Friday, July 23, 2021 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Summertime brings easy living to many Lowcountry residents—a time to shed the constraints of modern life and enjoy the great outdoors at a nearby retreat. Long before the convenience of modern automobiles and recreational vehicles, the people of early Charleston also looked forward to such warm-weather excursions. Influenced by Romanticism and aided by steam locomotion, Charlestonians developed a tradition of annual maroons, picnics, and parades that enlivened scores of summers across the generations. Although these traditions are now extinct, Porgy’s literary trip to Kittawar Island in the eponymous novel of 1925 captures the twilight of that fading tradition.

The term “maroon” is a vestige of the early contact between European explorers and the indigenous people of the Caribbean around the turn of the sixteenth century. From the Arawak language of the Taíno people who inhabited many of those islands, Spanish colonials adopted and adapted the word cimarrón to describe a fugitive or runaway. Cimarrónes, to use the Spanish plural form, were usually enslaved people of Native American or African descent who fled into the wilderness to gain some measure of freedom. As other European powers followed Spanish precedent in the Americas and adopted the practice of slavery in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the language of runaways was not far behind. The term cimarrón became marron in the French Caribbean colonies and maroon among those planted by the English.


After taking Jamaica from the Spanish in 1655, for example, English settlers commenced a long power struggle with Afro-Caribbean maroon communities that sheltered within the island’s mountainous interior. Jamaica’s First Maroon War ended with a peace treaty in 1740, but flared again during the Second Maroon War of 1795–96. Enslaved people in early South Carolina also ran away from forced servitude, of course, and found refuge within the wild swamps and forests of the coastal plain. The stories of thousands of individual maroons, and of the several maroon communities that once existed in the Lowcountry, collectively form an important part of our community’s history. To do justice to that broad chapter of resistance, however, we’ll defer a fuller conversation about enslaved runaways to a future program.

The English term “maroon” evolved through the seventeenth century to the early-nineteenth century to include a variety of meanings as a noun, a verb, and a gerund. Initially, a “maroon” was a runaway, or the place in which a runaway sheltered. As the term gained familiarity, however, it became Romanticized into a type of recreational excursion undertaken by “civilized” folk who sought to unwind in the countryside. As a verb, “to maroon” initially meant to flee from captivity, but evolved into an expression akin to the idea of getting away from the rat-race of modern life. In the passive sense, one could be marooned against one’s will, as when a storm at sea deposited Robinson Crusoe on a deserted island in Daniel Defoe’s famous novel of 1719. Marooning—the gerund form of the word—was initially used to describe the desperate act of running away, but was later applied to relaxing holidays planned well in advance.

The documentary records of early Charleston testify to the evolving meaning of the term “maroon” in our community. While the South Carolina legislature occasionally discussed plans for destroying remote maroon communities formed by enslaved runaways, for example, wealthy inhabitants adopted the term to describe some of their recreational activities. During the last quarter of the eighteenth century and beyond, the newspapers of urban Charleston frequently advertised the sale of “marooning cases,” “marooning cups,” and “marooning knives and forks” that were necessary for rural excursions. Thomas Ferguson (1726–1786), the owner of multiple properties across the Lowcountry, had a plantation called “Maroon” or “The Maroons” in St. Paul’s Parish (in the vicinity of modern Ravenel). Similarly, the early seasonal inhabitants of Sullivan’s Island at the turn of the nineteenth century described their summertime residences as “marooning parties.”[1]

Such textual examples suggest that a Lowcountry maroon at the end of the eighteenth century was like a rural vacation, or a sort of extended domestic picnic. The terms “maroon” and “picnic” had very different meanings at that time, however, and both continued to evolve during the early nineteenth century. The French term pique-nique or (pic-nic) entered the English language in the late eighteenth century with several contrasting meanings. It could mean an outdoor meal shared in a rural setting, or an informal meal share indoors by participants who each contributed something edible—like a modern pot-luck dinner. In the newspapers of early nineteenth century Charleston, one also finds numerous advertisements for an obscure type of pic-nic fabric or textile, as in “pic-nic silk mitts,” “pic-nic gloves” and “pic-nic cotton hose.”

