I am between 350 and 400 years old. As the years pass, it becomes harder to track time. I am ancient of years, that I know. I am 75 feet in height. My branches seem to stretch for miles. My roots underground wind through the damp earth like veins wind through a human’s anatomy.
More than a hundred men can gather under the shaded shelter of my outstretched branches strewn with Spanish moss. I am known as “The Secession Oak” due to the role I played in the birth of the movement that led the land I stand on to secede from the Union. I am the South. I am a living part of the history embedded in the cool earth my roots call home. Let me tell you a little tale of how I – a noble oak among many – came to take on such a paramount position in our nation’s history.
Where I stand was once a seasonal retreat for regional rice and cotton planters. High bluffs and cool river breezes gave sheltered respite for plantation owners from the conditions and physical maladies wrought by the tropical heat and mosquitoes. Travel was convenient as the land around neighbored on waterways. Most travel was done by water in my earlier years. Bluffton was centered near Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, South Carolina. The land around me fast became a thriving center of commerce. Crops were distributed to near and far ports and goods were brought in to Bluffton from around the world to be sold.
Politics were less than calm during those years unlike the comfort of my shaded branches and the tranquil breezes my leaves danced to the tune of. Because of the tariffs of 1842, there was widespread dissatisfaction in the mostly agricultural states, which comprised all those in the South. The North had more of an industrial mix in their economies. The tariffs created an immediate backlash in the area around me because my land had complete dependence on agriculture – the value of the cotton and rice productions in particular. The tariffs benefitted the North and their industrial industries but my southern planters were enraged at how it damaged the international trade they relied on. I could hear the heated conversations among plantation owners. Sometimes they would rest under the coolness of my shade or wander by the waterfront within earshot.
South Carolina was considered the primary global source of sea island cotton, a long feather-like staple variety developed here after being introduced from the Bahamas. Also, for decades, the state was the international leader in the export of rice. Asian countries grew more rice for consumption, but in South Carolina, it became a source of import-export enterprise that far out-performed sea island cotton for many years. So tariffs cutting into profits from these bastions to the area economy were considered onerous to a high degree. Imported goods became too expensive, crippling the Southern economy while the tariffs only positive effect was assisting northern states’ industries.
July 31, 1844 a town meeting was called. The townspeople of what came to be known later as Bluffton met under my tree branches. I provided shade from the sticky summer heat as U.S. Representative Robert Barnwell Rhett spoke to a political rally of several hundred prominent young planters and like-minded folk. The tall, slender politician stood set apart from the crowd, his face bright with passion for the movement. His face was beaded with perspiration on this humid summer day. Rhett declared that it was time to consider separation from the Union. He proclaimed that the only hope for the South was immediate nullification of the tariff of 1842 or secession of South Carolina from the Union. He believed that once South Carolina took action, that other southern states would follow. I can still hear Mr. Rhett’s booming voice. His southern drawl did not curtail from the important political agenda he brought to the hundreds gathered under me. This was the dawn of what became known as the “Bluffton Movement”.
That date in 1844 is where I received my name that I am still known by today – “Secession Oak”. The birth of the Bluffton Movement and my place in history happened sixteen years before South Carolina became the first state to declare its secession. Even so, I stand as the tree known to be where men first gathered to discuss the radical political move of seceding away from the rest of the States. Men had gathered beneath my branches before. Meeting under trees like me for significant events was traditional in the South. Even the naming of stately, beautiful trees was quite common in my earlier days. When you have stood under me and gazed up my 75 feet and outward at my massive limbs that stretch towards the river and the woods, lush foliage wound around my bark, hanging from my branches and the swaying Spanish moss – you will see just why I am a Southern tree deserving of a title. We trees stood as reference points in a community almost as much as roads do today. Sometimes, such as in my case, a tree’s name necessitated a story be known about it.
I have this story for you and more… if you come spend time leaning upon my weathered trunk and let my branches’ cool breeze weave its sleepy spell on you.I may be an old oak off the beaten path but many still seek me out. The role I played in local Bluffton history, and our nation’s history due to South Carolina’s secession from the Union, eventually led to U.S. Civil War. Ask a local native to the Lowcountry and he or she can point you in my direction tucked away down back roads in Historic Bluffton.