wall and mud parapet before Charlestown undermined and washed away, with the platform and gun-carriages, and other desolations sustained as never before happened to this town.”[3]

The Rev. Gideon Johnston, minister of St. Philip’s Church, estimated the value of the damage caused by the 1713 storm at approximately £100,000 in South Carolina money, which was a vast sum for that time. At that moment a new brick church for the parish of St. Philip was under construction, and the storm caused significant damage to the unfinished structure. Unfortunately, Charleston was visited by another powerful hurricane just one year later, in mid-September 1714, and the completed brick walls of the new St. Philip’s church were toppled to the ground.

In the autumn of 1713, Colonel William Rhett in Charleston wrote to friends in London with the sad news:

“[We had] a violent hurricane we had on friday the 10th [which] has done much the same dammage to the whole Country as that last Year[,] but the greatest misfortune is, our new Brick Church which as I wrote in the foregoing, was ready for the roof, is now considerably dammaged by this Storm the No. and So. sides being quite blown down to the Watter Table the Windows broken & Shattered to peices.”

In the autumn of 1714, the Rev. Gideon Johnston was in London, where he interviewed a few survivors of the storm who had just arrived in England. In a postscript, he noted “I was inform’d last Tuesday att the Carolina Coffee house [in London], that had not the Wind chopt about suddenly & att that nick of time, Charlestown w[i]th all its Inhabitants [would] had been laid under Watter.”[4]

In the 1720s, hurricanes hit the South Carolina coastline at least three times, but we have very limited information about some of these storms. During that decade, South Carolina was in the process of making a very slow and rather painful political transition from being a Proprietary colony, owned by a small group of Lords Proprietors, to a Royal colony, owned directly by the British monarchy. Here in Charleston, the capital of the colony, our governor and legislature didn’t get along very well, and there was a great deal of petty squabbling among the elected assembly. As a result, our government was rather ineffective, and didn’t keep very good records. Nevertheless, the surviving documents mention the arrival of a destructive storm in the autumn of 1722 that did some damage to St. Philip’s Church, which was still unfinished, and to the waterfront fortifications in Charleston. Another strong storm in late August 1724 caused widespread damage to crops and ruined several of the wooden wharves in the port of Charleston.[5] A bit more information survives about the hurricane of 1728, which struck Charleston in late August, or early September, depending on which sources you read. In his 1809 history of South Carolina, David Ramsay provided us with a good description of the 1728 storm, probably based on his interviews with eye-witnesses. Ramsay says “During the summer of 1728 the weather was observed by the inhabitants of Charlestown to be uncommonly hot. A dreadful hurricane followed, occasioning an inundation which overflowed the town and the low lands, and did incredible damage to the fortifications, houses, wharves, shipping and corn fields. The streets of Charlestown were covered with boats, boards, [barrel] staves; and the inhabitants were obliged to take refuge in the higher stories of their dwelling-houses. Twenty-three ships were driven ashore, most of which were either greatly damaged or dashed to pieces. The Fox and [the] Garland, [two warships of the British Navy], stationed there for the protection of trade, were the only ships that rode out of the storm.”[6]

The three hurricanes that hit the coast of South Carolina the 1720s were followed by another powerful storm in early September 1730. At that time there wasn’t yet a newspaper in Charleston (we had to wait until January 1732 for that innovation), but there were newspapers in the northern colonies, with whom we had regular communication. The Boston News-Letter, for example, published on 22 October 1730, contains a brief description of the recent South Carolina hurricane. Dozens of ships were damaged in Charleston harbor, including three warships of the British Navy, and many were driven ashore into the streets of the town. The damage could have been worse, but the worst of the storm seemed to arrive at low tide. Nevertheless, the Carolina planters worried about their valuable rice crop, which appeared to have been decimated by the storm. In the wake of the storm, the leaders of the Baptist congregation in urban Charleston appealed to the legislature, asking for funds to rebuilt their wooden meeting house, which the hurricane had flattened.

