While many Columbia streets were named for a historically significant event or, more likely, a key figure — especially relating to the Revolutionary or Civil wars — some streets and even towns throughout South Carolina have names both perplexing and humorous. Columbia residents may be familiar with Hampton Street, named in 1907 in honor of Gov. and United States Sen. Wade Hampton, III. But head-scratching occurs when driving through Hells Half Acre near Barnwell or Cat Hole in Dorchester County. While the National League of Cities finds America to possess almost 8,000 Main Streets and around 5,000 Washington and Elm streets, plenty of names nearby are either one-of-a-kind or not nearly as common.
Columbia’s downtown was actually well thought out and planned. According to Historic Elmwood Park’s “Streets of Columbia” website history, Columbia was chosen in 1786 as the site of the new state capital because it was more geographically centralized than the former capital of Charleston. John Gabriel Guignard was hired by the city commissioners as the surveyor general who would develop the town’s new plan. “He divided the 2-mile-square area into 20 square city blocks, or 400 total blocks within Columbia. The four boundary roads and two central thoroughfares were 150 feet wide. All other streets were 100 feet wide.”
Historic Elmwood Park “Streets of Columbia” website history further offers that “the north-south streets were originally named for officers who fought for South Carolina in the Revolution. Most were native South Carolinians. The east-west streets were generally named for important agricultural products of the state’s economy or important citizens at the time.”
Gervais Street, in fact, was named for John Lewis Gervais, who not only served in the American Revolution but also introduced the bill that resulted in the selection of Columbia as the capital.
Other names came later, or street names were changed to honor leaders and heroes of the 19th century. More than a few well-traveled streets in Columbia were named for officers who fought as patriots in the Revolutionary War: Gen. John Barnwell, Brig. Gen. Stephen Bull, Christopher Gadsden, Brig. Gen. Isaac Huger, Thomas Sumter (also known as the fighting “Gamecock”), and Andrews Pickens. Huger, which is a main thoroughfare in and out of downtown Columbia, is often scrutinized for its pronunciation, with newcomers known for making a wide variety of guesses, most often “hugger.” Of French Huguenot origin, the name’s correct pronunciation is “you-gee,” as in the two middle letters of the name.
And then there is Marion Street, named for one of the most weighty historical figures that South Carolina lauds as its own: Francis Marion. Dubbed the “Swamp Fox” by his nemesis, the infamous British Col. Banastre Tarleton, because he hid with a group of militia in swamps in and around South Carolina, Marion has been the subject of countless books. One of his men, William Harden, even procured a lasting legacy in Harden Street.
Joe Long, curator of education at the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, says, “Landmarks that we can see — roads, buildings, parks and so forth — have often been named for those whose legacies still shape us. A corner like Huger and Gervais represents more than the intersection of two streets. It suggests a corner turned in history. It also hints to us that those two men with unfamiliar French Huguenot names, descended from fugitives from persecution in Europe, must have been prominent and even revered. That thought, in turn, can lead across oceans and centuries, cultures and religions, to remind us how interwoven all of our history really is.”
But not all downtown Columbia street names extol the long-ago achievements of individual men. Lady Street was named in honor of Martha Custis Washington, the new nation’s first First Lady; Catawba Street honors the Native American tribe prevalent in the Carolinas; and Blossom Street suggests the cotton blossom, or cotton, as an important commercial crop for the state.
Some of the labels attached to small South Carolina towns and populated places imply less serious significance but have a story behind the origin just the same. Many naming legacies are not written down but instead are passed down from family member to family member, neighbor to neighbor.
Cat Hole has nothing to do with cats, according to Claire Mizell, director of the Dorchester County Archives & History Center. “It was the area used by local farmers to water their cattle. They would herd their cattle down to the river to water them, creating the deeper depression that is now used as a boat landing. It was called Cattle Hole, which became shortened to Cat Hole.” However, another Cat Hole naming story comes from Durham Reeves, whose family actually owns the property. He says it was so named because there was a fishing hole in the Edisto River where locals caught many catfish.
