One of the historic grave markers found on Sandy Island. Photo © Colette DeGarady / The Nature Conservancy

Uncovering the Graveyard in the Woods

In coastal South Carolina, conservationists have used fire not just to restore forests, but to clean up historic slave cemeteries for their descendants.

Fall 2017

Nearly a decade ago, Colette DeGarady was a senior ecologist for The Nature Conservancy’s 9,000-acre preserve on an island wedged between the Pee Dee and Waccamaw rivers of South Carolina’s lowcountry. There alligators and red-cockaded woodpeckers make their homes alongside descendants of those who once worked on the island’s long-gone rice plantations. On a routine tour with local residents, she and the then preserve manager Furman Long stopped near an overgrown cemetery, DeGarady says. “One of the residents looks at the gravestone and says, ‘That’s my grandmother!’”

What eventually followed was a two-year effort, completed this summer, that involved using sonar and controlled burns and delving deep into the history of the island—the largest undeveloped freshwater island on the east coast.

In the ‘90s, a proposed bridge nearly spurred development on Sandy Island, which until then had only been accessible by boat. Multiple organizations joined together and made the case that development could harm the island’s old-growth longleaf pine habitat—home to endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers. With the support of the island’s remaining 40-odd residents, the groups conserved several thousand acres to protect habitat for the birds. The bridge never materialized.

Close up of a person holding a Red Cockaded Woodpecker on Sandy Island. Photo © John Moore

In 1996, The Nature Conservancy began managing the land, conducting biological surveys and later using controlled burns to thin overgrown forests and encourage new longleaf pine saplings to grow. Red-cockaded woodpeckers nest among the pines. In 1997, the Conservancy conducted a baseline survey of the endangered birds. A follow-up count 18 years later showed a 20 percent increase in the population.

Controlled burn © Rich Reid

“We’ve got an embarrassment of riches of red-cockaded woodpeckers,” says Tom Dooley, the forest program manager for The Nature Conservancy in South Carolina. Dooley’s team conducts regular controlled burns on Sandy Island.

Dooley’s team and their fire expertise would quickly become key to efforts to uncover and clean up historic cemeteries on the island.

The flow of the Pee Dee and Waccamaw Rivers along the shores of Sandy Island help sustain its wetlands but they also historically produced ideal conditions for growing rice. The crop came to North America as early as the 1600s and by the early 1800s, coastal South Carolina plantations, powered with slave labor, produced more rice than anywhere else on the continent. Sandy Island was no exception.

After the Civil War, a freed slave named Phillip Washington founded Sandy Island Village and bought several hundred acres of land. Washington had previously been the slave driver at the Pipe Down Plantation on the island. Under him in the later 1800s, a rice business staffed by free men and women blossomed. Over several decades they buried their family members in four cemeteries throughout the island. It was one of those cemeteries DeGarady, Long and village residents stumbled upon a decade ago.

In the 1800s, rice plantations thrived on and around Sandy Island in South Carolina, worked by slaves and later free men and women, like these rice workers pausing during a harvest, circa 1895. South Carolina rice production, dependent on cheap labor, declined in the early 1900s. Photo © From the New York Public Library

DeGarady and Long worked with village residents in recent years to determine how to honor the graves of the village residents’ ancestors while continuing to preserve the natural areas now established on the island.

Researchers from Coastal Carolina University used sonar equipment to identify gravesites because many were unmarked. Two are located on Conservancy property—one about the size of a football field with as many as 1,000 graves. DeGarady and others from the Conservancy worked with residents to add markers to some graves but not all to avoid the potential for grave robbing. On the preserve, they added trails to allow residents to more easily visit the graves of their ancestors. And, in the end, they settled on a familiar tool: controlled burns.

Dooley’s team used fire to clear brush over some of the more overgrown cemeteries. “We realized we could run fire across it to expose those dips in the soil to expose where the graves are,” he says. They also worked to have the headstone of the village founder Phillip Washington repaired.

Using sonar to find unmarked gravesites. Photo © Colette DeGarady / The Nature Conservancy

Today the rice plantations are long gone; in some areas stalks of now-wild rice remain. Forests are reclaiming the remnants of decades-old abandoned homes. And as Dooley’s team brings regular fires to the pines, the red-cockaded woodpeckers—once key to establishing conserved areas on the island—are rebounding.

Each year or two in August, Furman Long—now retired from the Conservancy but a full-time Sandy Island resident—helps organize a family reunion of sorts for village locals. Revisiting the cemeteries will be easier now. The restoration work, DeGarady says, has ultimately brought the conservation work closer to the villagers. “How could we marry that with our ecological management and also honor the residents?” says DeGarady, who retired from the Conservancy in 2017. “In the end, it became kind of a group project.”

A version of this story appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Nature Conservancy magazine. Read about energy sprawl, high-tech ways to track animals and more from the issue in the archive.


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  1. Great project! And nice story about preserving the natural and human context.

  2. I am heartened by this article, to learn that there are projects to reclaim the heritage of African-American people who were enslaved. I don’t learn from this article how large the challenge is in this area of historic research and what other projects have been undertaken to uncover similar facts, but perhaps this information is, or could be, forthcoming. Our school kids and their teachers should have easy access to high-quality instructional materials, such as this, that show them where we have been as a nation on this matter of racial equality, where we are, and where we need to get to for racial equality in our country. This story needs to include examples of non-white immigrants who have overcome substantial, if not terrible and even cruel obstacles, to achieve their legitimate goals for a decent, dignified way of life in this country. As for now, it is shameful, and profoundly sad, that racial bias and discrimination still poison our American quality of life.

  3. Rich Russ and I were with the group pictured here. The effort was spearheaded by Patti Burns of Georgetown. Horry County provided the ground penetrating radar equipment. William Martin and Mary Catherine Hyman are operating the GPR.