A History of Purrysburg, South Carolina

A lonely, cross-shaped monument of stone on the banks of the Savannah River marks the site of Purrysburg, an early Swiss settlement that eventually failed. In 1731, the King of England granted land on the Savannah River to Swiss colonizer Jean Pierre Purry. Hundreds of German speaking and French speaking Swiss colonists arrived with the dream of establishing a silk trade in the new colony. But malaria and other hardships proved fatal to the European colonists, and the settlement died a slow death.

Purrysburg lingered on until the time of the American Revolution, serving as the first headquarters of the American army under Major General Benjamin Lincoln. After the Revolution, Purrysburg was granted a US Post Office that remained open until 1848, and the town could be found on many SC maps well into the late 1800s. Today, the river landing and the cemetery at Purrysburg are still in use, and several fine, new homes are being built near the site.

One of the early and important actions of the Royal Government was the Township Act of 1730; additional townships were authorized in 1761. The first act authorized nine townships containing 20,000 acres each, and agents were sent to Europe to recruit families as settlers. The families were offered inducements such as free transportation to South Carolina, free provisions for one year, and free land. The townships neither created nor kept records; their functions were solely geographical. Townships, like parishes, were used for some tax districts and appeared as locators in grants and conveyances.

Purrysburg (aka Purrysburgh) Township was established and first settled by Swiss/Palatine immigrants in 1732. It was located on the east bank of the Savannah River much closer to the mouth and the Atlantic Ocean than New Windsor Township, which was upriver across from Savannah.

Next to the founding of the town of Beaufort in 1711, the most significant single event in the settling of the Beaufort District was the establishment of Purrysburg on the Savannah River in 1732. Not only was Purrysburg the largest immigration of Europeans directly to the Beaufort District, but it was also the origin of most of the French- and German-speaking families in the southeastern corner of South Carolina.

The story of the Purrysburg settlement began in Neufchatel, Switzerland, with one of the state’s most adventurous and colorful characters, Jean Pierre Purry. Purry, a wine merchant, was born in Neufchatel in 1675. By 1713, he had left Europe to seek his fortune in Dutch East Indies and traveled as far as South Australia in search of new lands to colonize. By 1717, he was back in Europe where he presented a plan to the directors of the Dutch East India Company for a Swiss settlement in Australia. In 1718, he published a pamphlet in Amsterdam which advanced the theory that the best places on the globe for human habitation were at thirty-three degrees north and south latitude. It was this theory which brought Jean Pierre Purry to the banks of the Savannah River in 1731.

Rebuffed by Dutch colonial officials, Purry approached English colonial officials with a similar scheme. In 1724, he wrote a memorial to the Duke of Newcastle proposing a Swiss settlement in America near thirty-three degrees north latitude.

In his memorial, Purry suggested that the settlement be called "Georgina" in honor of England’s new Hanoverian King George I. The Lords Proprietors of Carolina, anxious to better settle and defend the frontier during the devastating and ongoing Yamassee War (1715-1716), initially agreed to transport Purry’s Swiss immigrants to South Carolina at their expense.

Purry in 1726, advertised in the Swiss Cantons for volunteers to immigrate to America, and a case of "Carolina fever" swept the mountain communities. Two hundred people gathered in Geneva and one hundred more in Neufchatel. But the Lords Proprietors reneged on their promise of transportation, Purry’s Swiss creditors backed out, and the Swiss immigrants were left penniless, hungry, and angry.

Purry was nothing if not persistent, and, in 1729, the Lords Proprietors finally relinquished control of the South Carolina colony to the Crown. This greatly improved the political and financial opportunities for Purry’s scheme. Purry's plan fit perfectly into the highest priority instructions from the king’s ministers to the first Royal Governor of South Carolina, Robert Johnson.

One of the principal reasons for the Crown’s interest in acquiring South Carolina was to defend British imperial interests in America and particularly to counter the entrenched Spanish in Florida and the encircling French in Louisiana. Governor Johnson was instructed to establish "townships" on the South Carolina frontier and settle them with European protestants. Governor Johnson’s "Township Plan" grew not only out of Purry’s memorial to the duke of Newcastle, but also out of the "Barnwell Plan" of 1721.

Thus, Purry’s scheme for a Swiss settlement was revived in 1730, and by 1731, Jean Pierre Purry was in South Carolina. He was led across the lowcountry to the banks of the Savannah River by Captain Rowland Evans of the Carolina Rangers, a militia unit which guarded the southern frontier with mounted patrols that rode between McPherson’s Cowpen at Yamassee and the ranger fort at Palachacola Bluff on the Savannah River. The place that Evans and Purry chose for the Swiss township was called "Great Yamassee Bluff" on the South Carolina side of the river between Savannah and Palachacola. The name chosen for the new town was Purrysburg.

In 1732, an advance party of settlers cleared the site and laid out the lots in the new town. Two years later the bulk of the new Swiss settlers arrived in Purrysburg. By 1736, there were 100 houses and as many as 450 settlers in the new town. The town of Purrysburg was well situated for the defense of the South Carolina lowcountry, but not well situated for either subsistence or commercial agriculture. The settlers suffered from heat, disease, and lack of viable agricultural ground. Over the next several years, numerous complaints reached the colonial authorities regarding the unhealthy site, the lack of adequate support from the colonial government, and numerous legal conflicts regarding over-lapping or worthless land grants. Over the next decade, many of the settlers sought better lives in Georgia, where the new town of Savannah (1733) and the Salzberger settlement at Ebenezer (1736) had recently been established.

