First Families of Hilton Head Island: The Stewarts

People

Charles Stewart1Most of the stories of Hilton Head Island’s first families are interwoven with images of lives defined by a love of community and a love and respect for the simplicity of island life. All of the families embody the value of hard work, and their stories show a determination to survive against incredible odds.

 

The families that were here before the bridge thrived because they developed the skills and talents they needed to survive, and they used all the natural resources that were available to them. They were isolated from the mainland, but their lives were still rich and full.

The Stewart family is a unique representation of native islander family life before the bridge. Their story incorporates several facets of island life and shows a common theme: Everyone worked hard, and everyone had a traditional role to play — the men farmed and fished, and the women took care of the family, quilted and made sweetgrass baskets.

Cora Lee Stewart, the strong yet gentle matriarch of the family, was known for her expert sewing skills and the beautifully intricate quilts that she made by hand. For the women, “evenings were spent sitting around talking and sewing; she was very handy with a needle,” says her granddaughter, Frances Stewart Allen. Cora Lee spent her evenings quilting, but she spent her days working at the oyster factory so she could save enough money to buy the family land. “Before she died, she made a quilt by hand for each of the grandchildren,” Frances said.

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Stewart family, from left: Alandria, Shadasha, Jessica, Sarah, Arthur, William, Isabel, Crystal, Derald Sr., Jada and John. Below: Kyla, Kevin Jr & Jerome Jr

Cora Lee’s family remembers her strength and character. They remember her slow and deliberate way of walking and the way the ocean breeze caused her skirt to sway gracefully. But that easygoing manner changed when she walked into the yard to find a chicken for the night’s meal. She would call out, “Here chick, chick, chick,” and suddenly, in a single motion, she would reach down, grab a chicken and expertly swing it in a large arc, breaking its neck.

“I remember that those chicken dinners were the best ones that I ever had,” Frances says.

Cora Lee’s husband, Charles, was the head of his family and one of the community’s religious leaders. As a founding member of Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, he served as a deacon whose dedication and service continues to be remembered.

Charles instilled strong values in his children and taught them important life skills. He believed that respect for the water was as important as learning how to fish. His sons, Henry, Arthur, Benjamin and Washington, became experienced fisherman who learned to make a living from the water in boats that were named after their wives.

For Stewart men and most male native islanders, survival meant living off the bounty of the land and sea. Developing the skills needed to fish and navigate the waters helped them put food on the table and earn a living to support their families.

The Stewart family was different, however; one of Charles’ sons, Arthur Stewart, turned fishing into a family business with his wife, Isabel, working alongside him as a deck hand. This was unusual because in those days, most native islander women were not taught to swim or fish.

Quiet and reserved, Isabel downplayed her unique role in the family and on the island. She demonstrated her strength of character by working on the boat during the day, raising eight children, and taking care of her home.

Her days usually began at 3 a.m., when she cooked for everyone on the boat. This meant cleaning the shrimp, shucking oysters and occasionally “holding the wheel.” She spent 12 hours on the water, and after taking care of her family, she usually got only a few hours of sleep before starting her day all over again.

“Sometimes I would go to sleep at 2 a.m. It was a lot, but I did what needed to be done,” Isabel said. Sometimes the entire family was put to work either out on the shrimp boats or back on shore. Once the boats docked, bringing in almost 300 pounds of fish per boat, they sold their day’s catch to customers in Port Royal and on Daufuskie Island or from the shrimp house that they had set up behind their house.

“Shrimping was the best money that you could make on the island,” Arthur says.

There was a time when fish was plentiful, and Arthur’s brother Washington, also a fisherman, would come home with “wheelbarrows full of fish and shrimp,” his wife, Margaret, says. But fishing came with its own dangers. One day, Margaret said, Washington was adrift on the water for more than six hours because of engine problems. When he did not return as usual, she asked Arthur to search for him. Eventually the two brothers returned safely, but it was a reminder that no matter your skill level, being on the water can be dangerous — but you can always rely on your family and the community to help in a crisis.

Even though we can still look out on our local waters and see the occasional trawler harvesting its catch for the day, most islanders no longer depend on the water for a living. After the bridge to the mainland was built, native islanders’ simple lifestyles changed dramatically. But certain things remained: a sense of community, a love of family, and an undying love for the land and the sea.