St. Helena: The Land

After the Civil War ended, white slave owners fled their plantations on St. Helena Island. The slaves remained on the island, left to their own devices with land grants provided by the government. Although many slave owners believed the freed slaves would not survive, the Gullah people not only endured, but thrived as in independent culture. As D. E. Moerman describes on page 275 of “Masterful Marginals: Black Life on a Carolina Isle:”
“The people of St. Helena are black, proud, resourceful, hard-working, handsome, and generous. They live full rich lives in the company of huge families which they serve and on which they depend. It is not unusual to find family compounds, assortments of a half dozen or more houses and perhaps trailers, spread over an acre or two of land, housing four generations and perhaps two or three lines of a single extended family.”

After Emancipation, the freed slaves on St. Helena received official deeds to land on their former plantations, as explained in this interview. Gullah people today refer to this practice as “heirs property.” Because of heirs property, St. Helena residents also developed their own practice of giving directions; their concept of island neighborhoods centers around plantations like Fripp Point, Coffins Point, and others. Moerman explains, “Unlike most modern Americans, whose spatial referent is usually some sort of street grid (“Turn left at the last stop light…”), St. Helena Islanders invariably give directions in terms of these plantations. The plantations are also neighborhoods of a certain sort; a certain amount of (perhaps) provincial pride and not a little competition attached to an individual’s residence on a particular island” (274).

Until recently, St. Helena also did not have street names. However, as Kit Greene explains, “the county asked us local people, what do you want their street to be named? And most people used the name that they had in the first place, a relative’s name, or something. You know. And of course, Mr. Doyle [a famous Gullah painter; learn about Sam Doyle and Gullah Culture here], we owned him, because he was considered one of the great primitive uh, painters, uh, just before his death.” Many island residents chose to name the streets after notable community members, influential African-Americans, island landmarks, or their own family name.

How They Survived

Many American crops came through St. Helena and the surrounding areas through the African slave trade. According to The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, the African crops of okra, sesame, watermelon made slaves valuable because of their cultivation experience. These crops also factor heavily in Gullah cooking. Many of the Gullah people’s West African descendants originally came to the United States because of their skill at rice cultivation. Others were sold to the large indigo farms in South Carolina, or used to harvest the famous “sea-island cotton.” Many slave traders considered them more resilient than slaves from other regions, especially given their knowledge of efficient farming methods.

After Emancipation, the Gullah people survived by subsistence farming, sharing resources, and extremely creative land use. Moerman explains:

“Garden produce is widely shared throughout compound and among other relatives on the island. Men frequently find their customary fishing and shrimping companions on their compounds: when large catches are made, they too are shared through and beyond the compound. In many ways, child-rearing also a compound function; minimally, the compound provides extensive babysitting functions for working parents.” (291)

Island residents primarily lived off of rice, hogs, beans, fruits, and vegetables. Some families also worked at large mainland or island farms. St. Helena eventually became home to a few general stores, where residents could buy flower, sugar, candy, and other household items.

St. Helena residents lived more or less cut off from the rest of America until the Harbor Island Bridge was built in 1939. This separation contributed to their culture’s uniqueness. On page 8 of this interview, Vernita Patterson recounts memories of the bridge being built on the site of her previous home, and this interview explains the process of taking a boat to Beaufort before the bridge was built.


The Gullah people sold some crops for profit, kept some for food, and often sold cotton to pay taxes. The most common plants cultivated included tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, corn, grits, squash, beans, cantaloupe, string beans, butter beans, wheat, and a few others. Many families also used the corn mill on the island to grind their corn into grits. Most families raised animals, including chickens, cows, and hogs. Most families also practiced canning and meat curing for the winter, and some crops had labor-intensive cultivation processes: Ben Johnson describes how his family “had to pick [shelled peas] and they used to put it in a bag and beat it with a broomstick so the peas would come out of their shell.” Gullah farming also relied heavily on seafood from the waters surrounding the island. In this interview, Albert Atkins explains, “we’d tie in low, we go out there and have a gig because flounder and stingray. We go and catch that, and come back, and clean that.” More recollections of Gullah farming can be found here and here.


