The Burning of Skull Creek (Islands Divided, Part 1)
Updated: Oct 17, 2022
As the Daufuskie Island men rowed silently up Hilton Head's Skull Creek, they stopped and methodically burned to the ground each stately home they encountered. These were the homes of their neighbors, their friends and, in some cases, their own families. Yet, for this brief moment in time, residents of the two adjacent islands were sworn enemies.
Neighbors at War
By the autumn of 1781, the Revolutionary War had been raging for several years throughout the American colonies. Some battles involved British soldiers versus Americans, but perhaps even more were between the colonists themselves. Lines had been drawn, with some communities (like Hilton Head) declaring their patriotic desire for independence from England while others affirmed their loyalty to King George. Daufuskie Island--within sight of Hilton Head across Calibogue Sound--was one of these Tory strongholds. Allies for generations, the two neighboring islands were now at war with each other.
In mid-October of that year, the Royal Militia of Daufuskie Island was instructed to burn the homes of known Patriots between Savannah and Beaufort. Following these orders, Captain Philip Martinangele, Jr. led his men across the waters of the sound to Hilton Head and up Skull Creek (now also referred to as the Intracoastal Waterway). As each home was destroyed, the Tories moved on to the next. That is, until they reached a formidable foe: Mary Ann Talbird.
Under the Talbird Oak
Nine months pregnant with her first child, Mary Ann Talbird had been overseeing her plantation on her own for some weeks (albeit with the help of several slaves). Her husband John was imprisoned on a British ship in Charleston Harbor after fighting with Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion's patriot militia farther north in the state. (Two hundred years later, Marion's heroic exploits would be portrayed in the Hollywood film "The Patriot".) When one of the Talbirds' slaves ran to Mary Ann warning of the approaching Tories, the mistress of the plantation instructed all of her slaves to hide themselves in nearby woods. She would face the enemy herself.
But the enemy turned out to be Mary Ann Talbird's own brother-in-law. Philip Martinangele was married to Mary Ann's sister, and now was tasked with burning his own kin's home. With hands on her hips, the visibly pregnant woman defiantly blocked the path to her front door. "Good afternoon, brother," she said.
Martinangele paused. How would his wife ever forgive him if he caused the destruction of everything her sister owned, and right as she was expecting her first child? A decision made, he turned to his men. "We were ordered to burn every Patriot home along Skull Creek," he told them. "But our orders said nothing of the contents of those homes." He instructed his Tory militiamen to empty the Talbird's house of all furniture, housewares, clothing, and more. Everything was carefully removed and placed beneath an enormous sheltering live oak tree a safe distance from the house. As Mary Ann Talbird watched, the men then burned her home and moved along to their next target. The ancient live oak tree, now known as the Talbird Oak (see photo above), still stands on Hilton Head Island just inside the Cypress Gate of Hilton Head Plantation.
The morning after the attack on Skull Creek, on October 19, 1781, Mary Ann Talbird gave birth to her first son, a boy later called "Yorktown Henry" since he was born on the exact day that General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown, VA. The Revolutionary War was drawing to a close, but that did not deter the Patriots of Hilton Head Island from seeking revenge on their Daufuskie neighbors for the burning of their homes. The war of the islanders raged on.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of "Islands Divided" in the next "Greetings from the Lowcountry!" post.
For more (real and fictional) details concerning this chapter in Lowcountry history, check out my latest Delta & Jax Mystery: The Sea Witch's Revenge at www.SusanDiamondRiley.com/books .