Where is one of America’s most haunted communities? Maybe not where you think. Learn the haunted history of Georgetown, SC and Pawleys Island.
Savannah, Georgia and New Orleans, Louisiana may get the notoriety as the “most haunted cities in America.” But there’s a lesser known competitor for the title – the coastal region of Georgetown County, South Carolina.
Over one hundred ghosts haunt the county seat of Georgetown and neighboring Pawleys Island, according to legend. While many local residents scoff at such tales, tour guides readily tell visitors stories of local hauntings and paranormal phenomena. Perhaps the most famous ghost in Pawley Island history is the Gray Man, his sighting a well known hurricane warning. Another famous ghost is Alice Flagg, who died of a broken heart and is buried on Pawleys Island.
Why are Pawleys Island and Georgetown so haunted? Some say the sudden and often violent deaths associated with ocean life could be a cause. Others think only individuals with strong personalities become ghosts, and Georgetown’s powerful plantation families certainly fit the bill. Or perhaps it’s the region’s strong link with early history that fascinates us. And makes us think we hear strange noises coming from historic homes and moonlit beaches.
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Where is Georgetown, South Carolina?
Georgetown is a coastal community in South Carolina’s Lowcountry. Located on Winyah Bay, this small historic town is the termination point of the Grand Strand. This 60 mile stretch of coastline includes the bustling tourist town of Myrtle Beach, a world away from quiet and quaint Georgetown.
Georgetown is the third oldest city in South Carolina, with a population just under 10,000. It packs a lot of history into its smaller footprint, stretching back to the first colonization of America.
Early Colonists in Georgetown
Native American tribes like the Waccamaw and Winyah settled in the region long before Europeans arrived. Many local sites still bear tribal names. Archeologists have discovered burial mounds along the nearby Waccamaw River.
In 1526, Spanish explorers founded a colony on Waccamaw Neck, a narrow peninsula where the City of Pawleys Island is now located. It was the first European settlement in America with African slaves. But rampant disease and a slave revolt drove the Spanish away before any further inland explorations could occur.
British colonists from nearby Charles Town (today Charleston) later established the Georgetown area as a remote trading post with Native American tribes. In 1729, these colonists founded the City of Georgetown. Its’ original 4 X 8 block grid exists today on the National Register of Historic Places.
Georgetown became a commercial center for the South Carolina Lowcountry. Its strategic location on deep Winyah Bay at the convergence of four large shipping rivers soon made it a major port city. Giant ships from Europe traded goods in Georgetown’s port during Colonial times.
After the Revolutionary War, Georgetown’s economy boomed due to local rice production. Plantations soon sprung up along the nearby rivers. The winding, swampy river land was perfect for rice cultivation, and a wealthy plantation culture emerged comparable to neighboring Charleston.
But river life also brought extreme heat and disease, and many plantation families had to flee when summer arrived. They were especially frightened of “country fever” (as malaria was then known) spread by mosquitoes infesting the marshes. They soon built second homes on nearby beaches and islands, and wouldn’t return to their mainland plantations until the first hard frost in November.
Many plantation families lost their fortunes after the Civil War. Without a slave workforce, the plantations could no longer harvest rice crops to pre-war levels. By the mid-20th century, lumber and steel mills replaced rice production as drivers of the local economy. Although both industries suffered downturns from the Great Depression and overseas competition.
A Ghostly Economy
Steel mills still operate in Georgetown County, but much of the economy today relies on retirees and heritage tourism. Historic neighborhoods lined with majestic oak trees draw visitors from around the world. Many churches, cemeteries and homes predate the Revolutionary War.
As a result, reported hauntings abound in Georgetown, as do several ghost tour operators. Numerous Georgetown homes and businesses are believed to be haunted by everything from drunken sailors and orphaned children to Patriot hero Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion.
But it is the Pawleys Island community just a few minutes across the water that claims two of the area’s best known hauntings.
Where is Pawleys Island?
Tiny Pawleys Island is located in the Tidelands of Georgetown County, South Carolina. Four miles long and a quarter mile wide at its widest point, Pawleys is one of the oldest beach communities on the East Coast. The island is connected to the county seat of Georgetown by U.S. Route 17 (Ocean Highway).
The earliest known inhabitants in Pawley Island’s history were the Waccamaw and Winyah tribes, named after the Waccamaw River and Winyah Bay. For a brief time, the peninsula known as Waccamaw Neck became a trading post for European settlers. But conflicts between the native tribes and colonists eventually drove them out.
Waccamaw Neck was susceptible to high winds and storms – especially helpful in the summer to keep mosquitos at bay. In 1711, Percival Pawley became the first European settler to develop plantations on the island. He and future rice planters used the island as an escape from the mosquitos, heat and malaria on the mainland.
One of these families were the Flaggs, who lived at The Hermitage on the island. The young daughter Alice Flagg, aka “The Lady in White,” would become the subject of one of Pawleys Island’s most famous hauntings.
It is unclear how many Pawley family members lived on the island. But historians believe the island was eventually named for Percival’s sons George, Anthony and Percival Jr.
Pawley Island’s Slavery History
In the days before connecting bridges, plantation families were rowed across the water by slave oarsmen, singing ancient harmonies like “Roll, Jordan, Roll” and “O, Zion” as they rowed. Once the families arrived on the island, the slaves would return with cooks, nurses and seamstresses from the mainland whenever their services were needed.
These plantation families built sturdy homes on the island made out of heavy hand-hewn lumber. A distinctive Pawleys style emerged, featuring homes with gabled roofs and around-the-house porches. Some of these homes were so well made that they remain standing to this day, despite years of harsh tropical storms.
The South’s devastating defeat in the Civil War hit Pawleys Island and Georgetown County hard, as plantation owners were stripped of their fortunes. Whatever cultivable fields were left were mostly destroyed by hurricanes, and an exodus of freed slaves.
Despite the hardships, however, many families kept their homes on Pawleys Island. Many of these homes are still occupied by third, fourth or fifth generations of these plantation families.
A History of Hurricanes
Tropical storms always play a violent role in the history of an island, and for tiny Pawleys Island, they were particularly devastating. Houses were carried out to sea, sand dunes were flattened, and entire families were swallowed up by the rampaging waters.
Hurricane Hazel in 1954 destroyed almost every new home built on the island since World War II. But due to the advent of a hurricane warning system, no fatalities resulted from Hazel.
But many believe Pawleys Island has another hurricane warning system – a supernatural one. This is the famous Gray Man ghost, believed by many to be a warning that a storm is coming. There are many stories of how he came to wander the lonely beaches during hurricane season.
Pawleys Island Today
Most of the picturesque old homes were sturdy enough to weather these storms, and today help give Pawleys Island its unique charm. Unlike its neighboring resort islands, parts of Pawleys have changed little since the 1700s, leading some to call it “arrogantly shabby.”
Life on Pawleys operates at a slow and leisurely pace. Swimming, sunning and fishing are the main activities of the day. Night life consists of eating fresh, mouth-watering seafood at one of their fine restaurants. Pawleys is especially famous for its distinctive rope and cord hammocks, handmade by local crafts folk since 1880.
But many visitors probably hope attractions like The Gray Man will stay in hiding. For his appearance can only mean one thing: vacation is over!