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South Carolina Cookery History: Natives, Settlers, Slaves and the Birth of a Cuisine

crabby Eric Spigner

Hobcaw Barony was a 16,000 acre development that was developed in the 1700’s presently known as the majority of Georgetown South Carolina. The Native Americans who resided on this land called it “hobcaw” meaning between the waters this term was used by the Waccamaw Tribe. In the early 1500’s, the Waccamaw may have been the first natives to have encountered Europeans. Explorers Francisco Gordillo and Pedro de Quejo took several Waccamaw tribe members to Spain. Stories of gold, silver and fearless hunters and warriors (Natives) led the Spanish back to the present day Carolina coast in the 1520’s. 


The Waccamaw peninsula had an abundance of wild game from the forests and seafood from the marshes. Shell “middens,” or native people’s trash heaps, exist today as marsh islands and lend evidence to archaeologists who study native culture. In 1530, 600 settlers’ horses and hogs came to this area with plans of creating a development. Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon may have chosen Hobcaw’s bluff on Winyah Bay. After a few months, 150 remaining settlers left the failed settlement and returned to Hispaniola. By the early 1700’s, an English/Native American trading post had been established at Hobcaw Barony. Within a few years the English were also exporting enslaved Native Americans. By the 1700’s the plantation system was established in the agricultural Southern colonies and quickly became dependent on slave labor, first from Barbados and then primarily from West Africa.

By early 1730’s, Georgetown was an official port of entry. Early exports included naval stores, salt, animal hides, pickled beef and salted or smoked pork. Export crops included citrus fruits, wine, grapes, tobacco, cotton, corn, indigo and rice. The Waccamaw River plantations averaged 3,000 acres and 400 slaves. By late 1700’s, Georgetown District was the world’s second largest producer of “Carolina Gold” rice and nearly 85% of the area population was black. Enslaved Africans’ knowledge of tidal cultivation of rice, skills and strengths in diverse areas of plantation work resulted in millions of pounds of rice produced annually in the Georgetown District. Here in this area is where the slaves learned from the Waccamaw Tribe on how to survive off the land and waters, in the marsh areas of this property were large amounts of shrimp, fish and blue crab.

The slaves were knowledgeable about hunting and fishing from their Native land but the Natives taught them how to utilize this foreign land. In my early Native and African manuscript it was noted that blue crabs mainly populated the marshes; it was also written that the Natives and Slaves would cook the crabs with rice and corn. The abundance of blue crabs was also used as forms of décor the smaller shells were used like spoons for eating while the larger shells would serve as bowls; the legs which tips are so tiny also sharp were used as tooth picks and jewelry even toys that both the Native and Slave children shared. By this time we see the rice culture in South Carolina boom it was noted that Slaves would use ramps, corn, butter pea, salt pork, curry, blue crab meat and rice to make a dish called purloo. There are not many if any recipes of this crab and rice dish; but it is eating all over the Carolina North and South also in Maryland; but in Little River South Carolina every year there is a blue crab festival were people prepared different variations of crab and rice along with other dishes in celebration of blue crab. This dish also had a strong influence from European culture; but Southeastern Native American and African American culture has formed the cornerstone of Southern cuisine from its origins till the present day.

This is an excerpt from the pages of a book written by Eric Spigner, the executive chef of Nova in Oak Cliff, Texas, covering the evolution of South Carolina BBQ during the times of slavery in a small town just less than 15 miles from his Grandmother’s home where he was raised. We will look for more from Spigner in February as we celebrate Black History Month.

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