Crusoe Island: French-Haitian Settlement in the Green Swamp of North Carolina

Published:Friday, March 25, 2011

Years ago I heard of the isolated community of Crusoe Island deep in the Green Swamp of coastal Columbus County, North Carolina. It has a fascinating origin, as you can read below. One of the best things about swamps is that they preserve not only rare flora and fauna, but the deeper recesses also protect human heritage that would otherwise blend into the obscurity of the uplands.

I even drove out there once to see Crusoe Island for myself. And it’s true: One Way In, One Way Out.

New York Herald Tribune
Sunday, November 1, 1931

Grandchildren of Massacre

A French Colony Descended From the Only White Persons Who Escaped Death in Haiti During the Slaves’ Rebellion of 1804 Has Been Found Living in the Carolina Swamps

By Ben Dixon MacNeill

In three continents where they sell the product of a factory that he helped to found, the recent death of Kinchen D. Council was regretted. In Cruesoe’s’s Island, N.C., where none of the tools made in his near-by factory was ever needed, men and women wept and looked backward over two decades through which he had been their untiring friend.

Mr. Council was a figure of a sort that is not rare in the post-bellum annals of the Southern states, but about his personality, there was a fertile individuality. Before 1861 his family was powerful and wire-acred. After 1865 the family was destitute. The era produced a new generation of pioneers. When he was six years old Kinchen D. Council was sent to school. By noon of the first day he had reached the conclusion that the processes of education were entirely too cumbersome. He never returned to school.

But nowhere could there have been found a man of wider general education. He was at home with Greek, Roman and ancient Chinese cultures. He wrote in the classic manner. He hunted bear in Alaska and parrots and monkeys in the tropics. He was an astronomer of no men ability, and he could navigate a sip. He know the turpentine industry probably better than an man living, and the tools that he and his brother invented and manufactured for that industry enjoyed and still enjoy a world monopoly.

But neither tool making nor bear hunting nor ancient literature was his passion. His great love was for historical research in obscure places.

Twenty years ago few people venture into the wilderness that lay along the Waccamaw River, in southeastern North Carolina, he came upon old man Buck Clewis and a clew to an historical mystery that provided him with a hobby lasting until is death.

For the meeting with Buck Clewis enabled him to discover a remnant of French aristocrats who escaped the black wrath of revolting slaves in Haiti 127 years ago. Interminable books have been written of the unparalleled butchery during the Dessalines massacre in Haiti, which followed the French betrayal of Toussaint L’Ouverture. In general they agree that no white escaped alive from the island to tell the gruesome story; since that bloody day the rebellious slaves have owned he country that once was wet with their masters’ blood.

Twenty years ago few people ventured into the wilderness that lay along the Waccamaw River as it idles through the swamps toward the sea after only the most casual effort at draining Lake Waccamaw. The lake is a small inland sea, and along its northern bank is much favored of vacationists. A gay colony of summer cottages flourishes there, and a mile away is the Council Tool Company’s factory.

Seven miles across the lake swamp begins, and runs, tropically remote for forty miles toward the marshy shore of the Atlantic Ocean. The swamp almost touches the South Carolina line, but not quite. It lies over a good half of Columbus and Brunswick Counties, and a variable strip of higher land separates it from the Cape Fear River. Here and there through the swamp, usually near the meandering river, lie wide expanses of hills that attain a relatively high elevation.

Twenty years ago it was a country to be avoided. It abounded in all sorts of wild game, especially bear and deer. But also abounded in a strange people with whom it was thought best to have little to do. They lived almost wholly in and by the swamps. People from the uplands dreaded any encounter with them. Negroes could not be driven through the swamps. The swamp people, so the stories run were likely go berserk at the sight of a black man.

Since the beginning of the colony, the Waccamaw Swamp country was supposedly the receptacle of fugitives who could not maintain themselves decently in the established settlements. The swamp people were without schools or churches or any formal civilization. No good had ever gone into the colony, the people round about said, and no good ever came out of it.

Mr. Council was an inveterate bear hunter, and he was possessed of an insatiable curiosity abut people. Twenty years ago he decided to venture into the swamp in pursuit of a bear. His family, of course, decried the venture, and gave him up as hopeless. He was gone even longer than he had planned and when he came back he brought the skin of a vast bear and a face that glowed with a secret satisfaction. A member of the Board of county Commissioners he surprised his conferees at he next meeting with the declaration that something in the way of a school ought to be provided for the people of Cruesoe’s island.

