Essay: Martin’s Folly

I became interested in the history of the Congaree back in the 1970s during the citizen’s campaign to save it. Detractors of a park insisted it was mostly second-growth forest that had grown up after old agriculture fields were abandoned after the Civil War. Park proponents disagreed and used the term “near-virgin forest” to describe it, a term picked up from the 1963 National Park Service Report that documented the uniqueness of the Congaree and recommended its inclusion within the National Park system (“near-virgin” referred to the fact that much of the park’s old-growth bald cypress had been logged in the early 1900s).

This lead me to start poking around in the collections of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, then located on the corner of Pendleton and Senate Streets. This was well before the digital revolution, and it was a time-consuming and laborious affair to examine the documents from the 1700s and 1800s, bound in thick, heavy volumes.

But it was a nice problem to have in a way because so much of our recorded state history had gone up in flames when Columbia burned in 1865. The only reason we now have access to so many wonderful documents of the past is reportedly due to far-sighted courthouse employees who removed as many documents as they could possibly transport and hid them in a railroad baggage car parked on a siding north of Columbia.

The old plats and royal and state grants for South Carolina are a marvel to behold. Another marvel is how the early surveyors laid out the “metes and bounds” of land grants with such accuracy, using primitive equipment. In fact much of the park’s current boundary lines, and this no doubt holds true for many properties across the state, date back to the very first Colonial surveys done in the 1700s.

The plats and grants that you see at Archives and History are copies, made years ago, of the originals. Many are now on microfilm and available online, but in the 1970s they were still bound in large volumes and covered with a clear protectorate film. In a way looking at these old plats, some of which are more than two-hundred years old, is like communicating with the surveyor across the generations. Surveyors used “witness trees” as boundary markers and the “chain” as the unit of length (a chain being 66 feet; foresters still use chains in their work). A bearing was noted as “W20S, meaning “west 20 degrees south” which translates into a direction of 250 degrees. They would also write down the adjoining landowner(s) names, if known. Sometimes the surveyor would make a note on the conditions of the land surrounding the surveyed property. For the Congaree, it was not uncommon to see the notation, “all cane swamp” or “impassable cane swamp.”

A 635-acre state land grant to Isom Woodward, 1817. The plat is on its side – a clockwise rotation would orient it north-south. 


It was one such plat I stumbled across that piqued my curiosity. It was a state grant (although much of South Carolina had been “granted out” before the Revolution, the state still owned a good bit of land after the war – some of these lands were old, abandoned Colonial grants whose original owners never claimed or “improved” them) issued in 1817 for 635 acres to Isom Woodward, an early planter from the “Fork” as lower Richland County was known then. The grant was “situated in Richland District on the branches of the Congaree River.”  Based upon the general location and also being somewhat familiar with the Congaree holdings of adjoining landowners noted on the plat – Green Rives, Abraham Shepherd, and Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, I felt I had reasonable knowledge of the general location of this grant.

What really caught my attention on this plat was a small, dashed, elipitcal outline in the southeastern corner of the plat that the surveyor had labeled as “Martin’s folly.” What was Martin’s folly? Who was Martin? And where was it located? I felt that if I could pinpoint the location of the grant, then maybe I could find a clue as to what the folly was.

It was easier said than done.  What was particularly frustrating about this plat was that it had a lot of clues and details that should have made it fairly easy to locate. It had an unusual shape with a total of thirteen different sides, as opposed to the many rectangular plats in the park with only four sides; it noted three different adjoining landowners whereas some plats had none; and it had several natural features labeled on it: a Beaverdam Gut across the center of the plat; a Cypress Gut on the west side; and a Cypress Pond on the south.

I had had a good bit of success putting together a map of the original land grants of the Congaree. It’s exactly like working on a jigsaw puzzle. The first pieces are the hardest to put in place, but once you get to a critical size, the remainder of the pieces start falling into place.

Well, I spent a lot of time poring over maps and plats, but couldn’t get the piece to fit anywhere. I later found a hint that the grant was on the northeast side of Cedar Creek but still could not find a fit. Over the years I would periodically take a stab at locating the grant, all to no avail, and I finally despaired of ever locating Isom Woodward’s 635-acre land grant and the mystery of Martin’s folly.

Isom Woodward’s 1817 plat overlaid on my Congaree map. The green part of the boundary lines were still extant at the time of park acquisition in 1976. Martin’s folly is shown in the lower right hand corner.

Well, if you live long enough, and have a little luck, sometimes things work out. I think it was around 2008, more than thirty years after I first found the plat, that I had an eureka moment and was able to fit Mr. Woodward’s land grant in what I think is its rightful place. It is indeed on the northeastern side of Cedar Creek and contains several prominent features on my hand-drawn map of the park: Hurricane Pond, Deer Pond, Pine Lake, and Night Heron Flat. The location of Martin’s folly fits in with a neck of high land on the western end of Beaver Dam Slough (a name I came up with well before knowing the location of the Beaverdam Gut noted on the surveyor’s plat).

Being familiar with this little neck of high ground, I didn’t recall any physical feature that would have suggested past human activity. There are (or were before Hurricane Hugo knocked them down) several large old pines nearby on the eastern side of Pine Lake Slough that could indicate a past clearing of some sort. But so far I have not located any on-the-ground evidence that would offer a clue as to the origins of Martin’s folly. Speculation might be the closest we come to solving the riddle.

I’ve always thought the folly was some sort of agricultural enterprise. Was Martin trying to grow rice or indigo here, for example? Old agriculture fields and clearings were usually square or rectangular, however, so why did the surveyor indicate an elliptical outline? Perhaps the dashed lines were following the high ground contours which in this area would be elliptical due to the shape of the surrounding sloughs. And since there are no old dikes, dams, or other such structures to hold back water, was Martin creating a folly by farming in a floodplain without protecting his investment?

Might Martin himself provide a clue? We don’t know much about the family except they were some of the earliest settlers in Richland County. Joseph Martin was granted 200 acres of land in 1757 in the Congaree Swamp on the northwestern side of the Isom Woodward grant. In 1770 Martin obtained another grant for 600 acres in the swamp. He built a house on the north side of Cedar Creek, in the general vicinity of where Dawson’s cabin used to be located, and had a bridge constructed over Cedar Creek to access his swamp holdings, some of which he had under cultivation.

Robert Mills 1825 Atlas of Richland County shows approximate location of Martin’s folly in green and Isom Woodward’s plantation home in red, about where Eastover is now located.

Most of Joseph Martin’s legacy, at least the physical part, has long since disappeared, to the point that it is as if his labors and works never happened. Today when walking along the beautiful bluffs of Cedar Creek, you would never know there was a bridge here more than two centuries ago, a spacious country home nearby, or a narrow wagon road in the swamp leading to his fields, and in one case, folly. Other than a brief will and a few plats, there is nothing in the written record that tells his story. The same applies to many other Congaree landowners: the Adams, Goodwyns, Westons, Woodwards, Hugers, Cooners, Spigners, Seays, Mazycks and others that tried to wrest a living out of the Congaree. Their lost legacies reminds me of the old Christian hymn,

“Time like an ever-rolling stream, bears all its sons away.

They fly forgotten, as a dream dies at the opening day.”

About the only thing left that reminds us that there were people working the Congaree long before us are earthen dikes and cattle mounds, signs of old ferry bridges and abutments, a sentence or two in a will here and there, and tantalizing brief notations and sketches on two-hundred-year old plats.