So far we know St. James, Goose Creek Chapel of Ease Historical Site was the site of a significant battle during the Yemassee War in 1715, it was later a Chapel of Ease for early colonists in the Charleston, SC area. That building burned down during the Revolutionary War and Bethlehem Baptist Church was built near it on the grounds and was moved to its final destination around the 1880s. The graves that are still there, as well as the archaeological ruins from the Battle and churches that stood there are in desperate need of conservation and preservation. It is the final resting place of several recognized patriots from the Revolutionary War and the American Civil War.
Probably no place in North America bears more conflicted emotions than a parcel of forest one day’s walk north of Charleston, in present day Berkeley County, South Carolina. That parcel of woodland sustained hundreds of greedy land pirates, desperate buck skin warriors of every race, and hopeless native captives for centuries but at the same time comforted prayerful families abiding by the tenants of their Christian God. Innumerable dramas of good and evil emanate from the spot, but years of neglect allowed the place and its poignant stories to fade. Now, enthusiasts strive to divulge the secrets of the St. James, Goose Creek Chapel of Ease Historical Site where dramatic sagas of Carolina humanity spun for centuries.
During the first decades of English settlement in Carolina, adventurers traced the footpath along the spine of the Charleston peninsula in pursuit of trade with Native Americans deep in the interior. Slouching packhorses carried imported manufactured items outbound and trudged back with deerskins and peltries for shoppers in Europe.
Most traders walked the entire way, reserving each expensive pack animal for the heavy bundles strapped across their sturdy spines, but horses sometimes galled after twenty miles of toil, and many traders routinely removed the bundles and rested twenty-two miles from town at “the camp,” a long favored stay-over site ten miles south of Moncks Corner.
Young George Chicken led five burdened ponies in pursuit of his fortune and spent many lonely nights atop that ground. He assayed the nearby wetlands, imagined the possibilities and soon successfully applied for a small portion of farmland. When he brought his seventeen-year old bride, Catherine Bellamy with her large expanse of farm land to their union, their combined plantation included the familiar overnight camp ground.
By the time the Chicken family settled into their little cabin, the lucrative native trade devolved dangerously into the insidious export of Native Americans. For years, tethered lines of enslaved souls languished at the camp waiting for sunrise to commence the last leg of the journey to the ships in Charleston Harbor. That sordid enterprise returned fortunes but it also curdled the morality of the industrious young men of the frontier until greed turned violent and forged the indigenous tribes into a confederacy that conspired to push the English into the sea.
The conflagration known as the Yemassee War fared badly for the English until warriors threatened Goose Creek. Then, black and white men, many from Chicken’s plantation, fortified the old camp site with crude ramparts and stubbornly thwarted a large tribal incursion. They turned the war party away toward Captain George Chicken, who led the Goose Creek militia in an ambush that crushed the natives two days later.
After that harrowing native conflict, George Chicken awarded his fortified camp as a place for a “chapel of ease” for the St. James, Goose Creek Parish. Anglican parishioners sometimes erected chapels as a convenience for parishioners residing far from the parish church and the old camp fortress was well suited for a house of prayer. It was convenient to many families and featured high ground with a reliable spring, but moreover the sacred ground sheltered the remains of volunteers who perished atop the fortress walls and saved Goose Creek and arguably, the entire colony from destruction.
Workers delivered bricks and masons shaped the cruciform house of worship until Reverend Richard Ludlam led the initiation mass on a joyful spring morning in 1725. A tradition of bi-monthly services followed until the brooding years of the American Revolution. As that war approached, an increasing number of Carolinians sullied all things British and by the time the invading army marched past the chapel door in 1780, the beams of the tottering structure bowed ominously under the weight of the rotted roof.
Patriots and loyalists alike interred loved ones in the shade of the ancient forest for more decades but the defeat of the British sealed the fate of the little Anglican sanctuary allowing it to molder in the sullen forest until energetic Baptists breathed life back into the storied place. Reverend Matthew McCullers traveled to the ancient fortress where the chapel fell and a heap of bricks marked the site. He prayed in the woods with eight “brethren,” on June 13, 1812 and organized the Bethlehem Baptist Church.
The energetic congregation hammered together a twenty-by-thirty-foot clapboard house of prayer contiguous to the crumbled chapel using a few of the tumbled bricks for the foundation and steps. Then the congregants filled the countryside with soul lifting hymns, shared the holy gospel, baptized new members, married hopeful couples, and expanded the cemetery as needed. They also consorted with the defunct St. James, Goose Creek Parish vestry to provide a teacher for the poorer children of the neighborhood even as the drum beat to another great war hastened and until Union soldiers invaded their lands.
After the War Between the States the congregation abandoned their ancient cemetery to cluster in Groomsville near the Strawberry Rail Road Depot. The men disassembled the wooden church, pulled the sections on carts 4.5 miles, rebuilt it with new doors and window sashes and renamed it “Groomsville Baptist Church.” The renovation infused new energy into the little congregation but it consigned the St. James, Goose Creek Chapel of Ease | Bethlehem Baptist Church cemetery to the mercy of the elements until the dawn of the 21st century.
Centuries-old tombstones and brick crypts invite curious visitors to the unkempt forest and shallow trenches trace the vague foot print of the cruciform chapel, but many more clues remain hidden that spawn innumerable tales of Carolinians of the ages and generations to come. A committee was formed by the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce to protect and preserve the site and tell the story of the people for whom this site was such a significant part of their lives throughout history and the American story. All donations of money, time, assistance and best wishes are appreciated as the chamber committee divulges the secrets of that holy ground and discover riches that are Berkeley County, South Carolina.