Jan/Feb 2016Tale of Two Great Canoeistsby Bob Raynor

The epic voyages of two late 19th century maritime adventurers both included stops at Murphy Island, today a part of the DNR-managed Santee Coastal Reserve WMA.

One sailed north, the other rowed south, traveling on opposing journeys. Their voyaging craft were likewise different, though both voyagers called their vessels "canoes." One was propelled by oars, the other by sails. One was "factory" built on the Hudson River, the other crafted from the remains of a wooden ship and from trees native to the Brazilian coast. The fourteen-foot paper canoe Maria Theresa carried only Nathaniel Holmes Bishop; the thirty-five-foot Liberdade was temporary home to Joshua Slocum, his wife and two children. Fourteen years separated these two men's journeys, but their courses finally crossed on the South Carolina coast, as they sought shelter overnight on Murphy Island.

Murphy Island has always been off the beaten path. This isolation prevails despite its incredible natural beauty: unspoiled beaches, ridges of maritime forest, vast wetlands, and the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the South Santee River and numerous tidal creeks.

Looking beyond the island's natural splendor reveals man's substantial impact on it. Specifically, the transformation of the abundant marshland into the fields and hydraulic works required for the production of rice by the construction of dikes, water control devices and canals - a monumental feat carried out largely by enslaved Africans. It is a watery world - less than 10 percent of its 7,927 acres are upland - a reality that contributed to the deaths of fifty out of fifty-five slaves during the Great Gale of 1822, when the entire island was inundated by the hurricane's storm surge.

Even at the zenith of the "Rice Kingdom," the island was still incredibly isolated: the South Santee River's shallow outlet to the ocean was ill-suited for commerce, and during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period Murphy Island regressed even further into a rarely visited backwater - a most unlikely place for any travelers to visit, much less two men on such epic voyages.

As their journeys and craft differed, so too did the backgrounds of these mariners. Bishop came from a privileged upbringing in Medford, Massachusetts, while Slocum grew up in poverty on a farm in Nova Scotia. Bishop was educated at the elite Lawrence Academy. Slocum was forced to leave school in the third grade after the failure of the family farm, his boyhood spent laboring in his father's boot shop.

However, the two men had in common that both left the circumstances they were born into to begin adventuring in their teenage years. Bishop went on a solo one-thousand-mile walk across the South American continent from the La Plata River over the Andes to Valparaiso. Slocum left home at sixteen and went to sea as a merchant seaman. While the beginnings of their adventures had different motivations, they both found along the way a desire to chronicle their trips, and the reading public responded with great interest.

It was at the end of Reconstruction and during the following years that each of these "canoeists" set forth on voyages that would take them through South Carolina. Bishop's stop on Murphy was a necessity, and Slocum's followed his first landfall on the mainland. After the war, the island's former rice plantations were no longer in production, though residents still cultivated rice for their own tables. Bishop and Slocum came face-to-face with the poverty of both freed Southern blacks and whites in this isolated place, and both documented their experiences in their respective books: Voyage of the Paper Canoe (Bishop) and Voyage of the Liberdade (Slocum).

Bishop began his great journey in 1874, rowing from Quebec to the Gulf of Mexico, a trip of twenty-five hundred miles. He started out with a heavy wooden boat and a partner, but left both on the Hudson River when he switched to a lightweight (fifty-eight pound) canoe built by E. Waters & Sons, Paper Boat Builders, at Troy, New York. By the winter of 1874, the "paper-canoe captain" was traveling through the inland waterways of the Carolinas. All along the way, the perceived fragility of this craft made from laminated paper was disparaged, including by the hardy women and men of Ocracoke Island in North Carolina.

"I reckon I wouldn't risk my life crossing a creek in her," Bishop's journal recounts one islander as saying. "That feller will make a coffin for hisself out of that yere gimcrack of an egg-shell."

Bishop's crossing of the Santee River was delayed when a storm arose, which he wrote "kept me a weary prisoner among the reeds of the rice marsh." He lay in the canoe all night, cramped and unable to build a fire. The next afternoon, he pushed off into the rough waters and was able to negotiate the crossing. But the storm raged anew, and he was forced to seek shelter on the island. He was rebuffed by the black overseer of the plantation, but another black man, Jacob Gilleu, gave him directions to Seba Gillings' cabin on stilts near Alligator Creek.

Apparently, Gilleu did not comprehend when Bishop told him that he was "a citizen of the United States," but understood when told that the U.S. was the land that [U.S. president] Grant governed. Bishop rowed on, and, turning off of Alligator Creek, moved through an open tide-gate into a canal penetrating Murphy Island. He landed at a piece of high ground within the marsh, where a dozen houses - "a negro hamlet" wrote Bishop - existed along with the ruins of a rice mill. This isolated community of freedmen was most likely located on the southwest end of Settlement Ridge. Seba Gillings met Bishop, helped to put the canoe in a safe place, and took him to his house.

