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Beaufort History: Larry Rowland and Steve Wise: Living Beaufort’s History Every Day

story by carol lauvray     photography by susan deloach

If you love history and historic sites, there’s no better place to live or visit than Beaufort, South Carolina. Just walk down its streets or take a short drive—you’ll see reminders everywhere of the 500 years of Beaufort’s history that have shaped America.

Santa Elena on Parris Island (1566)—the first European colonial capital in what’s now the United States. The site of the Revolutionary War Battle of Port Royal Island (Grays Hill). The Edmund Rhett House—where wealthy planters discussed secession from the Union. The Arsenal (1798) occupied during the Civil War by Union troops. Brick Baptist Church and Penn Center on St. Helena Island—monuments to the thousands of slaves freed here during the Civil War and to the birth of Reconstruction, right here in Beaufort. All of these sites testify to the rich history Beaufort embodies. It’s no wonder that heritage (i.e., historic) tourism is Beaufort’s number-one industry.

But for some, the history of Beaufort is much more than a reason to visit or a way to make a living—it’s a calling—as it is for Dr. Lawrence S. Rowland and Dr. Stephen R. Wise, Beaufort’s preeminent history scholars.

“All of American history actually began in Beaufort, South Carolina!” declares Lawrence S. Rowland, distinguished professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. He’s been teaching students and folks here for nearly five decades that Beaufort County has profoundly shaped the evolution and development of this country from its very beginnings.

Larry Rowland’s roots in Beaufort are deep. He moved here at the age of 10 from New York State with his parents, who owned and operated the Point’s historic Tidalholm Inn from 1953 to 1965. Before he was born, Larry’s mother, Elizabeth (Libby) Sanders Rowland, inherited Dataw Island in 1933 and owned it until its sale in 1983. Larry says he was fascinated by history from a very early age and loved hearing his mother read about the Civil War years from the famous book, A Diary From Dixie. His dissertation topic was Eighteenth Century Beaufort: A study of South Carolina’s Southern Parishes to 1800.

Steve Wise, a native of Ohio, earned his doctorate degree at the University of South Carolina and came to Beaufort in 1983 as the director of the Parris Island Museum and Cultural Resource Manager for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. He says his love of history and interest in studying the Civil War began early when his family traveled to visit historic sites during the Civil War Centennial in the early 1960s. “I’ve been collecting topics and sources since I was in grade school,” he admits. As a highly regarded expert on the Civil War, Dr. Wise often speaks at conferences. In 1984, Larry Rowland presented a lecture at the Charleston Maritime Conference. Steve Wise was the final speaker at that conference and presented his lecture, “Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War.”

“That was the first time I heard Steve give a public lecture and it was one of the most interesting lectures I’ve ever heard! I knew then that I needed Steve to work on Volume 2 with me!” Larry exclaimed.

Bringing Beaufort’s History to Life

Larry Rowland and Steve Wise are not content to simply document what’s happened in Beaufort over the past 500 years within the 1,700 pages of the three-volume series, The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina. They also feel compelled to bring that history to life by personally sharing the stories of Beaufort and how it has influenced America, with students, teachers, colleagues, friends and the greater community.

Recent evidence of that was a free lecture they presented to a capacity crowd, “Beaufort in the Civil War,” co-sponsored by Beaufort History Museum and the Beaufort County Library. The two history scholars enthralled the audience with photos and descriptions of Beaufort and its residents during the Civil War years and Reconstruction Era, telling what life was like for the soldiers, civilians and freedmen who were here during those times.

Here’s what some local history scholars and professionals have to say about the importance of Larry Rowland’s and Stephen Wise’s contributions to understanding and promoting Beaufort’s history:

Dr. Andrew J. Beall, Santa Elena Foundation Board Chairman:

“Professor Larry Rowland highlighted for our community the wonderful story of Charlesfort and Santa Elena. Without his understanding and promotion, the important history of early European settlement on our shores would remain obscure and buried beneath the sands of Parris Island. Dr. Rowland is an indefatigable champion for Beaufort History, a brilliant storyteller, an essential member of our Board of Directors, and responsible for the critical academic connections necessary to bring the true history of our community to life.”

