A Visit to Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site in Summerville, SC

Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site is located off of SC State Highway 642 near Summerville, SC. The park is comprised of part of what was once the Colonial town of Dorchester and features what remains of the town’s Parish Church and cemetery, a fort and powder magazine, and lots where some of the town’s homes and buildings were located. While there’s no museum on site, there is a self-guided tour and interpretive signs along the trail that tell you about Dorchester’s history. It’s a site that I didn’t know much about and have had on my list of places to visit for quite a while, so it was one of the three stops on my recent Colonial Lowcountry Road Trip.

The town of Dorchester last barely a hundred years. It was founded in 1696 by Congregationalists (Puritans) from Dorchester, Massachusetts. The town was founded in an excellent location; it was near roads to Charleston and along the Ashley River, both of which enabled the easy transport of goods to the port city. By the mid-1700s, Dorchester was a thriving community with a fortification and Parish Church. The self-guided tour takes visitors along the Ashley River to the fort, up through part of the town, and finally to the Parish Church and cemetery.

During the French and Indian War in the late 1750s and early 1760s, a a brick and powder magazine surrounded by brick and tabby fortifications was built in Dorchester to prevent the loss of all of the Colony’s powder in the event of a French attack on Charleston. Dorchester’s fortification sits on an advantageous position on a hill overlooking the Ashley River. If the French had attacked, they would have found it a hard prospect to get past Dorchester. While it saw no action during the French and Indian War, Dorchester became an assembly point for Patriot forces commanded by Francis Marion until it was occupied by the British after the fall of Charleston in 1780. At that point, it was used by both British and Loyalist forces until they were forced out by American forces in December 1781.

As you walk the self guided tour trail between the fort and the Parish Church, you walk through what was part of the town, divided into lots. One of the lots has a brick layout of what would have been the foundation of one of the town’s residences – the Izard House. The Izards were a prominent South Carolina planter and political family. A lot across from where the Izard House stood is the site of a current archaeological dig (I visited on a Sunday, so there was no work going on and it was covered with plastic).

A short walk from the Izard lot and the archaeological dig site leads you to the site of the Parish Church. All that remains of the church is its bell tower. Originally, the Congregationalists built a meeting house on this location, but in the 1720s, the Church of England built St George’s Anglican Church, to which the bell tower was added in 1751. When the British were forced out of Dorchester in 1781, they burned the church, leaving just the bell tower. St George’s was partially rebuilt, but was abandoned shortly thereafter with the rest of the town. A cemetery surrounds the site of the church and the self-guided tour sheet offers transcriptions of the gravestones on its reverse side. The bell tower is the signature image of the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site and what the site is most well known for.

Dorchester didn’t survive the American Revolution. A number of theories exist for why exist, including the damage done by the British and Loyalist Militia (including the burning of the church mentioned above) and malaria brought on by the swampy location, but it was probably a combination of factors. Eventually the town of Summerville was founded a short distance away and some of the building materials used were salvaged from structures at Dorchester. Supposedly, the bell tower remained because they thought it was too unstable to try to salvage the bricks from it. Damaged by the fire and by a later earthquake, the bell tower was repaired in the 1960s so that it stands today.

I’m glad I finally decided to visit the Colonial Dorchester State Historic Site. I hade a vague knowledge of it prior to my visit, but I had no idea that it was such a thriving town and so short-lived. While the area Plantations are more well known and no doubt more visited, it’s very much worth visiting this site to learn more about some of the early settlement of Lowcountry South Carolina.

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