Deep in the swamp where his hounds were howling after the bear, Mr. Council had encountered Buck Clewis. Mr. Clewis was naturally surprised and taken aback, but in the face of a very genuine friendliness he overcame his obvious timidity and mistrust. There in the swamp a friendship was born that continued unflaggingly until recently. Mr. Clewis came at the head of a great company of his neighbors and wept unashamed beside a newly made grave among the ancient churchyard where the Councils lie buried.

It was probably a year- Mr. Council could not remember exactly before the elusive intimacy between him and Buck Clewis was strong enough to foster a timid invitation for the hunter to come up to the swampman’s house. The appearance of the house had something strange, a little incongruous about it. To be sure, it was a rough thing of unhewn logs, but there was about it an echo of a grace, a shadowy charm that did not belong in the dim swamps. For a long time Mr. Council was not able to place it or to define it. Rather, it was something felt, something sensed.

Later he discovered that the something he sensed had a slew in the contour of the stick-and-mud chimneys, the sort of primitive chimney that chroniclers of the American pioneer have made familiar to everybody. But this chimney was different. There was an artistry about it. Instead of the raw sticks and mud narrowing into a flue, the sticks were completely hidden by a pinkish white plaster of native chalk, and the lines of the chimney were molded into a smooth curve. The tip of the chimney was a smooth, chastely decorative one.

As far back as he could remember Mr. Council had seen stick-and-mud chimneys, but nowhere had he encountered one that was more than frankly utilitarian. This chimney was actually handsome. And that fact was filed away in his mind and taken home to be pondered over above the glowing forge where he was working out the design of some new tool. The chimney just didn’t fit into the pioneer, the primitive scheme of things. There must be something back of it.

It was a harassing winter for the bear in the swamps along the Waccamaw Rive. Mr. Council and the Clewises and the Sassers and the Duvals hunted them assiduously, and friendship grew between the swamp people and the toolmaker.

Swapping story for story with them, Mr. Council listened with growing infatuation to the tales that the swamp people had to tell. And he wondered where they got the idea for decorating their chimneys. He feared that it would be considered rude to inquire directly about this and the mystery persisted until one night in his reading, he came across a picture of a French country place. The chimneys in the picture looked vaguely familiar, and then there was no mystery about it at all. The chimneys on Cruesoe’s’s Island were duplicates of the chimneys in the picture.

After that, bit by bit, as the Islanders lost their furtive timidity with him, and as he was able to turn inquiry deftly backward toward the beginnings of the settlement, the story began to piece itself together. Dimly remembered legends that had a singularly authentic ring of truth unfolded as he listened and when he would come home he would set down the tale in fragmentary notes.

Some day he planned to get all of these notes together and set down the story of this fragment of French civilization that had escaped from the Dessalines massacre and had found its way to this remote swamp and taken root there. But somehow the quest was never quite complete; he was busy about so many other mattes. First he must, over the opposition of his fellow commissioners, do something for this newly discovered race. They must have roads. They must have a good school and a church.

Now they have their school and their roads and new modern methods of farming and a church. In two decades the swamp has been transformed, transmute. But Mr. Council died lately and the real story remains buried in the fragmentary notes that were twenty years in the making. Its verity had been checked as carefully as circumstances permitted.

The butchery of the French by the blacks in Haiti in 1804 was not quite complete. Members of four or five families of rich planters somehow managed to escape to the cost of the blood-drenched island. There they found a small boat, scarcely big enough to hold a dozen people. More than twenty men and women and children crowded into it without provisions of any sort and shoved off into the sea.

Happily, it was the only boat in sight and when the revengeful blacks rushed down to the shore in pursuit there was no boat at hand in which to follow them further. Late that day they were picked up by a barque headed for Wilmington, N.C. The master of the barque, when he discovered the identity of the castaways, was fearful. If the blacks set out to search the sea and the fugitives were found aboard his craft, things would fare badly for the master and the crew. But there were women and children to be considered. He did not cast them adrift.

He declined, however, to take them as far as Wilmington. Word might reach Haiti, and he traded there regularly. He put in at the mouth of the Waccamaw River, where it empties into the sea, thirty miles below Cape Fear, the entry into the Port of Wilmington, and there he set the fugitives shore, warning them never to disclose how they had come there. He suggested that they disappear into the swamp for the time being.

