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  • Writer's pictureTim Murphy

Colonial Dorchester

On December 5, 1695, Reverend Joseph Lord—a Puritan minister from Massachusetts—and several dozen members of his congregation boarded the sloop Friendship bound for South Carolina. Labeled “religious dissenters” by the Anglican Church, Lord’s sectarians sought to “settle the Gospel” in the acceptive southern colony. After a two-week voyage, the Congregationalists docked in Charlestown (present-day Charleston) and spent nearly a month exploring the Lowcountry terrain. On January 26, 1696, Lord’s votaries purchased 4,050 acres along the upper Ashley River and christened the future settlement “Dorchester” after their New England hometown.  

Around 1700, the Congregationalists constructed a meetinghouse for their religious services two miles from Dorchester’s town center. The Puritan sanctuary attracted churchgoers of various denominations from across the region, which augmented the town’s development. Dorchester’s settlers modeled a “New England-style township” with farm lots, parceled properties, and a marketplace, all neatly arranged within a sophisticated grid system.

Unfortunately for the Puritans, the Commons House of Assembly passed the “Church Act” on November 30, 1706, which recognized the Church of England as South Carolina’s official religion. The colony was effectively divided into parishes, maintained by Anglican ministers at public expense. For the first decade of governance, Dorchester was incorporated into St. Andrew’s Parish; however, due to the growing provincial population, Dorchester’s citizens successfully established a new vicinage, St. George’s Parish, in December 1717. A small brick meetinghouse was constructed within town limits three years later.

In 1720, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts—the missionary branch of the Anglican Church—sent Reverend Peter Tustian to preside over St. George’s Parish; however, he quickly became embroiled in political controversy and resigned six months into his tenure. Tustian’s successor, Reverend Francis Varnod, arrived in October 1723. Of his new congregation, Varnod remarked, “I have the misfortune to be in a place that was twenty years ago all settled by Dissenters.” He remained in St. George for nearly thirteen years.

Advantageously situated by the Ashley River’s head of navigation, Dorchester emerged as a quintessential trading center. Cargo ships from Charleston Harbor could easily maneuver upriver while the adjacent interior highway system facilitated the distribution of goods to otherwise inaccessible backcountry communities. Dorchester’s early economy revolved around logging and merchantry. Timber, pine tar, and pitch supplemented England’s thriving shipbuilding industry while deerskin trading with Native Americans provided additional avenues for profit. As South Carolina’s socioeconomic development matured, landowners along the Ashley River participated in cash crop cultivation, specifically rice and indigo, which bolstered Dorchester’s economic prosperity. In 1723, the colonial legislature established weekly markets and biannual fairs in Dorchester to promote trade and stimulate population growth; however, by the early 1740s, Dorchester was still “in some measure a frontier to the Province.” Dorchester’s white population actually displayed modest decline towards the mid-eighteenth century as more people moved away from malaria-infested swamplands to healthier climates further inland.

With planting culture came the widespread exploitation of slave labor. By 1747, St. George’s Parish maintained an enslaved population of 3,347 while white inhabitants numbered 468, merely twelve percent of the total population. The powerful minority, whites were wary of potentially hostile interactions with their subservients. Reverends of the Anglican Church occasionally baptized slaves, but many masters opposed the practice, fearing that black education would disrupt the colony’s fragile, race-based social hierarchy and instigate violent uprising. In 1751, the baptism of slaves was abolished after several bondsmen were convicted of poisoning their overseers.

Dorchester became a strategic military outpost during the French and Indian War. On January 25, 1757, Governor William Henry Lyttleton authorized the installation of a powder magazine and fort within town limits. While the repository was assembled with brick, its encircling rampart (c. May 1760) was constructed with tabby—a concrete-adjacent material made from lime, sand, and oyster shells—which reduced the need for expensive skilled labor. However, tabby was a relatively weak material and prone to cracking along its adjoining layers, requiring extensive maintenance. Fortunately, the Dorchester garrison saw no action during the conflict. 

The Revolutionary War renewed military activity around Dorchester. In 1775, Patriot forces preemptively fortified the town to dissuade Loyalist (Tory) attack. Two companies of the 2nd South Carolina regiment—commanded by Captain Francis Marion, the famous “Swamp Fox”—occupied the magazine. The village's warehouses were likely rented out as makeshift barracks while additional militia regiments assembled in town. As the inevitability of war loomed ever closer, the South Carolina provincial government transported legislative documents to Dorchester for safe keeping.

On May 12, 1780, Major General Benjamin Lincoln—commander of the Continental Army’s Southern Department—unconditionally surrendered the city of Charleston and five thousand troops to British Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton after a destructive six-week siege. This demoralizing defeat compelled Patriot forces to abdicate their contiguous strongholds, including Dorchester, and flee further into the backcountry. The Redcoats captured the settlement without opposition later that summer.  

In July 1781, Continental cavalry under Lieutenant Colonel Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee raided Dorchester, finding it hastily abandoned by the British. Later that autumn, the Redcoats reoccupied Dorchester in numbers—four hundred infantry, one-hundred-fifty cavalry, and several dozen Tory militiamen—and strengthened their positions with earthen redoubts. On December 1, American forces under Colonel Wade Hampton and General Nathanael Greene skirmished with Loyalist patrols on the outskirts of town. Fearing a general engagement, British troops evacuated Dorchester overnight, setting fires in their wake.

Dorchester never recovered from the physical and economic destruction of the Revolutionary War. As Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury observed in 1788, “I passed Dorchester, where there are the remains of what appears have once been a considerable town: there are the ruins of an elegant church, and the vestiges of several well-built houses.”

As Dorchester deteriorated, it was succeeded by Summerville—many of its buildings were assembled with materials salvaged from Dorchester’s remnant structures. In November 1924, Dorchester was purchased by the West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company—its environs utilized for timber cultivation. Amidst the burgeoning agribusiness, the South Carolina Chapter for the National Society of Colonial Dames maintained Dorchester’s historic grounds and meticulously preserved its remnant structures. In 1969, the former village was donated to the South Carolina State Park Service and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site is an archaeological haven dedicated to the steadfast conservation of American antiquity. Numerous excavation sites speckle its 325-acre landscape, unearthing artifacts that illustrate the cultural dynamics of southern colonial society.

Those visiting Colonial Dorchester can observe several surviving historic features along the park’s 0.8-mile interpretive trail. Beginning in the parking lot, follow the footpath to the Ashley River, where remnants of a wooden colonial wharf are visible during low tide. Directly to the west stands Fort Dorchester—the commanding tabby garrison overlooking the once-bustling commercial waterway. Following the American Revolution, the fort and its brick powder magazine were temporarily converted into a tile kiln; however, much like the rest of the village, that business venture was quickly abandoned. Despite its centuries-long subjection to scavengers and destructive natural phenomena, Fort Dorchester remains one of the best preserved tabby structures in the United States. The final and most recognizable feature of Colonial Dorchester is the Bell Tower (c. 1751). This iconic brick belfry marks the location of St. George’s Anglican Church and poignantly presides over its bygone burial ground, which contains seventeen identifiable gravesites dating between 1772 and 1920.

The residuum of British colonialism, Dorchester deeply resonates with South Carolina’s early history. Its landscape—rich in archaeological evidence—remains incredibly valuable to understanding the diverse lifestyles and sociocultural experiences of prerevolutionary America.

Read the Old Dorchester State Park Visitor's Guide (1995) by Daniel J. Bell and the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, for a more comprehensive historical analysis


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