Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island

I traveled to Edisto Island this morning to see Heather preach at the Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island.  The current head pastor at Sea Island Presbyterian, Steve Keeler, served the congregation at Edisto for 6 years in the early to mid 1980's. The Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island was founded in 1685, making it one of the oldest in the nation.  It's not often that you see donations to a church in South Carolina denominated in pounds sterling, or for that matter, in slaves: I really enjoyed the detail on some fences surrounding individual family plots in the oldest part of the cemetery: There were two especially interesting parts of the cemetery.  First, there was a small mausoleum directly behind the church.  Unlike any other mausoleum, this one didn't have a door. Why, you may ask, is there no door?  I was told that a young child was accidentally buried alive in the mausoleum.  Doors have been installed and they never last more than 24 hours.  It seems that the young child doesn't like doors.  Three headstones are visible and the one of the far right belongs to a boy that died at age 6.  Could this be the restless child that won't allow a door to be installed? The next interesting part of the cemetery is a unique plot in the back corner.  A mostly demolished simple iron fence surrounds three plain markers. I'm not an expert, but it appears that the fence is original, dating from 1865 based on the headstones.  The stones, three basic stones, only reveal the names of the dead. James Blake.  Died Christmas 1865.
Messrs. James P. Blake, and James H. Crosby went to South Carolina to seek for themselves a field of usefulness, under General Saxton's directions.
They arrived at South Carolina about the time of the capture of Savannah. Mr. Blake has been actively engaged in distributing supplies to the freedmen who followed Sherman's army, and in the effort to organize schools for their instruction on Edisto Island.
--The Freedman's Record, April 1865
Beside Mr. Blake, you'll find Mira Stanton, died 25 December 1865. Finally, there's Ellen S. Kempton, from New Bedford, Mass. Have you put it all together yet?  Mr. Blake was the superintendent of the Freedmen's schools on Edisto Island.  Myra and Ellen were teachers.  And Christmas 1865 was just another Christmas, with another Christmas Party.  Returning to their home, their small boat capsized in St. Pierre's Creek and all three drowned. What's interesting and, just maybe, a bit humorous, is that they were buried in the far corner of the cemetery.  Because, you know, you couldn't bury the Yankees in the regular cemetery... From the Freedmen's Record, February 1866:


They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, And in death they were not divided. The stern, curt telegram announcing, with its painful but unavoidable brevity, the death, by drowning, of our three valued friends, was received too late for any other notice than of the shortest form in the January number of the "Freedmen's Record." None but those who know the strong and tender relation of sympathy which exists between the Committee on Teachers and most of those teachers whom they select and supervise, can appreciate the shock it caused in this office: not to a soulless Committee, intent only on business; but to those who hold themselves as guardians and friends of the many noble and self-sacrificing young women and young men whom they send forth, with joy and pity, to the deep satisfactions and the many privations and trials of this great work, -- hardships from which no care at home can shield them; but the brave endurance of which, by the greater number of them, wins and secures our loving reverence. ELLEN S. KEMPTON and ELMIRA B. STANTON have been unfalteringly faithful to the high and holy purpose under whose impulse they left the endearments and protection and delights of home, a single-hearted, pure re­solve to consecrate their time, their talents, and their superior position to the benefit of a long-injured race. With that sweet piety which recognizes a child of the Universal Father in every lowliest human being, they both entered on their work : no difficulties discouraged, no privations fretted them; but their latest letters to us are filled with the same glad enthusiasm which they manifested in the beginning. JAMES P. BLAKE had also served under this Society in South Carolina, and lately established himself as a lawyer in Charleston, believing he might in that way largely benefit the oppressed freedmen, whose sufferings have called out his indignant pity and earnest activity. His eloquent and pathetic appeals to the North in behalf of the thousands of men, women, and children who, following in the wake of Sherman's resistless course through Georgia, were cast adrift in those winter days among the Sea Islands, almost naked, famished, and frozen, aroused the pity, and secured the aid, which saved innumerable lives. Christmas, 1865, was a fair and genial day over the creek of St. Pierre in Edisto Island: the guiding moon silvered the placid waters, while the small, insecure boat, too heavily laden, bore the three friends homeward from the neighboring plantation. An anxious listener on the bank heard the sound of their mirthful voices, marked the interruption of a sentence, the pause, and then the sounds of anguish: the Father's last Angel had folded all beneath his protecting wing, and borne them to the beautiful home, and to the "Well done, good and faithful servants." No dirge sounding amid cathedral walls from grand-toned organ could have been so impressive and fitting as the plaintive native songs of their loving, weeping pupils, moving in a funeral train, almost as simple in all its arrangements as the Puritan obsequies on Plymouth Rock in 1621. Tenderest sympathy for the bereaved homes whose deep loss is keenly felt by us; sweet, enduring memories of the faithful teachers, the beloved friends, -- these fill our hearts. That life is not to be reckoned short which has borne fruit so beautiful; nor that death untimely which calls the faithful soul to higher duties.

