First Families of Hilton Head: The Orages

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TRADITIONS. THEY INSPIRE A NOSTALGIC FEELING IN MANY; AT ONE POINT, LIFE WAS ALL ABOUT TRADITIONS. THEY WERE IMPORTANT, VALUED AND TIME-HONORED

Today, however, many of these beliefs, behaviors and ways of life seem to be falling by the wayside, no matter how hard we cling to them. For example, many Gullah traditions on Hilton Head Island are more than 150 years old. But they too are fading. The language, skills and the traditions of the Gullah are slowly fading away. But they won’t disappear forever, so long as the Orage family makes its home on Hilton Head.

The Orage family’s ties to the island date back to the family patriarch, Frederick Orage, who was born between 1857 and 1860. Other than his marriage to Penny Fields in 1880, few records remain about their lives on Hilton Head. However, the surname Orage, record by record, has had several different variations in spelling. Over time, the name was recorded in U.S. Census data as Orage, Oriage and Orange. Variations in spelling was a common occurance in the late 1800s, as Census reporters often documented names as they heard them phonetically. And some slaves, who could not read or write, ultimately accepted the altered spelling of their names. The Orage family seems to have adapted an alternate spelling of their name – Oriage — starting with Frederick’s son, Pauldo Fields Oriage.

Over time, the Orage family has left its cultural footprint on Hilton Head. The family has played a part in the island’s growth and development, but also helped encourage the education of many of the island’s children and the preservation of the native islander culture.

Arthur Orage

The art of net making and casting has been traced back to West Africa. Men knitted fishing nets with a needle that was often made of palmetto wood. In addition to the skill needed to create the nets, casting the net was an art that didn’t come easily. Once made, the net had to be folded in a particular way so that when thrown, it would fan out and capture as many fish as possible.

Frederick Orage’s great-greatgrandson, Arthur Orage, was one of Hilton Head’s most talented net makers. When he died in 2012 at the age of 88, after a lifetime of fishing the waters of Skull Creek, he took much of his net knowledge with him. Taught by his father, Paul, Arthur sewed weights into his net footings, pulling the net to the creek’s floor after it was cast off with a precise circular twist. And he could make or repair any kind of net with a variety of materials.

Dorothy Miller, Arthur’s granddaughter, remembers watching him weave nets when she was a child. Arthur’s meticulous attention to detail meant it would take a week or two to make one net.

“He would work on them in between the work that he did on the garden and when he would go fishing,” Dorothy said. “I used to sit by him and watch him sew the nets. First he would start up with the sinkers. Nets were made for different kinds of fish or for shrimps. It was fascinating to watch. [The net] was so wide it could cover a house.”

Richard Orage

But Arthur wasn’t the only member of the Orage family to make a mark on the Lowcountry. Richard Orage, another of Frederick’s great-great-grandsons, was a strong proponent of education. As a child, he was encouraged to continue past grade school, despite growing up in a time when families needed their children to help on the farm. But with his mother’s blessings, he left Hilton Head on a three-day journey to St. Helena Island and the Penn School to further his education with only “75 cents and two sweet potatoes.” The experience led to a lifelong love of education, and he founded the Richard Charles Oriage Memorial Scholarship Program, which provides scholarships to students studying social work.

Tradition was also very important to Richard — especially Gullah traditions. He became a founding member and treasurer of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church Achievement School, as well as a founding member of the Native Islander Business and Cultural Association and Gullah Heritage Trail Tours. As one of the tour group’s first guides, Richard shared stories of Gullah traditions and native islander history, ensuring the role of native islanders was well-preserved as part of Hilton Head’s story. Without his contributions, the stories of many Gullah contributions to the Lowcountry would be lost to today’s native island community and the tourists who frequent the island every year.

The Orages have created a legacy of traditions for themselves, the Lowcountry and the Gullah community. Their work to preserve the cultural, generational and procedural experiences that were passed down over the years help ensure that the traditions that formed the Lowcountry’s past will continue to influence the community into the future.

PHOTO BY LLOYD WAINSCOTT