Making their way up the river, the band of refugees found the swamp not without habitants. Other fugitives, over past decades had found refuge there. Nearly a hundred years before a band of Portuguese pirates, pursued by Spanish ships, had run their craft shore near the mouth of the river, wrecking it. The Spanish landed and pursued them into the swamp. There they were in the third generation, when the refugees from Haiti made their way into the swamp in 1804.

Nor were they all. From time to time the number of inhabitants had been increased by the arrival of others who for one reason or another preferred the swamp to the formally settled parts of North and South Carolina.

These were their neighbors when the group of Haitian refugees came to Cruesoe’s Island. There they built a settlement, and there they lived. An occasional wrecked ship off the coast brought them recruits and wreckage from which they made such necessaries as they must have. Sometimes they were arms and powder, and sometimes tools and furniture.

Conditions were primitive in a degree that few colonies in the young republic had to endure. The fugitives from Haiti made themselves at home, hopeful that somehow a way back to France might be found. But they must have been broken in spirit by the sheer terror of what they had endured, and after a while the wilderness swallowed them. A new generation that knew nothing but the swamp and the plaintive dull sorrow of the old women took their places. They became one with the people they found in the swamp, with the swamp itself. A century passed.

In this return to the primitive these refugees gradually forgot the culture that should have been their inheritance. They forgot everything but the grim necessity of wrestling a living from the swamp. Forgot even the spelling of their own names, the spelling of any names. Cluveires became Clewis, and DeSaucerie became merely Sasser, and Formy-Duvall degenerated into a half dozen unimpressive variations.

And gradually their speech degenerated. What must have been a pure French became something that was not French nor American nor Portuguese nor Spanish, but had some of the characteristics of all of them. Then finally, American English came to occupy the dominant position. The fugitives brought with them a burden of terror that helped them to forget their native ways.

Even their legends took refuge in silence, except when the older people were sure of a friendly listener. Among themselves, handing them down from mother to child, there was the fierce hatred, born of terror, against black people, and the name of the island from which they had been driven was clothed with an especial terror. Some day, the legends said, a frightful vengeance would come upon the black people of Haiti, a terrible day of reckoning. This feeling is the most persistent of their beliefs.

It would be difficult to say – and Mr. Council was reluctant to hazard a guess – as to how many of the fifteen hundred people scattered over the occasional high ground in a hundred square miles of swamp are descended from the remnant who escaped the Black Rebellion. Half of them, perhaps, would not be a bad guess.

There must have been some amalgamation of races and families in the remote isolation of the forest: but the French strain, even after a century and a quarter, is definitely apparent. It is predominant, if you stop to analyze individuals, to set them over against definite types of their neighbors.

Small mannerisms that belong to the French by inheritance, a kindling animation that does not belong to the Portuguese nor Anglo-Saxon nor American Indian – nor to any combination of these peoples; a swiftness to perceptions, a lithe grace of movement and of speech that flashes up through the reserve that more than a century of isolation has taught them; an instinctive hunger for something that is pretty – a characteristic that may be the survival of an inborn hunger for something that is beautiful.

“If you laugh at these young fellows I’ll throw you in this river, “ Mr. Council threatened genially one Sunday morning, not long before his death, when we were approaching a small company of youths wandering indolently along the narrow road ahead of us. “Half of ‘em, I’ll bet you, have got strings of beads around their necks instead of neckties, but they like ‘em, and you can like ‘em, too.

With no shyness at all, the youths – a dozen or more of them – stopped to greet him. They were friendly, and they were refreshingly eager about the prodigiousness of the automobile in which we were riding. Eight of them wore strings of gayly colored beads. It was part of their Sabbath raiment of festivity. They did not wear them with the stolid solemnity with which a primitive man would wear beads; they wore them with a sort of insouciance, with a sort of gayety, and their faces were young and eager, and, somehow, very appealing. I liked the beads and the youths who wore them, and I was not thrown in the river.

They were going to church. It was a primitive sort of service, under Methodist auspices. But Mr. Council had seen them, when he went to church with them instinctively cross themselves when they knelt at the beginning of prayer. Crossing themselves must be something that has come down to them through remote inheritance.

“It’s sort of too bad”, Mr. Council would say, “To see ‘em changed from what they were. I expect they’ve been pretty happy down here by themselves. But it had to come to ‘em some time, and I have an idea that there has been something mighty fine buried down here in these swamps for a time, and maybe in a generation or two we’ll get something out of it.

