River Travel

It was easier, faster, cheaper, and safer to move goods by water. In addition, since the colony often lacked resources to build and maintain roads, settlers from the earliest times sought to obtain land on waterways— the ocean, rivers, streams, or creeks—with either a private or a public landing that gave them access to the water road.

River travel was a necessity in early South Carolina. Usable roads–those wide enough for a wagon–were almost non-existent in the seventeenth and early part of the eighteenth centuries. Those present were not roads but rather Native American trails that were hard to find and harder to follow. One writer noted that in 1697 the “woods, swamps, rivers, creeks and runs” made overland travel difficult, frequently leaving horses, stock, and travelers up “to the[ir] knees in mud, or the ankles in sand.” It was easier, faster, cheaper, and safer to move goods by water. In addition, since the colony often lacked resources to build and maintain roads, settlers from the earliest times sought to obtain land on waterways– the ocean, rivers, streams, or creeks–with either a private or a public landing that gave them access to the water road.

The vessels used in this travel and trade varied. The smallest and most convenient were canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks. They were easy to maneuver, were shallow draft, and could be managed by one or two paddlers. A few were large enough for sails and major cargo, although none was as big as the periagua, which had a flat bottom, a sail, and room for multiple oars on either side. Shallops, ketches, yawls, pinks, and small sloops resembled the larger periaguas in their ability to carry cargo and in their shallow bottoms. These smaller vessels were propelled by one or more sails and were largely used in the coasting trade and on the lower rivers where wind and draft permitted. In the same category as the periagua, although smaller and poled rather than paddled or rowed, was the scow, flat, or flatboat. In general, however, periaguas and large canoes were the transportation of choice as far north as the fall line. There, rocks and rapids forced travelers and goods to depart from the waterways or to portage them. Towns such as Augusta, Hamburg, Columbia, Camden, and Cheraw frequently grew up along the rivers at these transportation bottlenecks.

Trade and travel saw only limited change until the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1700 John Lawson left Charleston to explore the coast and the Santee River in a ten-man canoe handled by four Indians. By sail and hard rowing his small vessel managed to reach the upper Santee, and from there he crossed into North Carolina on foot. Thirty-three years later an English gentleman shipped from Charleston to Savannah by schooner engaged a canoe manned by four blacks to Purrysburg and then returned by periagua to Charleston.

The addition of a state turnpike from Charleston to Columbia, canals on the upstate rivers, and small steamboats on the lower rivers in the 1820s and 1830s improved transportation networks in South Carolina. But poor construction and high costs diminished the benefits provided by these improvements, forcing many Carolinians to continue to rely on poorly maintained roads and perilous rivers for their transportation needs. The construction of railroads in the nineteenth century and a modern highway system in the twentieth century brought about the demise of most river travel in South Carolina.

Clonts, F. W. “Travel and Transportation in Colonial North Carolina.” North Carolina Historical Review 3 (January 1926): 16–35.

Meriwether, Robert L. The Expansion of South Carolina, 1729–1765. Kingsport, Tenn.: Southern Publishers, 1940.

Merrens, H. Roy, ed. The Colonial South Carolina Scene, 1697–1774: Con- temporary Views. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1977.

Moore, John Hammond. The South Carolina Highway Department, 1917–1987. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Taylor, George Rogers. The Transportation Revolution, 1815–1860. New York: Rinehart, 1951.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title River Travel
  • Author
  • Keywords necessity in early South Carolina, canoes made from hollowed-out tree trunks, construction of railroads in the nineteenth century and a modern highway system in the twentieth century brought about the demise of most river travel in South Carolina
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date September 27, 2022
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 23, 2022
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