The Dimery Settlement

Indian Descendants in the South Carolina Low Country
By Forest Hazel

When one examines a map of Horry County, one is struck by the wealth of place names of American Indian origin. The county is bounded by the Little Pee Dee and the Waccamaw Rivers, and marked by such exotic sounding localities as Socastee and Wampee. Yet most of the county residents today are unaware that many of their neighbors have a significant amount of American Indian ancestry, and that most of these can be traced back to the area in Dog Bluff Township known as the Dimery Settlement.

The Dimery Settlement has been largely forgotten by most of Horry Countyís citizens, but at one time, during the early decades of this century, it was frequently mentioned in local newspapers, usually with speculation as to the origins of its inhabitants. Uncertainty about the exact racial origins of the various families living in the Dimery Settlement created something of a local mystery, and was the cause of several legal cases brought because members of the settlement allegedly married "outside their race."

Systematic research began on the history of the Dimery Settlement in the fall of 1994, when a group of Indian people in the Horry County area, with assistance from a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, hired the author to begin assisting them in their quest for Federal Acknowledgment as the Chicora-Waccamaw Indian Tribe. There were several theories advanced to explain the existence of this distinct group of people: (1) they were remnants of the tribes such as the Waccamaw which had once lived in Horry County; (2) they were derived from some foreign race such as Spanish or Portuguese; (3) they were the result of a combination of Civil War deserters, escaped slaves, and Indians, all living in the swamps near Gunterís Island around the time of the Civil War; or (4) they were an offshoot of the so-called Croatan Indians (now Lumbee) of Robeson County, North Carolina. None of these theories is supported by historical records that have come to light to date.

What is known for sure is that in 1809, in Marion County, John Dimery married Elizabeth Hardwick, and by 1813 they had moved to Horry County where he purchased 300 acres of land from William Lewis. This tract, for which he paid $50, was described only as being "in Gunterís Islands", which lies on the east side of the Little Pee Dee River. An examination of other land plats indicate that the Dimery land was probably not directly on the river, but somewhat to the east, on the north side of Brunson Swamp. This land, with more acquired by John Dimery and his sons in later years, would form the heart of the Dimery Settlement.

John Dimery first appears on the Horry County Census in 1820 as a "free person of color", presumably living on his land in the Dog Bluff section. It should be noted at this point that the fact that John Dimery and his family were counted as "free colored" should not be taken to mean that they were necessarily of African descent. An examination of records from various areas of the South in the first half of the 1800s shows that nearly every group now identified as Indian was counted as "colored" on the Census, as well as in many local records.

The Nottoway and Ginkaskin of Virginia were all counted as "free colored" in 1830, even the ones still living on what was left of their reservation lands. The Meherrin, Chowan, and Saponi descendants of North Carolina were all listed as "Mulattos" or, simply, "colored," after moving off their reservations and adopting European lifestyles. In some cases this was a deliberate effort on the part of non-Indians to forestall any effort to reclaim land; in other cases it was simply a matter of the Indian people no longer seeming like "real" Indians in the eyes of their neighbors after losing so much of the traditional culture.

It is very unusual to find Indians listed as such after about 1780 in any part of the South. The last apparent mention of the Pee Dee and Waccamaws came in 1755, when John Evans mentions in his journal that the Cherokees and Natchez Indians killed some Pee Dees and Waccamaws "in the white peopleís settlements." The location of the tribes at that time is uncertain, some believe they were living near the present-day Moncks Corner, SC.

In any case, it is clear that the Dimery Settlement people did not consider themselves to be of African descent. In a newspaper account from the April 23, 1921, Horry Herald concerning a dispute between two of the families in the settlement, it states, "They are mixed as to race, claiming that they have Indian blood in their veins."

It is possible that there were other Indian or part-Indian people living in the Dog Bluff area when John Dimery settled there. It is also possible that that was the reason he bought that land there. It is a historical fact that there was a late Woodland Period Indian village site located near Jordanville containing examples of pottery from the Pee Dee period., which is generally thought to cover the 1200-1650 A.D. period. So it is possible that there may have been a vague recollection in Dimeryís family of their people having once lived in that region. It is an interesting thought, but one which is unfortunately not supported by any hard evidence at this point.