Inspired by the contemporary Romantic movement, which emphasized the value of the natural world, outdoor recreational activities across the Lowcountry increased dramatically in the 1820s and 1830s. The surviving newspapers of this era contain copious descriptions of maroons and picnics that demonstrate the continuing evolution of these terms. In 1825, for example, the proprietor of Tivoli Garden (at the southeast corner of Columbus and Meeting Streets) welcomed the patronage of “dining, marooning, and supper parties,” but did not clarify the difference between these contrasting groups. A merchant advertising to sell a number of large marquee tents in 1832 described them as being “suitable for marooning parties.” In contrast to catered maroons, picnics required participants to contribute comestibles to a shared meal, such as when a large number of citizens prepared a massive outdoor picnic at Belvedere Plantation on Charleston Neck for visiting military and naval officers in the spring of 1833.[2]

In addition to the culture influence of Romanticism, the proliferation of steam-powered transportation during the second quarter of the nineteenth century played a significant role in the growth of outdoor recreation in the Charleston area. As I’ve described in previous programs, the advent of steam-powered ferries in Lowcountry waters in the 1820s increased local mobility dramatically (see Episode No. 68). The operation of regularly-scheduled commercial routes up and down local rivers and connecting various sea islands made it possible for people to travel between urban, suburban, and rural locations with unprecedented ease. By the 1830s, creative agents began marketing such routes as all-day excursions suitable for “marooning parties.” In such cases, the steamboat provided only transportation between city and county, while the participants in the maroon were obliged to make their own arrangements for meals and entertainment. Some steamboat operators offered meals at a price, while others encouraged passengers to bring their own food. For example, one steamboat excursion up the Western Branch of the Cooper River in 1834 invited guests enjoy a “pic nic” while viewing the rice fields ready for harvest. Another steamer in 1841 advertised a similar “excursion of pleasure” to view “the luxuriant rice crop on the river” and encouraged passengers to “form their own pic nic parties.”[3]

Thanks to the proliferation of steamboat transportation in the 1820s, the numerous militia units active in the Charleston area established a tradition of annual or semi-annual recreational maroons that continued through the 1880s. A typical maroon of that era, as described in scores of newspaper accounts, commenced at sunrise with a dress parade through the streets of Charleston accompanied by a hired brass band composed of white or black musicians (both were available). After marching to a designated wharf along East Bay Street, the company would board a chartered steamboat filled with invited guests that included wives and sweethearts. The band would serenade the passengers while the paddlewheel-vessel steamed to a nearby resort, such as the village of Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island, one of the nearby sea islands, or a favorite plantation up the Ashley, Cooper, or Wando rivers. After disembarking at the recreational grounds, the militia men performed a sequence of formation drills and exercises to the delight of their guests. Competitive target shooting was a staple activity of the militia maroon, with prizes awarded to the best marksmen. On at least one occasion hosted by an Irish-American militia group called the Meagher Guard in 1859, however, the men invited the ladies to try their skills. A newspaper reporter on the scene noted that “the practice was performed with pistols, the fair damsels doing excellent execution at a fair range.”[4] Under the shade of marquee tents erected by enslaved or hired servants, the typical maroon party enjoyed an informal dinner and sometimes also a brief midday nap. The rest of the day was spent in various recreational activities that usually included sports and dancing. Before nightfall, the company would board the steamboat and slowly wind back down the river while the band serenaded the drowsy passengers.

The popularity of militia maroons peaked in the Charleston area during the late 1850s and, as one might expect, collapsed during and immediately after the American Civil War of 1861–65. The tradition then resurfaced in the late 1860s with a marked difference. Prior to the war, enslaved people of African descent and free people of color participated in paramilitary maroons only as servants, laborers, cooks, and musicians. During the era of post-war Reconstruction, however, African-American men formed their own militia companies and organized their own paramilitary maroons in the traditional manner with their wives, sweethearts, and children in tow. The Charleston newspapers of the 1870s and 1880s contain numerous stories about African-American militia groups embarking on day-long excursions into the countryside that followed the same pattern established by scores of antebellum models. Meanwhile, the white men who generally refused to participate in the state’s post-war integrated militia formed paramilitary “rifle clubs” that continued the spirit of their antebellum maroons in a less formal manner.