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  1. Eric,
    Great Post. I have heard these stories many times over the years. I enjoy reading what visitors discover on Edisto. The pictures turned out great. The church is also know for it’s camellias and a couple are pretty rare.

  2. Mr. Doss, regarding the graves of Ms. Stanton, Ms. Kempton and Mr. Blake: it is recorded in many accounts of island history that it was the wish of the families of these three that they be buried AS FAR AS POSSIBLE from the graves of the despised slave owners and their families.

  3. Hello from Texas. My father’s family SEABROOKS and WHALEYS CAME FROM EDISTO ISLAND before the Civil War. My roots research showed that many of this family tree had relatives up in New England including Blakes. One of the original Landgraves in S>C> as a colony was Blake also. Dad’s family lost the Seabrook plantation to DD Dodge after the war. He used to go visit cousins there years ago.
    Dad’s mother was Grace Whaley Jones. who is buried on Edisto next to her mother,
    (Mary) Julia Seabrook Whaley Heard.. Grace’s father John Stock Whaley was killed on the job in a train accident when her mother was pregnant with her.
    1847 young Julia Legare was buried alive when the family thought she was dead from fever while visiting Edisto. Her remains were found by the door years later when another family member was to be buried.
    As a psychic, I get the intuition that the three that drowned Christmas…was not an accident.. I saw an article describing how the whites had to kick the blacks out of a church on Edisto to reclaim it after the war. Not sure which church…But Edisto was full of firebrands that helped kick off sesession. of S.Carolina.
    Thank you…Ms. Lily

  4. I am a long standing member of the Presbyterian Church on Edisto. It is irrelevant who wanted who buried where when the teachers drowned. Our church was compassionate enough to allow them to be buried here. They could have been buried elsewhere or just left in the creek to go out with the tide.

    And it was undoubtedly an accident brought on by too much Christmas cheer and no knowledge of how to swim.

    And, yes, in several of the churches former slaves had taken over the churches that they attended with their owners before the Civil War. After the war (at least at the Presbyterian Church), the Federals gave the church BACK to the white owners and the blacks graciously picked up and moved down the road a mile. These two churches have worked together for many years. This was, of course, 150 years ago.

  5. The child buried on accident was none other than Julia Legare, a little girl who was believed to be dead due to a fever. Back then, they buried people on the day of their death, especially in the summer time due to issues with quick decomposition. An unfortunate side effect of the fever was a coma, which is why she was pronounced dead. She woke up sometime after her burial to find that she was in a VERY dark place. People reported awful screams of a little girl in the night, but paid no mind to it, as the cemetery was already haunted by slaves, slave owners, and other restless spirits. Fifteen years later, when her brother was killed in the war, they re-opened the tomb to lay him to rest only to discover the horrendous sight of the little girl’s skeleton at the tomb of the door. There were bloody scratches on the inside of the seal where she had tried to claw her way out. She died a horrendous death and does not permit the tomb to be sealed out of protecting other members of her family from meeting her fate. The family began to figure this out when they re-sealed the tomb after burying her brother and re-burying her.

  6. Julia Legare…. One of my favorite stories. I’m a licensed guide in Charleston. I do my best to promote Edisto and for guests to travel out there for the day. I do so by telling them the Julia story, tell them what there is to do while on Edisto.