In 1736, Jean Pierre Purry died, leaving the struggling Swiss immigrants to fend for themselves. Along with his wife, Lucrece de Chaillet, he left two sons, neither of whom remained in Purrysburg. His son, David, remained in Europe, where he became a prominent banker and benefactor in Lisbon, Portugal. A statue of David Purry remains in the public square of the family’s hometown of Neufchatel.

Charles Purry, the elder son, left Purrysburg to become a prominent Bay Street merchant in Beaufort. He also started a store at Okatee Bluff in the 1740s. Okatee Bluff was the closest tidewater landing to Purrysburg Township and provided direct access from the mainland to the inland passage through the sea islands to Beaufort and Charles Town. Okatee Bluff acted as the "back door" to the Purrysburg settlement, and several mercantile establishments were located there in the colonial period.

During the 1750s, Charles Purry’s Okatee store was managed by another Huguenot associated with the Purrysburg settlement, André Verdier. In 1754, Charles Purry was poisoned by one of his trusted household slaves. It was the most famous slave murder case in colonial Beaufort and sent shudders through the lowcountry planter community. The slave perpetrator was tried, executed, and gibbeted on Bay Street in 1754. Charles Purry left only one daughter, Eleanor, who married John Bull of Prince William's Parish. No children survived John and Eleanor Bull, and the Purry family in America died out.

The Purrysburg settlement did not thrive. It never developed a strong agricultural base and only survived because it was the principal crossing of the Savannah River on the King’s Highway from Charles Town to Savannah. In 1747, Purrysburg became the seat of St. Peter’s Parish along the Savannah River, and Reverend Henry Chiffelle was sent by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG) in Foreign Parts to organize the Anglican Church there. Though Reverend Chiffelle struggled for many years, neither the town nor the established church prospered. Henry Chiffelle’s son, Philotheos, moved off to Charles Town and became a successful merchant.

While old Purrysburg did not prosper, the descendants of the Swiss pioneers who settled there became some of the most productive and influential citizens in the old Beaufort District. They formed the core of the Huguenot influence in that region. Among the French-Swiss names from Purrysburg were DeSaussure, Huguenin, Jeanneret, Robert, Verdier, Borquine, deBeaufain, Mongin, LaFitte, Pelot, and Bugnion.

Among the German-Swiss settlers at Purrysburg were Mengersdorff, Holzendorf, Mayerhoffer, Winkler, Strobhar, and Zubly. Approximately two-thirds of the Purrysburg settlers were French speaking and one-fourth were German speaking. In addition, twenty-five families originated from Salzburg, Austria, and forty families were Protestant refugees from the Italian Piedmont. The best-known name among the Piedmontese was Jean Louis Poyas.

Most of the Purrysburg immigrants moved away from the township to seek their fortunes in more productive places. Hector Berenger de Beaufain moved to Charles Town and served for twenty-four years as Collector of Customs (1742- 1766). The Mongin family moved to Daufuskie Island where, in the nineteenth century, they became successful sea island cotton planters. Mongin Creek on the west side of Daufuskie Island bordered their plantation lands.

Reverend Francis Pelot moved to the eastern border of the township and founded the Euhaws Baptist Church at the crossroads there in 1738. This was the "mother church" of the Baptist movement in the Beaufort District and the center of the antebellum village of Grahamville.

The Huguenin family moved to Coosawhatchie and became the largest rice-planting family on the Coosawhatchie River. Henri DeSaussure moved to the strategic crossroads of Coosawhatchie and began that families’ fortune with a small country store.

Though the dream of Jean Pierre Purry failed, the result was, nonetheless, an infusion into the Beaufort District of a large number of the most talented, enterprising, and productive families in the long history of the South Carolina lowcountry.

This section is taken from "The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina," Rowland, Moore, and Rogers, USC Press 1996, with minor edits.

In 1768, the Royal Colony of South Carolina passed the District Act and eliminated all references to the old counties and townships with respect to governmental organization. The parishes remained intact, and even two new Parishes were established in 1768 - St. David's Parish and St. Matthew's Parish. The 1768 Act was nullified by the British Parliament, but after it was re-introduced in 1769 it was approved.

What had been Purrysburg Township was now part of the much larger Beaufort District (created in 1769) and within St. Peter's Parish (created in 1747 and cut in half in 1767) but the new districts were not truly functional until around 1772, right before the American Revolution.

Immediately after the American Revolution, the newly-independent State of South Carolina redefined its internal districts in 1785 and recreated a new version of "counties" quite unlike the mostly-ambiguous and unsurveyed counties that existed prior to 1769. In 1791, South Carolina once again redefined its districts to now include the specific newly-created counties. In 1800, South Carolina decided to rename all existing counties as districts, and the larger term for district was now obsolete - no more aggregation of counties into a large "overarching" district.

During all of this, Purrysburg Township ceased to exist. Since no significant permanent towns were ever established in the 20,000 acre tract, the name Purrysburg disappeared, not even recognized in the current state of South Carolina. To get an idea of where the Purrysburg Township had been during the Royal Period, find a map of South Carolina and look for Jasper County in the very southern end of the state - the heart of the Purrysburg Township was located where the present-day town of Switzerland (of course) is situated.

The town of Purrysburg in Beaufort County, SC was granted a US Post Office on February 25, 1822, and its first Postmaster was Mr. John Keebler. It was permanently closed on January 14, 1848.

Purrysburg Town Plat - From SC State Archives - Click Here

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