Prince George Winyah Church and Cemetery
Allow me to introduce myself. My full Christian name is Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church and I live in Georgetown. No, not the Georgetown of high-powered meetings and martini lunches that sits in the shadows of the White House. My residence is on the coast of South Carolina, about two hours north of Charleston and just south of Myrtle Beach.
Few in our country know much about my hometown, but back in the eighteenth century this area was one of the richest places in the colonies. Today, I’m in poor health and in need of some expensive repairs, but before I get to that story, I’d like to share a few things about the area.Long ago, Native Americans lived here. They fished from the nearby ocean and rivers, hunted in the thick forests, and ate the local berries and fruits. They were a nomadic people and lived in large family groups. Today, their names—Pee Dee, Waccamaw, and Winyah—are affixed to a few of our state’s natural and man-made landmarks. By the mid-1600s, English and French outposts sprang up to facilitate trade with them. In another century, not much would remain of the native people or culture.
In 1706, the English carved South Carolina into ten parishes. Prior to that time, there was no “state religion”; people were free to worship as they wished. Long-oppressed Jews moved to Carolinas, as did the French Huguenots and Quakers. But the Church Act of 1706, by making the Church of England our state’s official religion, rolled back those early freedoms. In 1721, Prince George Winyah parish was established.
The English had high hopes for exploiting the riches of the Carolinas, and such expectations were realized when a 16-year-old Charleston girl, Eliza Lucas, figured out how to cultivate indigo. The blue dye that can be extracted from the plant was in high demand in Europe. By the early 1760s, Georgetown and surrounding areas would ship more than a million pounds of indigo a year—enabled by the labor of enslaved people.
In the latter part of the 1700s, due to a glut in worldwide supplies, indigo became far less profitable. With our abundant rivers, rich marshy lands, and reliance on low to no-cost labor (plantations along the Waccamaw River averaged between 200-500 slaves each), rice became our area’s next big crop. In 1850, Georgetown District produced 33% of our nation’s rice! Nearly all of this came from 91 planters who produced at least 100,000 pounds each. But when the Civil War freed the enslaved people and a series of hurricanes injected salt water into fresh, rice too became less profitable. The era of the large plantation ended.
Today, much of our downtown area has been included in the National Register of Historic Landmarks. Many of those plantations still exist. In fact, the women of Prince George Winyah Episcopal Church organize an annual event where it is possible to visit these otherwise private places. Some of these proceeds are set aside to pay for my future repairs.As for me, I am now over 250 years old. I’d like to think I will be around for another 250 years, but I’m not sure. Some experts from Charleston came to visit and found out I have termites in the support rafters. The cost to repair the damage will be over two million dollars. That’s a lot of money, even if I lived in the other Georgetown. Still, like the members of the congregation, I have faith.