When I think of Charleston, South Carolina’s history, the first thing that comes to mind is plantations — big, French-influenced houses and manicured gardens. I think of cotton. I think of slaves. But I never think of Charleston and think of the American Revolution. What a mistake! Charleston was pivotal to the Revolutionary War.
I didn’t know this until I took a Shem Creek Shrimp Tour with Capt. Bryan that I found through Airbnb. The tour promised a glimpse of local life along with a walking tour that explained how Mt. Pleasant and Shem Creek’s history played into American history and how shrimp came to be one of Charleston’s major products.
Colonialism & Charleston’s Harbor
It amazes me that my education of American history was almost entirely based on the American Revolution in the more northern colonies: Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, Maryland. But I’ve never equated Charleston, South Carolina with any American history other than Civil War history. Capt. Bryan set me straight. I feel like I should have known this, but here I was on one of the outer islands of the Charleston peninsula and I was being given a history lesson while Capt. Bryan pointed to spots on the horizon.
While Charleston, South Carolina is simply “southern” to me, it was actually considered the northern tip of the Florida Territory that extended up through Florida, Georgia, and into South Carolina.
Charleston, South Carolina was also considered one of the southernmost borders of the British Colonial territories. So it shouldn’t be surprising that this was prime territory for the French, Spanish, and British in the late 18th century.
Capt. Bryan pointed toward the outermore islands visible from the Pleasant plantation home which gave Mt. Pleasant its name.
You could see how pivotal these outer islands were in protecting Charleston Harbor. The attacking fleets came with the intent to destroy — not simply control — the British colonization in Charleston. They did mass destruction but were thwarted in a battle that I’d never heard of by using the palmetto trees to build their forts. Palmetto trees are spongy and difficult to burn. This fact made them virtually impenetrable. The palmetto & mud forts absorbed enemy fire.
If you’ve ever wondered why South Carolina was later named the “Palmetto State,” that’s why. Palmettos saved them.
Civil War & Charleston
Of course, Charleston, South Carolina was a major city in the Civil War as well. The harbor was essential to the South’s endurance and an important spot for the Union blockades. One of the major exports from South Carolina was cotton, or “King Cotton” as it was often called. But when boll weevils destroyed the cotton plantations, South Carolina had to rely on new forms of commerce. Charleston’s marshy environment made it the perfect place to increase its haul of shrimp, and shrimp soon became a major product along the South Carolina shore.
Capt. Bryan took us to three different shrimp shacks — family businesses that have hung in over the years despite the changes to the shrimping industry and sanctions that stopped many other shrimpers.
The Shrimping industry suffered huge blows in the early 2000’s. Where Shem Creek was once crowded with a hundred shrimp boats along its shore, by 2008, there were only three shrimp boats left. Now, there are about a dozen and they do things differently than shrimpers did in their late 20th-century heyday.
Shrimpers now use different nets and fishing methods on their boats in order to protect sea turtles and other marine life that were once getting caught in the shrimp nets. It means that the shrimpers lose some of their catch when their nets release other creatures in the catch. The result is a higher price for the local shrimp harvested responsibly, but it also allows the ecosystem that nurtures marine life in that region to remain balanced.
Capt. Bryan shared some a list of restaurants that serve locally-harvested shrimp on their menus. We knew that’s want we wanted: EAT LOCAL; SHOP LOCAL. We couldn’t wait to have a lunch of fresh shrimp!
Live the Local Life
One of Captain Bryan’s favorite sayings is, “Live the Local Life.” And on his tour, you get to experience just that. Capt. Bryan walked up further down the pier to show us how locals cast nets to catch shrimp and minnows, and pulled up a crab trap he’d set earlier.
We were fortunate to find a crab in the trap. A big one! Capt. Bryan showed us how to handle the crabs and then did an entertaining trick of putting the crab to sleep that he learned from a Maine fisherman. He then woke the crab up and we tossed the crab back in the water. (Capt. Bryan throws releases everything he catches on his tours.)
The tour offered a rare opportunity to hear what it was like to grow up around there catching crabs, shrimp, oysters and fish as part of your childhood. Certainly a different lifestyle than playing in the Ohio creeks like I did as a kid.
Capt. Bryan asked if anyone wanted to try casting a net. You know me — Of course, I wanted to!
“The secret is remembering to let go with your teeth when you throw it out there. Swing back, and throw it like a frisbee. Make sure you let go of the rope with your teeth!”
I chanted that in my head as I flung the net into the water and (luckily!) I DID let go with my teeth! My net made a perfect pancake landing.
Lo and behold, we pulled the net in and I had caught several baby shrimp and a few minnows. Capt. Bryan said I’d done the best cast of the year! 🙂
Whether that’s true or not, I had a fantastic time trying it out. Capt. Bryan’s tour was so unique: part history, part shrimp talk, and then a chance to learn to cast a net from someone who’s been doing it his whole life was a real treat. We did a lot of walking and a lot of learning. It was an experience I could only get there: on Shem Creek in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina. Thanks, Capt. Bryan!
Would you try casting a net by holding it in your teeth?
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What a fun tour and fantastic history, would have loved to see some of the delicious dishes made with this crustacean. Would love to visit the outer islands, its been too long for me.
We ate our lunch dishes before I even thought to take a picture, haha. We were hungry!
Love your adventurous spirit!
Also, that story about palmettos is very cool. I love learning from your stories. 🙂
Thanks, Kristan. I’m such a tour geek. I like them for their fun facts. 😃
Educational and fun
Thanks! That’s a perfect description for this tour. 🙂
We just returned from a visit to the Louisiana River Parishes and found ourselves in the heart of the southern plantation region. While we did not get to have a shrimping experience, we did get to enjoy some delectable Gulf shrimp during our visit. After reading this article, it looks like Charleston should be on our radar.
I’d always equated shrimp with Louisiana, too. I’ve visited some plantations there, too. So much fascinating history and culture in the southern states!