Gillings supervised the preparing of a meal for Bishop: his wife pounded the rice in a traditional mortar, and his son cooked bacon and eggs. Bishop ate alone at the table. After the table was cleared, he was in for a startling experience. As he wrote in his journal:

"Then we gathered round the great, black-mouthed fireplace, and while the bright coals of live-oak spread a streak of light through the darkness, black men and black women stole into the room until everything from floor to ceiling, from door to chimney-place, seemed to be growing blacker and blacker, and I felt as black as my surroundings. The scant clothing of the men only half covered their shiny, ebony skins. The whole company preserved dignified silence, which was occasionally broken by deep sighs coming from the women in reply to a half-whispered "All de way from de norf in a paper canno - bless de Lord! Bless de Lord!"

The atmosphere became even more animated following the entrance of a young black skipper of a sloop after his passage from Charleston through Bulls Bay. He took center stage and whipped the onlookers into a religious frenzy before Seba Gillings dismissed all so "de Yankee-mans" could get some sleep.

Bishop would spend the night in Gillings' closet. Obviously somewhat rattled by the experience, despite the hospitality offered by the Gillings family, Bishop advised other travelers through the southern waterways to "Keep away from cabins of all kinds, and you will by so doing travel with a light heart and even temper."

Joshua Slocum's approach to Murphy Island came fourteen years later. Slocum, as both owner and captain, had lost his ship Aquidneck on the shoals of a bay along the Brazilian coast in December of 1887. Still possessing his navigation gear and charts, and plenty of confidence in his skills as a mariner, he had decided to sail home in a small boat. The vessel would be of his own design and crafting, appearing as a hybrid between a Cape Ann dory and a Japanese sampan. Though having limited resources, Slocum possessed a characteristic he later attributed to his father in a future book, Sailing Alone Around the World: "My father was the sort of man who, if wrecked on a desolate island, would find his way home, if he had a jack-knife and could find a tree." The vessel was completed and launched on May 13, 1888, and named Liberdade (Liberty) in recognition of the freeing of slaves in Brazil on that very day.

The Slocums soon embarked on a five-thousand-mile journey from Paranaqua, Brazil, to Washington, D.C. The passage had a number of adventures, including sailing over a shoal with huge breaking waves in a gale at night, and receiving a keel-damaging bump from a fifty-foot whale. Fifty-three days after setting off from Brazil the family made their first sighting of the mainland of North America along Bulls Bay.

They anchored the night of October 28, 1888, just a couple of miles from shore, and with light winds finally made the mouth of the South Santee River two days later. They continued in the river to see if they could find inhabitants and, probably along the east end of Settlement Ridge, spotted a farmhouse. This was the home of the Andersons, a poor white family consisting of husband, wife and two sons. Their difficulties in making a living on this farm impressed Slocum greatly and soured his thoughts of returning to New England to make a try at farming himself. He admired Anderson for his patience and unselfishness, noting that of all the unselfish men he had met along the coast, "Anderson the elder was surely the prince."

Slocum sailed on, eventually mooring at Washington, D.C. on December 27, 1888, and after a return home to the North, Slocum made a final sail in Liberdade to Washington, donating the craft to the Smithsonian Institution. He reflected at the end of his book, "With all its vicissitudes I still love a life on the broad, free ocean, never regretting the choice of my profession."

These were prophetic words, as were his thoughts on Murphy that perhaps farming was not for him - his future effort on Martha's Vineyard failed, but his voyage around the world on Spray at the turn of the century was the historic first solo circumnavigation of the globe, placing Slocum in the pantheon of immortal navigators and elevating Sailing Alone Around the World as perhaps the greatest sea story yet written.

After Bishop's night on Murphy Island, he rowed on in his paper canoe, eventually reaching the Gulf of Mexico. He too made the Maria Theresa a gift to the Smithsonian. Bishop's friends described the paper canoe journey as "your wildest and most foolish undertaking." Not finished with adventuring, he chose a more comfortable craft, a Barnegat Bay (New Jersey) sneak box, for his next trip, rowing 2,600 miles down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers from Pittsburg to Florida. Unlike Slocum, he later settled down with his wife on a New Jersey farm and cultivated cranberries, eventually leaving a large bequest for his community's library.

By contrast, Slocum never gave up the adventuring life, and the aging sailor and Spray both disappeared somewhere in the Atlantic, last seen leaving Martha's Vineyard in November of 1908. Though the stories of these kindred spirits often diverged, together they left us with two captivating historic snapshots of Murphy Island and the enduring written legacies of their journeys.


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