The rise of Jim Crow politics in the late 1880s and early 1890s curtained the marooning tradition in the Lowcountry. New state and federal laws diminished the cultural prestige that the militia had once enjoyed, while Black men were increasingly excluded from positions of authority and influence in local government. As the cultural vitality of South Carolina’s militia receded into the background, so too did the paramilitary maroon. The term “maroon” itself, prevalent in the Lowcountry lexicon since the late eighteenth century, also quietly declined during the twilight years of the nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century, local writers were using the terms “picnic” and “maroon” interchangeably, including the latter simply as a sort of nod to the quant traditions of the past.

At the same time, however, the various communities within modern Charleston County witnessed the proliferation of picnics. During the 1890s and early 1900s, local newspapers printed numerous stories of segregated picnic excursions undertaken by labor unions, societies of tradesmen, freemasons, church groups, schools, and orphanages. Picnicking had never really gone out of style, of course, but the practice seemed to increase and take up some of the cultural space left void by the demise of the maroon. Like that older paramilitary practice, many turn-of-the-century picnics included parades, bands, and excursions on streetcars, bicycles, and steamboats to rural locations. When the famous Jenkins Orphanage undertook its annual picnic in mid-May 1909, for example, the children formed a line on Franklin Street and, “headed by the immortal band,” paraded down Beaufain Street, King Street, and Broad Street to Central Wharf, where they boarded a steamboat that carried them to Remley’s Point, east of the Cooper River, for a day of recreation.[5]

All of this history brings us to the point of today’s program. DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, Porgy, was a popular success across the United States because it offered readers a glimpse into a colorful and passionate community unfamiliar to most Americans. Much of the action and dialog in Heyward’s novella takes place within a small courtyard off Church Street, but the book also includes several vignettes that emphasize Charleston’s connection to the surrounding rivers and ocean. One of the most colorful scenes appears in the second half of the book, when the protagonist, Porgy, and the other inhabitants of Catfish Row join their neighbors for a steamboat excursion and picnic on fictional Kittawar Island, eighteen miles distant from the city. This episode, which includes a pivotal turn in the plot, was inspired by the maroon and picnic traditions that had evolved in Charleston during the previous century.

The festive event described in Part IV of Porgy is the annual parade of a fictional organization called “The Sons and Daughters of ‘Repent Ye Saith the Lord.’” The day begins with a scramble of preparations. Porgy’s older friend, Peter, for example, is one of the horse-mounted parade marshals, dressed in a uniform that harkens back to the militia pomp of the late nineteenth century. The assembling of picnic baskets and accessories continued until eight in the morning, at which time the participants rushed to the rendezvous for the beginning of the parade. Heyward did not specify the assembly point, but the scene he described in 1925 was clearly inspired by earlier events that included the youthful band from the Jenkins Orphanage on Franklin Street. The resulting summertime scene captures a valuable snapshot of Charleston’s lost cultural history.

“The drowsy old city had scarcely commenced its day when, down through King Charles Street, the procession took its way. Superbly unself-conscious of the effect that it produced, it crashed through the slow, restrained rhythm of the city’s life like a wild, barbaric chord. All of the stately mansions along the way were servantless that day, and the aristocratic matrons broke the ultimate canon of the social code and peered through front windows at the procession as it swept flamboyantly across the town.

First came an infinitesimal negro boy, scarlet-coated, and aglitter with brass buttons. Upon his head was balanced an enormous shako; and while he marched with left hand on hip and shoulders back, his right hand twirled a heavy gold-headed baton. Then the band, two score boys attired in several variations of the band master’s costume, strode by. Bare, splay feet padded upon the cobbles; heads were thrown back, with lips to instruments that glittered in the sunshine, launching daring and independent excursions into the realm of sound. Yet these improvisations returned always to the eternal boom, boom, boom, of an underlying rhythm, and met with others in the sudden weaving and ravening of amazing chords. An ecstasy of wild young bodies beat living into the blasts that shook the windows of the solemn houses. Broad, dusty, blueblack feet shuffled and danced on the manycolored cobbles and the grass between them. The sun lifted suddenly over the housetops and flashed like a torrent of warm, white wine between the staid buildings, to break on flashing teeth and laughing eyes.

After the band came the men members of the lodge, stepping it out to the urge of the marshals who rode beside them, reinforcing the marching rhythm with a series of staccato grunts, shot with crisp, military precision from under their visored caps. Breast crosslashed with the emblems of their lodge, they passed.