Most elders in the Gullah community practice traditional Gullah cooking, which does not include measuring ingredients; Gullah cooks prefer to “play it by ear” when it comes to choosing how much of a certain ingredient to include in their cooking. Most Gullah cooks also do not use written recipes; instead, they use recipes taught by family and friends. Although the Gullah cooking style comes from a history of limited resources, it also marks a cultural respect for elders. Many children recall learning how to cook from their grandparents, and most recipes are passed down from community elder to children.
Gullah cooking relies primarily on food found on the islands, and sometimes includes unusual ingredients like turtle. In this interview, Mark Delaney discusses common spices in Gullah cooking; he also talks generally about Gullah culinary practices and traditions. This interview includes a cooking demonstration, where Ida Mae Alston makes okra and shrimp.
Cooking has functioned as a form of cultural preservation for the Gullah people. It is also a way for community members to care for one another. There are a variety of Gullah cookbooks, and more on Gullah cooking can be found here. World-renowned Gullah cooking not only tastes delicious, it also provides an excellent way to truly experience the island’s unique cultural legacy. Gullah history and culture is inseparable from their cooking; whether at a family gathering, meeting, or baptism, the Gullah people use cooking as a means of celebration, comfort, and hospitality for both island residents and visitors.

Home Remedies

The Gullah people have survived in part by using a variety of home remedies based on plants available in South Carolina. During slavery and antebellum, the Gullah people were often more knowledgeable than the slave masters about how to cure certain ailments. In fact, in the 1700s, a slave named Caesar was given freedom for figuring out the cure to rattlesnake bites. Slaves discovered many plants in South Carolina, and knew of others, like gum arabic and aloe, which the slave trade had brought to America. This knowledge was passed on through generations to the Gullah people of today. These plant cures not only allowed the Gullah people to survive; they also became some of the building blocks of modern pharmaceuticals. Although the Gullah people developed home remedies out of necessity, using their own medicine also allowed islanders to become self-sufficient instead of relying on an economy that denied black americans equal access to healthcare. Moerman explains:

There are no specialists in this medical system. Treatment is personal, or familial. In the absence of professional physicians, St. Helena’s Islanders develped this system to cure their own illness. As one old woman told me, “The doctor? He out in de fiel’!” And a variety of evidence indicates that it is an effective system. (288)

This article finds that many Gullah people distrust modern medicine and favor traditional approaches. Others use home remedies first, and then turn to modern medicine, or vice versa. Others still use the two forms of healing as a way to complement one another. Gullah physicians seldom charge their patients, and parents or caregivers often function as family doctors.

Life Everlasting

Life Everlasting has become famous for its medicinal properties, and the Gullah people swear by it for a variety of household cures. Applied for uses as varied as stress reliever, aphrodisiac, and flu cure, this plant was introduced to islanders by Native Americans and has been in common practice ever since. In The Gullah People and Their African Heritage, William Pollitzer explains:

Do you have a cold and cough with congestion and fever? Pick the annual herb “life everlasting,” boil its leaves, stem and yellow flowers, add another plant like pine tops or mullein or sea myrtle, to make one of the most popular cold remedies in South Carolina. Some say it will also relieve cramps, diseases of the bowels, and pulmonary complaints, and promote general well being. The dried plant is smoked for asthma, the leaves and flowers are chewed for quinsy, the crumbled leaves relieve toothache, and a bath of it eases foot pains. Some people today buy it in the City Market in Charleston and take it to friends in New York. (99)

 Life Everlasting is often prescribed by island grandmothers: page five of one interview mentions taking a grandmother taking Life Everlasting from the woods, boiling it, and using it in a tea to prevent sickness in her grandchildren. On page 16 of this interview, Robbie and Daisy Deane Bolles mention using Life Everlasting to treat colds as children.

Dr. Buzzard

If home cures fail, many turned to the famed Dr. Buzzard for a different solution to their ailments. Dr. Buzzard, the island witch doctor (also called a root doctor), gave islanders advice about the spiritual realm. He could put a hex on someone, make someone more attractive, or lift a curse. Some swore by him, and others avoided him. In some of the interviews, he is called “Mr. Gregory.” Apparently, there were two Dr. Buzzards. The original Dr. Buzzard was Mr. Gregory’s father (or grandfather, or father-in-law, depending on who you ask), and passed his spiritual expertise to him. People came to St. Helena from far and wide for his cures; at the same time, many islanders did not know his real identity.