On the other hand, Cow Tail, also in Dorchester County, does have something to do with cows. Claire shares that the story was told to an area authority, Jean Behling, by Yvonne “Sugar Pie” Maxie. “The story goes like this: The children used to go swimming in the creek that ran through that area. The cows grazed in the nearby pasture and drank from the creek. One day, a cow got her tail caught in the fence around the pasture. She struggled and struggled to free her tail. She finally got free but at the expense of pulling her tail off, leaving it in the fence. From that time on, the kids and then the adults called the area Cow Tail.”
Hells Half Acre in Barnwell County is perhaps one of the most intriguing South Carolina names. Three movies, two novels, one song, one album, and a Civil War battlefield in Tennessee have that title. But how did an area of Perry Street within the city of Barnwell become known to old-timers as Hells Half Acre? Apparently, the actual phrase’s connotation is either a desolate place or one that requires a long, frustrating trip to find. Barnwell Chamber of Commerce Director Terri Smith says that Hells Half Acre was so named, according to verbal history, because it was something of a den of iniquity, with bootleggers congregating there because it backs up to a swamp where those participating in illegal activity could flee from authorities. Terri assures that this section of town is no longer considered a bad area.
In stark contrast is God’s Acre, also in Barnwell County, where a concentration of Mennonites and a “healing” spring are located. The land was apparently deeded to “Almighty God” in 1944 by property owner L.P. Boylston, who took this unusual measure to free the property from taxes, as taxes are impossible to collect from God. Since then, anyone is free to drink from the spring as it is owned by no one, except God.
Interestingly, many towns and crossroad areas (simply considered “populated” because some people reside there) were named by early railroad owners and workers who grasped at random themes. For example, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, located in Bamberg and Orangeburg counties, follow a Scandinavian theme. Other South Carolina spots with “borrowed” names include Baton Rouge, Cleveland, Paris, and Texas.
In every state, number names hold credence. In South Carolina, for instance, Nine Times, Ninety Six, and Six Mile are a few. Nine Times is so named for the nine water crossings in this unincorporated Pickens County community, located where the Southern Blue Ridge Mountains meet the Piedmont. Greenwood County’s Ninety-Six is a historic site because the first land battle of the Revolutionary War fought in South Carolina took place at the 100-person settlement of Ninety Six in 1775, but the reference to the number is a mystery, unless — as some believe — it has to do with the convoluted fact that there are two sets of southerly flowing streams: nine tributaries of Marion and Henley creeks and six tributaries of Thompsons Creek.
However, the town of Six Mile offers up history that may explain both its name origin as well as that of Ninety Six: “A popular legend is that Six Mile was named by the Indian maiden Issaqueena, who rode her horse on a journey of 96 miles to warn her lover, an English trader named Francis Allen, of a coming Cherokee attack on the fort where he was staying, called Star Fort. Issaqueena numbered the creeks she crossed until she reached the fort in the area she labeled Ninety Six. A town is called Ninety Six, and many other number names are used on the path to it, including Mile Creek, Six Mile, Twelve Mile River, and Six and Twenty Creek. According to the legend, Issaqueena succeeded in warning Allen, and they married and had a child, only later to be pursued by, and escape, the Cherokee.”
Many places are difficult to pronounce due to their multi-syllable Native American names: Awendaw, Pocotaligo, and Eutawville are a few. According to tradition, Round O, an unincorporated Colleton County community, received its name from a local Native American whose name was too long to pronounce, so locals just call, and have called, the area either Round or Round O.
Finally, some town and community names curiously enough retain population despite their names. Who wants to own up to having a home address that includes Burns Down, Hurl Rocks, Gator Field, Snoddy, Spider Web, Poverty Hill, or No Man’s Land? And while Cheddar seems like a name that should only be relegated to a town in Wisconsin, and Fair Play sounds like it could be a sports stadium title, some glass-half-full expectations reside in Happy Bottom, Happytown, and Wide Awake.
While driving around Columbia streets and through South Carolina small towns, pay attention. What was involved in the naming may be as intriguing as the name itself.