The most significant hurricane of the eighteenth century was most definitely the storm of 1752. Or rather, I should say the storm(s) of 1752, because Charleston was hit by two major hurricanes spaced just two weeks apart. The first of these storms arrived here on Friday the 15th of September, and caused a massive amount of destruction. Fortunately, several excellent descriptions of this hurricane have survived. For example, let me read you a few excerpts from the South Carolina Gazette of 19 September 1752:

“The most violent and terrible Hurricane that ever was felt in this province, happened on Friday the 15th instant in the morning; and has reduced this Town to a very melancholly situation. . . .  On the 14th in the evening, it began to blow very hard, the wind being at N.E. and the sky looked wild and threatening: It continued blowing from the same point, with little variation, ‘till about 4 o’clock in the morning of the 15th, and at which time it became more violent, and rained, increasing very fast ‘till about 9, when the flood came in like a bore [sic], filling the harbour in a few minutes: Before 11 o’clock, all the vessels in the harbour were on shore, except the Hornet man of war, which rode it out by cutting away her main-mast; all the wharfs and bridges were ruined, and every house, store, &c. upon them, beaten down, and carried away (with all the goods, &c. therein) as were also many houses in the town; and abundance of roofs, chimneys, &c. almost all the tile or slated houses were uncovered; and great quantities of merchandize, &c. in the stores on the Bay-street, damaged by their doors being burst open: The town was likewise overflowed, the tide or sea having rose upwards of Ten foot above the high-water mark at spring-tides, and nothing was now to be seen but ruins of houses, canows [canoes], wrecks of pettiauguas [sic] and boats, masts, yards, incredible quantities of all sorts of timber, barrels, staves, shingles, household and other goods, floating and driving, with great violence, thro’ the streets, and round about the town. The inhabitants, finding themselves in the midst of a tempestuous sea, the wind still continuing, the tide (according to its common course) being expected to flow ‘till after one o’clock, and many of the people being already up to their necks in water in their houses, began now to think of nothing but certain death: But, (Here we must record as signal an instance of the immediate interposition of the Divine Providence, as ever appeared) they were soon delivered from their apprehensions; for, about 10 minutes after 11 o’clock, the wind veered to the E.S.E. S. and S.W. very quick[ly], and then (tho’ it continued its violence, and the sea beat and dashed everywhere with amazing impetuosity) the waters fell above five feet in the space of 10 minutes, without which unexpected and sudden fall, every house and inhabitant in this town, must, in all probability, have perished: And before 3 o’clock the hurricane was entirely over.----Many people were drowned, and others much hurt by the fall of houses.

At Sullivant’s island, the pest-house was carried away, and of 15 people that were there 9 are lost, the rest saved themselves by adhering strongly to some of the rafters of the house when it fell, upon which they were driven some miles beyond the island, to Hobcaw [the western edge of today’s Mount Pleasant]; at Fort Johnson [on James Island], the barracks were beat down, most of the guns dismounted, and their carriages carried away: At Craven’s and Granville’s bastions, and the batteries about this town, the cannon were likewise dismounted: The Mermaid man of war, which had just gone up to Hobcaw, to heave down, was drove ashore not far from the careening-place: The ship Lucy, of and for London, John Bulman master, which lay wind-bound in Rebellion road, dragg’d her anchors, drove by the fort and this town, and ran ashore upon a marsh about 7 miles up Cooper-River. . . .

Capt. Walker’s pilot-boat, [was driven] against the governor’s house [the Pinckney mansion on East Bay Street]; and his sloop the Endeavour, bound for Jamaica, after beating down his Excellency’s coach-house, stables, &c. was dashed to pieces against Mr. Raper’s house [near Market Street]. . . . For about 30 miles round Charles-Town, there is hardly a plantation that has not lost every out-house upon it. All our roads are so fill’d with trees blown and broke down, that travelling [sic] is rendered extremely difficult; and hardly a fence was left standing in the town or country.--Our loss in fine timber-trees, is almost incredible; and we have suffered greatly also, in the loss of cattle, sheep, hogs, and all kinds of provision.”

Two weeks after this massive storm, another hurricane plowed into the Lowcountry on Saturday the 30th of September. On 3 October 1752, the South Carolina Gazette provided a brief description of the event: “For 2 or 3 Days before [the worst of the storm], the [violence] of the Wind . . . and the great Quantity of Rain that had fallen, kept the Tides from ebbing their due [course] and Time, so that when this Hurricane began to abate, tho’ the Water should have been low, it was higher than at common Spring-Tides; and had the Wind rose, as was expected, when the Flood should have come in, our Situation would have been most deplorable indeed! But the same Providence that interposed before, was again viable here. In this town, it did little other Damage, than to the Goods of those People who removed from the most exposed Places, and the Tops of some Houses. But at Winyaw [that is, in the area of Georgetown, South Carolina], we are inform'd, it was more severely felt than the former. About Midnight the Wind veered round to N.W. when another violent Storm broke up the bad Weather.—We have daily such a Number of melancholy Accounts from all Parts of the Country, of the Damage and sustained on the 15th and 30th ult. that they would afford endless Matter for this Paper, were we to publish them.”