Then came the carriages, and suddenly the narrow street hummed and bloomed like a tropic garden. Six to a carriage sat the sisters. The effect produced by the colors was strangely like that wrought in the music; scarlet, purple, orange, flamingo, emerald; wild, clashing, unbelievable discords; yet, in their steady flow before the eye, possessing a strange, dominant rhythm that reconciled them to each other and made them unalterably right. The senses reach blindly out for a reason. There was none. They intoxicated, they maddened, and finally they passed, seeming to pull every ray of color from the dun buildings, leaving the sunlight sane, flat, dead.

For its one brief moment out of the year the pageant had lasted. Out of its fetters of civilization this people had risen, suddenly, amazingly. Exotic as the Congo, and still able to abandon themselves utterly to the wild joy of fantastic play, they had taken the reticent, old Anglo-Saxon town and stamped their mood swiftly and indelibly into its heart. Then they passed, leaving behind them a wistful envy among those who had watched them go, those whom the ages had rendered old and wise.”[6]

Following the grand procession to the wharf, Bess helped Porgy aboard the steamboat and settled their baskets of provisions. The band played and neighbors danced on the polished deck as the stern-wheeler steamed onward “like a great, frenzied beetle” towards the segregated “Negro picnic grounds on Kittawar Island.” There, Bess slipped away from the crowd and into the forest for a clandestine encounter with her former beau, Crown, that set in motion the collapse of Porgy’s brief summer of happiness. All of this colorful action and dialog was unfortunately reduced and revised for George Gershwin’s 1935 operatic version, Porgy and Bess. If you’d like to read the full story, you’re welcome to visit your local library and peruse the original text of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novella.

By the time American readers discovered the world of Porgy in the mid-1920s, the Lowcountry tradition of all-day maroons and steamboat picnic excursions was already in steep decline. Charleston County’s African American population, like that of other communities across the Southern states, declined sharply during and after World War I as people sought better lives to the north and west. The rise of automobile traffic during the early decades of the twentieth century sapped the vitality of local ferry service, and the opening of modern bridges across the Ashley River in 1926 and the Cooper River in 1929 rendered the old steamboats nearly obsolete. The pace of life in general quickened in the 1920s, and people spent more time watching moving pictures in darkened theaters than promenading with their neighbors in the countryside. Charleston was a forgotten city famous only for the dance craze the epitomized the Jazz Age (see Episode No. 166).

DuBose Heyward novel, Porgy, is a work of fiction, but much of the action was inspired by the people and events of Heyward’s youth in the Palmetto City. Readers unfamiliar with the colorful and occasionally flamboyant cultural heritage of Charleston County might be inclined to believe that the author fabricated many of the novel’s intimate details, but our history proves otherwise. By tracing the historical outline of maroons and picnics from the late colonial era to the dawn of the twentieth century, for example, we see that Porgy’s tragic story includes a snapshot of a fading festive tradition that once enlivened this community. Like the rest of the inhabitants of Cabbage Row, the recreational maroons, picnics, and parades of old Charleston have long since passed away. The fictional story of Porgy and Bess survives as a sort of time capsule, however, bearing an eternal message: Enjoy the summer while it lasts; the world changes when the cotton comes to town.



[1] Advertisements for the sale of Ferguson’s plantation appear in South Carolina and American General Gazette, 19 November 1779, page 4, and State Gazette of South Carolina, 5 March 1792, page 2. For Sullivan’s Island, see the advertisement of E. L. Woodrouffe in [Charleston ] City Gazette, 26 May 1801, page 3; Charleston Times, 3 October 1801, “The Maroon At Moultrieville.”

[2] City Gazette, 24 December 1825, page 6, “Tivoli Garden”; Charleston Courier, 31 March 1832, page 3; Courier, 8 March 1833, page 2, “The Pic Nic.”

[3] Courier, 5 September 1834, page 3, “Cooper River Excursion”; [Charleston] Southern Patriot, 30 August 1841, page 3, “Pleasure Excursion Up Cooper River.”

[4] Courier, 3 May 1859, page 1, “The Meagher Guard.”

[5] Charleston Evening Post, 15 May 1909, page 11, “Pound Party on Monday.”

[6] DuBose Heyward, Porgy (New York: George H. Doran, 1925), 111–15.


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