By 1850 the Dimery Settlement had grown to at least four families, those of John Dimery, Willis Thompkins, Cockran Thompkins, and Sara Cook, for a total of some 27 individuals. Oral tradition states that around this time John Dimery gave the land for Pisgah Church, and his family may have been the so-called "free colored" members who attended the church in its early years. There are supposed to be some Dimerys buried near Pisgah Church in a small cemetery. There is no indication that the Dimerys lived in any way differently than their neighbors, no mention of any particular Indian customs or language, and they appear to have participated in the rural society at least to a limited extent. The Indian people raised cotton, corn, and later tobacco, much the same as their neighbors, and participated in community activities such as hog killings, barn raisings, and wood sawings where community members combined their efforts to help individual members of the settlement.

An article in the Horry News dated December 23, 1876, gives a "List of Colored Voters in Horry County who voted the Democratic Ticket at the General Election on the 7th of November 1876." This list shows that in Dog Bluff Township, David Turner, George Cooper, Jas. B. Cook, J. L. Dimery, Willis Tompkins, John Dimery, James Dimery, and David Dimery all voted Democratic.

The community had grown large enough by the 1870s that it was decided to form a church which would serve the needs of the Dimery Settlement. On March 25, 1878, Sara Desda Turner, whose son Hugh G. Turner would later become one of the most successful farmers in the area, sold two acres of land to John and James Dimery (two sons of the original John Dimery) "for the use of church purposes." A wooden church was constructed on the site in 1886. Ellis Cooper, one of the Indians who helped build the church, was also one of the pastors there. In the August 11, 1887, Horry Herald, it was announced that on September 7 Rev. J. W. Todd would preach at the "Dimerys Church." The official name of the church soon became Bethel, or Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, and had grown to a congregation of over 100 before it burned in 1983. The church is gone, but the cemetery still remains and is well tended by relatives of the persons buried there. Rev. Elwood Ammons, one of the pastors there, and a grandson of Ellis Cooper, raised money to erect a fence around the cemetery, which helps preserve the site.

Shortly before World War I a second Indian church was built in the area, across Brunson Swamp on what is now Jeno Road. This church, called Holly Hill Free Will Baptist Church, was smaller than Bethel and was attended mainly by the Hatchers and some of their relatives. Charlie Dimery was remembered as one of the leaders of this church, the "head man" who found pastors to come and preach at the church. One custom formerly practiced by members of the Settlement was that of decorating graves with seashells such as whelk and clamshell. This is a practice found among many coastal Indian tribes, and probably represented one of a very few cultural survivals.

A school also existed in the Settlement at least since 1909. It was apparently referred to as the Dimery School in its early years, although the official name in the county records was Pine Level School. The school, along with the churches, served as a focus for community activities and provided social structure for the settlement.

Pine Level School also served as a source of controversy in the larger community, due to the somewhat uncertain ethnic status of the children who attended. Excerpts from the October 18, 1923 issue of the Horry Herald article headlined "Dimery Pupils Seek a School" make this clear. The somewhat lengthy report begins, "The long-standing contest over the admission of children of the Dimery Settlement in Dog Bluff, to schools set apart for white pupils was due to come up here before the county board of education on Tuesday of last week. . . . There was a proposition made in line with the petition to set apart what is known as the Pine Level School in the Rehobeth District as a school which could be attended by the Dimery people and their relatives, and by people of the like kind from other school districts in that part of Horry County. . . . ." The white trustees of the school had, in 1922, attempted to force the teacher, Minnie Sellers, to class the school as a colored school. When the parents found out, they withdrew their children and petitioned the county board of education to rectify the situation. The community leaders (including several intermarried whites) who signed the petition included R. B. Nobles, H. G. Turner, A. B. Dimery, W. H. Elvis, Noah Hatcher, Mary Hatcher, Gatlin Johnson, Vander Hatcher, D. W. Caines, and Walter Caines. The result was that some of the students were allowed to attend the Aynor schools for a few years, and then the Pine Level School was opened again, once again classed as a white school. The Horry Herald printed the 7th month honor roll for Pine Level School on April 2, 1936. The students named included Joy Turner, Norton Turner, Eugenia Turner, Jay Turner, Mack Cooper, Zula Elvis, Beulah Elvis, Julian Turner, Annie Turner, Mattie Nobles, Louise Hatcher, Loyd Turner and Margaret Elvis.