“Dr. Stephen Wise, Museum Director and Cultural Resource Manager for Parris Island, has long been the fiduciary historian for the Charlesfort/Santa Elena National Heritage Landmark. His stewardship protects the remarkable quality of the site, one of most preserved 16th Century archaeological sites in America. Dr. Wise spoke during the opening of our inaugural exhibit and participated in our 450-year commemoration of the founding of the Spanish town of Santa Elena in 1566.”

Larry Koolkin, Beaufort History Museum Board Member and Exhibits Committee Co-chair:

“We are indebted to Larry and Steve for their consultation in developing and framing the messages for Beaufort History Museum’s current special exhibit, ‘Reconstruction Beaufort: Islands of Hope in a Sea of Distress,’ as well as for reviewing and vetting the detailed content. They are preeminent scholars, great storytellers, approachable people, and wonderful friends to the Museum.”

Dr. J. Brent Morris, University of South Carolina Beaufort Associate Professor of History and Humanities Department Chair:

“For our upcoming NEH Reconstruction Institute [America’s Reconstruction: The Untold Story] we have visiting faculty coming from Yale, Cornell, and other prestigious institutions across the country and Europe, but Larry and Steve might just be the most important additions to our staff. For an institute that focuses on the Reconstruction era, specifically in Beaufort County, nobody knows the history better than these gentlemen—nobody. Just look at the endorsements on the back cover of their book on Beaufort in the Reconstruction Era: Eric Foner, James McPherson, and Walter Edgar pick Beaufort County Volume II off their shelves when they want to learn more about this riveting story. I’m privileged to be able to help bring their narrative history to teachers from across the nation, from California to Maine, Florida and points in between, and I know from many of the alumni from our 2015 NEH institute that the knowledge they gained in their three weeks in Beaufort has made its way into a privileged spot in their curriculum.”

Larry Rowland and Steve Wise have spent their lives tirelessly researching and poring over historic records, letters, newspaper articles, journals and military regimental histories to unearth the nation’s and Beaufort’s past. They’ve woven an intricate tapestry of what has happened here over the past 500 years and how Beaufort has shaped what America has become. With Beaufort County’s designation in January as the Reconstruction Era National Monument, everyone will soon understand how Beaufort has changed history.

Two Lifetimes of Work  

Dr. Lawrence S. Rowland is distinguished professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, where he began his career in 1971 as USCB’s assistant director and as professor of history. He earned his bachelor degree from Hamilton College in Upstate, New York, and his master’s degree and doctorate from the University of South Carolina at Columbia.

Dr. Stephen R. Wise is the director of the Parris Island Museum and the Cultural Resource Manager for the Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island. He earned his bachelor degree from Wittenberg University, his master’s degree from Bowling Green State University, and his doctorate at the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Wise serves as an adjunct history professor for the University of South Carolina at Beaufort and an advisor to the South Carolina Battleground Preservation Trust. He also served on the faculty for Penn Center’s Gullah Institute. He’s written and edited a number of works including Lifeline of the Confederacy: Blockade Running During the Civil War and Gate of Hell: The Campaign for Charleston Harbor 1863, which was named by the South Carolina Historical Society as the best book written in 1994 on South Carolina History.

Both Dr. Rowland and Dr. Wise serve on the editorial board for the South Carolina Historical Magazine and are past presidents of the Beaufort County Historical Society.

Telling the Stories of 500 Years of Beaufort’s History 

• Dr. Rowland is the co-author of The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 1, 1514 -1861, with Alexander Moore and George C. Rogers, Jr.

• Dr. Wise and Dr. Rowland are co-authors of Rebellion, Reconstruction and Redemption, The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 2, 1861-1893

• Dr. Rowland and Dr. Wise are co-authors of Bridging the Sea Islands’ Past and Present, 1893-2006: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 3.

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