Dr. Buzzard practiced what many call voodoo today. But most islanders did not see his magic with any distrust or stigma; they do not consider his work “dark magic” but instead see it as keeping the delicate balance between the spiritual and natural realm. In fact, some say he even serves as a church deacon on the island. In this interview, Ben Johnson talks about growing up with Dr. Buzzard’s son and the doctor’s continuing legacy on the island. In this interview, Victoria Smalls talks about Dr. Buzzard curing her stutter and his friendship with her father. Ruth James explains encountering Dr. Buzzard’s reputation outside of South Carolina in this interview.

Home Remedies

Below is a chart of home remedies, according to The Gullah People and Their African Heritage and this article.



African Willow

Used for salicylic acid, which treats rheumatism and acne.

American Aloe

Referred to as “rattlesnake master,” a snake bite cure

Angelica Tree, root bark

Also referred to as “rattlesnake master,” also a snake bite cure


Malaria Cure

Blackberry Leaves (tannin-rich astringent)

Diarrhea and Dysentary cure (learned from American Indians)

Castor Bean


Chicken House

Backing into a chicken house for 9 mornings, or making a chicken jump over you, is said to treat chickenpox


Vermifuge (Worm Expeller)

Copper Penny

Ringworm/puncture wound treatment by strapping the penny to the wound.

Cotton Root

(Potentially Used For) Abortions


Lowering Blood Pressure






Male “Courage”

Kidney Weed


Latex (asafetida, dried)

Stomach aches, any illness pertaining to the stomach, and/or headaches

Life Everlasting (glaphalium polycephalium)

Colds, fevers, aphrodisiac

Musenna Tree

Tapeworm Treatment

Myrtle (tannin-rich astringent)

Diarrhea and Dysentery cure (learned from American Indians)


Mixed with apple cider and vinegar to make a cough syrup after sitting 1-2 hours

Pine Tar

Cold remedy (often mixed with lemon and honey)


Puncture wounds


Pink Eye treatment

Rock Candy

Mixed with corn liquor or alcohol to make a cold remedy



Sassafrass Tea

Blindness Cure

Spider Webs

Sutures to stop bleeding

Stinging Nettle

Male “Courage”

Swamp Grass


Sweet Flag

Topical Ointment

Sweet Gum (tannin-rich astringent)

Stomach Pains, Diarrhea and Dysentary Treatment


Pink eye treatment



Moerman, D.E. “Masterful Marginals: Black Life on a Carolina Isle.” Perspectives on the American South, volume 1, 1981, pp. 273-306.

Banks, Tiara S., "Folk Medicine Use Among The Gullah: Bridging The Gap Between Folk Medicine And Westernized Medicine." Thesis, Georgia State University, 2013.


Further Reading

Geraty, Virginia Mixson. “Battle en Ting”: Gullah Cooking with Maum Chrish’. Orangeburg, S.C.: Sandpaper Publishing, 1992.

Hess, Karen. The Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Mitchell, Faith. Hoodoo Medicine: Sea Island Herbal Remedies. Berkeley: Reed, Cannon, and Johnson Co., 1978.

Morton, Julia F. Folk Remedies of the Low Country. Miami, Fla. E.A. Seamann Publishers, 1974.

Peters, Wallace and Herbert M. Gilles. A Colour Atlas of Tropical Medicine and Parasitology. 3rd ed. London: Wolfe Medical Publications, 1983.

Porcher, Francis Peyre. A Medico Botanical Catalogue of the Plants and Ferns of St. Johns, South Carolina. Charleston, S.C.: Burgess and James, 1847.

Porcher, Francis Peyre. “Report on the Indigenous Medical Plants of South Carolina.” Transactions of the American Medical Association 2 (1849): 677-862.

Porcher, Francis Peyre. Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economic, and Agricultural, Being also a Medical Botany of the Southern States. Charleston: Evans and  Cogswell, 1863.

Rutkoff, Peter and Scott, Will. Fly Away: The Great African American Cultural Migrations. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.

Shecut, John. L. E. W. Flora Carolinaensis. Charleston, S.C.: John HOff, 1806.

Waring, Joseph I. A History of Medicine in South Carolina, 1825-1990. South Carolina Medical Association. Columbia: R. L. Bryan Co., 1967.

Waring, Joseph I. A History of Medicine in South Carolina, 1900-1970. South Carolina Medical Association. Columbia: R. L. Bryan Co., 1971.