In 1949 a survey was done of all the county schools, at which time it was reported that the school, which was two rooms, had no electricity or running water. It was also reported that part of the ceiling was out. The school had no library, but was serviced by the county bookmobile. Average daily attendance at the time of the survey was 14 students. This school operated until 1955, when it was closed permanently after the enrollment declined to about 9 students.

The first years of this century also saw several interesting court cases involving members of the Dimery Settlement. At least four cases arose out of the South Carolina laws prohibiting miscegenation, or marrying outside of oneís own race. In two of the cases white men, Daniel Alford (1908) and Furman Hughes (1921) were prosecuted for marrying "Negro" women, Susie Dimery and Patty Dimery, respectively. In the other two cases, two brothers, W. I. Hatcher (1908) and Julius Hatcher (1905) were charged with being "Negros" and marrying white women, Manda Mishoe and Martha Mishoe, respectively. Only in the case of Furman Hughes was the defendant convicted, and that seems to have been because he plead guilty to the charge. He was sentenced to a year at hard labor or a fine of $500. In the other cases, the defendants were not convicted, and some of the Horry Herald accounts are instructive concerning prevailing attitudes of the time. In the February 16, 1905, account of the Julius Hatcher case, the writer states "Absolutely no proof was made showing the presence of Negro blood in Hatcherís veins. . . . The Hatchers are a dark-skinned people, but if there is any Negro blood in them, no one knows when or whence it got there--if anything it may be Indian or Spaniard."

Each of the cases seems to have arisen out of a matter of personal spite held by the prosecuting witnesses against the defendants involved, since there were other intermarriages between whites and members of the Dimery Settlement with no issue ever being made of the matter. One interesting note on Julius Hatcher is that he is remembered by several of his relatives as having been an "Indian Doctor" who used herbs and roots to heal, and that he moved to Scranton, SC, and ran a small store where he dispensed his medicines.

The Hatchers were an excellent example of how uncertain a position members of the Dimery Settlement, and similar people in the South, occupied in official records such as the Federal Census. The Federal Census for 1920, for example, records William I. Hatcher, living in Galivants Ferry Township as white. His brothers Noah, Julius, Robert and Vander, living in Dog Bluff Township, are recorded as Mulatto, and their uncles, Peter and William, Living in Robeson County, NC, are enumerated as Indians.

This sort of treatment led many of the Indian people in the settlement to leave the area, moving a few counties away to places where they felt they could be treated more fairly. The Hatchers, Coopers, and Dimerys among the Lumbee Indians of Robeson county, NC, are all connected with the Dimery Settlement. One of the last traditional healers among the Lumbee was Vernon Cooper, a nephew of the Ellis Cooper who helped build Bethel Church in the Dimery Settlement. These Coopers came from the Marlboro County area, and claimed Cheraw ancestry. Several families drifted back to Marlboro county, near the area of the old Cheraw Indian settlement, which appears to have been the area where many of the families originated.

The original John Dimery says in the 1850 Census that he was born in North Carolina, which, if accurate, was probably just over the border in either Anson or Columbus county, NC. There are Dimerys in both areas early on. His children usually stated that he was born in South Carolina. The Hatcher name appears to originate from a white family of Indian traders who lived along the North Carolina/Virginia border in the early 1700s and who traded with the South Carolina tribes.

There is much that may never be known about the history of the Dimery Settlement, But is clear that the citizens of Horry County who are connected to it by blood can be proud of the ties they have with the original inhabitants of this country. The rest can learn with interest about an unusual ethnic island which adds its flavor to the richness of Horry Countyís history.

The Independent Republic Quarterly
Vol.29 No.4; Fall 1995; pp 32-36

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