“That school they’ve got now – it’s not any better and no worse than most schools. Along with it they’ll be getting a lot of wild, crazy, modern notions, and they’ll get crazy like the rest of the world – but after a while something is going to sprout from here. I’ll not be here to see it, but they fetched something fine out of Haiti with ‘em when they came, and it’s been sort of incubating in this swamp more than a hundred years. Don’t know what it will be, but maybe you’ll live long enough to see if I am right.”

Two decades have passed since the modernization got underway. Housewives along the lower Waccamaw are beginning to comprehend a little the meaning of a home demonstration agent and the uses of a community club at the schoolhouse. But they are still a little bewildered about it. Another generation, a generation that is growing up and away from the black canopy of fear that has shadowed the swamp, a generation that can look at indifferent tolerance upon an exceedingly minor and not and not at all menacing Haiti, is on the threshold of Cruesoe’s Island, with its face toward a horizon with no brooding black cloud upon it.

A diminishing older generation still goes hunting for bear and talks in hushed, awed whispers of the legends of their grandparents and looks wonderingly, not quite believingly, upon the younger generation, that goes blithely about in automobiles, along roads that run straight where trails used to go windingly, and which talks in a cadence that seems strange to the oldtimers.

One of this older generation is old man buck Clewis. From the day when Mr. Council first went bear hunting along the Waccamaw to the day of his death, he prized Clewis’ friendship above that of many distinguished people. There was, there is, a peculiar something about the ancient bear hunter of the swamps. His dark eyes have a light in them that is at once defiant and pleading, at once bitter and soft, that is afraid and yet trusting, derisive and yet friendly. In him Mr. Council found unending delight.

To find Clewis’s duplicate, outwardly, would not require much searching along the countrysides of France. His voice, softened in the mellow air of the swamps, is pitched high against the roof of his mouth, like a Frenchman’s, and his syllables are clipped and precise, even when he is well along in the colossal tale of how he once inadvertently caught the largest bear that he ever saw.

It happened in the dusk of early nightfall when Mr. Clewis was going along a shaded path in search of a sow that had wandered from her pen. She was a valuable sow, and it would not do to allow her to wander alone in the woods. A bear might get her.

Presently, Mr. Clewis saw her, ambling along, a dark shadow. In that day he was a very vigorous and agile man and he launched himself in a sort of flying tackle, aiming to land on her back and divert her toward the pen. He would ride her home. But it was not the errant sow about whose neck Mr. Clewis locked his sinewy arms. It was quite the biggest bear he ever say, wand the ensuing ride has become an epic of the swamps. It delighted Mr. Council endlessly when he would get the old man to tell it.

There will not be another such audience as Mr. Council was – neither for the bear story nor for talking over dimly recollected things that Mr. Council understood. Nothing has been the same since Mr. Council first came to Cruesoe’s Island and nothing can ever be the same now that he will not come to it any more.

There are still bear in the swamps, but they have retreated a little from the highway that cuts through to the sea and along which clatter the buses hauling the children to the fine brick schoolhouse where they all learn to read and to forget that a long time ago there were frightful things that happened. The teachers seem somehow not to care about those terrible days, but Mr. Council knew and understood. They talk about the improvement that had come to the neighborhood, about enlightenment. But for old man buck Clewis the light somehow has gone out and when darkness finally overcomes the country of Haiti, as his grandmother was sure it would, there will not be anybody with whom he can talk it over understandingly, even should he happen to hear about it. The swamps now that Mr. Council does not come down anymore, have become forebodingly lonely…….

3 thoughts on “Crusoe Island: French-Haitian Settlement in the Green Swamp of North Carolina

  1. Wonderful story – glad you dug it up from the archives. I’ll need to wander down there and poke around. Thankx.

  2. Fabulous story! Mentions of the Councils and Formy-Duvals is perfect background(s) for my father’s tales from Whiteville, Bladen County, and Columbus County. I anxiously look forward to sending this story to relatives and hearing their responses.

  3. I first visited Crusoe Island as a boy of about 12 with my father who was sheriff of Columbus Co. This would have been about 1946 or 1947. A very strange place, but facinating to see. Apparently, we were the first outsiders this community had ever seen! Later a group of kids, including me, returned with baseball coach Clyde Williams to try and teach the kids to play baseball. They had never heard of the game. It was a great experance, but not very succesful as far as our efforts to teach the game. It sure was fun and those kids sure could throw the ball.