The widespread destruction caused by the storm of 1752 took many years to repair. Fortunately for the inhabitants of South Carolina, however, the second half of the eighteenth century proved to be a long period of relative calm. A notable storm in early June 1770 caused some damage to Charleston’s waterfront fortifications, but otherwise it was soon forgotten. Another storm in August 1778 damaged a few ships and toppled trees and fences around Charleston, but it too was soon put out of mind. Hurricane force winds smashed wharves and ships in early October 1783, but a sudden change in the wind at the height of the storm saved the city from major damage. The most significant event during the 1783 storm was the destruction of the first Fort Moultrie, the palmetto-log for built on Sullivan’s Island in great haste in 1776. Although a more modern federal fortification sits on the same spot today, the venerable fort that repulsed the British Navy in June 1776 was entirely washed away in the hurricane of 1783.[7]

Another severe gale struck Charleston in late October 1792 (probably the latest arriving storm in our history), but its impact was relatively small. During the autumn of 1797, a series of hurricanes brushed the Carolina coastline and claimed many lives, but most of the losses were at sea rather than on land. In urban Charleston, the most important loss of the 1797 hurricane season was the destruction of a newly-built city project called “East Bay Street Continued.” Today we call it East Battery, or the street directly behind the “high battery” seawall. Construction on this earthen road commenced in 1785 by filling what was essentially a beach protected by a newly-built palmetto log wharf. Every bit of this very expensive city project was undermined and washed away in the autumn of 1797. The project to extend East Bay Street to White Point was re-started in 1798 at great expense, but then, on the 4th of October 1800, another powerful hurricane brought in a storm surge that nearly demolished the new work.[8] After extensive repairs were made and the work continued, Charleston was set to have a beautiful promenade overlooking the harbor. But Charleston was also long overdue for a powerful hurricane. On the 7th of September 1804, Mother Nature called again with the strongest storm to hit Charleston since the massive storm of 1752, and the destruction was epic.

Unfortunately I’m out of time for this week, but I hope you’ll join me again next week [see Episode No. 4] for the conclusion of our tour of hurricane history when the Charleston Time Machine returns to the airwaves.


[1] Edward Hyrne letter [photocopy], 19 October 1700, South Carolina Historical Society, 34/114.

[2] Letter from the S.C. Council to the Lords Proprietors, 1 October 1700, in A. S. Salley Jr., Commissions and Instructions from the Lords Proprietors of Carolina to Public Officials of South Carolina, 1685–1715 (Columbia, S.C.: Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1916), 143–45.

[3] David Ramsay, The History of South Carolina, from Its First Settlement in 1670 to the Year 1808, volume 2 (reprint; Newberry, S.C.: W. J. Duffie, 1858), footnote on 175–76. Ramsay is quoting from earlier accounts that give the hurricane’s dates as 5–6 September. In a footnote on page 177, however, Ramsay states that the adjustment for old style/new style calendars places the initial date at 16 September 1713. The register of the Independent Congregational Church contains a note, dated February 1733, that says the earlier register books was in the house of Rev. William Livingston, which was lost in the hurricane of 5–6 September 1713. See Mabel L. Webber, ed., “Register of the Independent or Congregational (Circular) Church, 1732–1738,” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 12 (January 1911), 29.

[4] Frank J. Klingberg, ed., Carolina Chronicle: The Papers of Commissary Gideon Johnston, 1707–1716 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1946), 143–44. In an editorial note introducing this letter, Klingberg incorrectly conflates the hurricanes of 5–6 September 1713 and 10 September 1714.

[5] “List and Abstract of Documents Relating to South-Carolina, Now Existing in the State Paper Office, London,” in Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society, Volume 1 (Charleston, S.C.: South Carolina Historical Society, 1857), 235.

[6] Ramsay, History of South Carolina, 2: 176. In a footnote on page 177, Ramsay states that this storm occurred on 14 September 1728, having made the adjustment for old style/new style calendars.

[7] See South Carolina Gazette, 7 June 1770; Gazette of the State of South Carolina, 12 August 1778; South Carolina Weekly Gazette, 11 October 1783.

[8] See the local news in [Charleston] City Gazette, 2 November 1792; City Gazette, 21 October 1797; South Carolina State Gazette, 6 October; City Gazette, 6 October 1800.



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