Between Savannah and Beaufort, South Carolina, lies the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge. But our first sighting of giant cranes was not birds but actually a set of large waterfront machinery on the far side of the Refuge. Then we took a four-mile driving tour with plenty of places to stop with our binoculars, camera and our guide, the indispensable Sibley.
In addition to a plentiful supply of herons and cormorants we found snowy egrets, lifting each leg delicately to walk in the mud, their white crests Alligator waiting and yellow legs helping to identify them. Moorhens with bright red beaks and coots with white beaks paddled in the mudponds in springtime pairs. We saw so many alligators that we finally stopped photographing them. One of them took a local fisherwoman's line, including the bright red bobber, which it was trying to eat.
Established in 1711, Beaufort (pronounced Bew-fort) is the second oldest city in South Carolina. Today a small cruise ship was tied up at the dock downtown. We've been talking about returning some time to cruise the Intracoastal Waterway; with so many landward accesses blocked by guarded gates, the best way to see these coastal islands may be by boat.
The well preserved colonial houses along the river have huge white columns and balconies from which the family could watch for returning ships. We're still typing our genealogy notes and anxious to return to those areas where some of our own ancestors' homes are still standing.
This area is historically the home of the Gullah culture -- former slaves who farmed and fished and established a distinct subculture in the 19th century, which lasted until bridges and land developers removed their isolation. We stopped at Penn Center, one of the country's first schools for freed slaves. Among the supporters were two northern Abolitionist women, Ellen Murray and Laura Towne, who came in 1862 to teach the black children. (This part of South Carolina was in Yankee hands during the War, and used as a base for the blockade of southern ports.)
Whenever a museum offers a video, watch it. At Penn Center we saw "The Language We Cry In." In 1931 a musicologist had made a wire recording of Gullahs singing a folk song in an African language. Forty years later, an anthropologist heard the recording and wondered if the song would provide a link to Beaufort colonial house a particular part of Africa. He teamed up with a musicologist and an African linguist. The vast majority of slaves on the South Carolina and Georgia coasts worked in rice fields, and were imported from the "Rice Coast" of western Africa, near modern Sierra Leone. The language was quickly identified as Mende, which is spoken in parts of Sierra Leone.
African languages are tribal, and often the specific tribe can be pinpointed by listening to the spoken dialect. In the 1980s the team traveled through the country, playing the tape, trying to find the village which matched the dialect of the Gullah song. After an exhaustive search had proved fruitless, the musicologist set out by herself to a town just across the river, where the Mende language was also spoken. She must have had high moral character (as our Boston genealogist advisor says about people who can find obscure relatives), because the villagers not only recognized the language but even the song.
It was a ceremonial funeral song, sung by the women who painted themselves white - the color of death - as they led a stylized mourning ceremony where food is placed near the grave. The remnants of the food are eaten by the members of the village, to link the dead and the living. This ceremony had not been practiced in the village since the first world war, when Islam and Christianity were introduced into the culture. But the song had still been taught by some mothers to daughters, and it was immediately recognized.
Back in the United States, the daughter of one of the women who made the 1931 recording was found; she, too had been taught the song by her mother, and told always to remember it: it would identify her kin. Plans were made to bring her back to the tiny village in Sierra Leone.
But the civil war in Sierra Leone intervened. Fifty thousand died, almost two million homes destroyed by rampaging military forces. The woman in the small village who had known the song had family members murdered and was tortured herself. But she was a remarkable woman, a survivor, and finally, the war over, the trip was planned again. The American Gullahs were feted in Sierra Leone, and there was a tearful reunion in the village, where the old ceremony was Penn Center School reenacted. The localized dialect which connected the villagers with their Gullah kinfolk was "The Language We Cry In;" An old Sierra Leone legend says that is the language that will identify one's kin.
After we viewed the video we reflected from our own perspectives. What a wonderful triumph for scientific research in the search for truth! What an extension to genealogy when one can pinpoint a geographical area from which [some] of one's forbears came! And what an odd turn of fate that the descendants of those who had been brutally captured by slavers and torn from their native land now are better off (in a material sense) than the descendants of those who stayed behind, only to face the incessant African tribal warfare of modern times!
After leaving Penn Center, we continued on to the coast, through three islands. Two of them were gated and guarded communities, and the third was a state park. We thought it might be nice to drive down to the beach to view the lighthouse, but changed our mind when the ranger said it would cost us two dollars a person to do that. There are other, free lighthouses on the Atlantic Coast!
On another subject, a word about "SUITES." It seems that all the hotel chains are offering suites these days, but we're learning there's a lot of difference. Some are designed for large families, with one or more bedrooms plus sofa beds in a living room. Some are economically designed for the long-term single business traveler, with a small kitchenette, a desk with power and phone connections, and only one chair, though it may be an executive desk chair. We find that we look for the ones that provide greater in-room dining facilities, with a larger table and two or more chairs -- where we tend to spread out our computer equipment, printers, scanners, etc. If you're interested in this topic, let us know, and we'll share some of our findings.