You don’t want to monkey with monkeys.
That’s what a couple of old-timers told me about the days wild monkeys were a common sight around Hilton Head Island, Bluffton and Beaufort.
They said the monkeys may be small, but they’re strong and really mean when they fight. They bite.
And throw poop at you.
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They’ll steal you blind and kill your best hunting dog.
This all started with the story about a new book that includes a picture of a monkey shot dead on Hilton Head in 1958 because it was stealing corn.
The top biologist at the University of South Carolina came down to get the monkey for study. He surmised a small colony of rhesus monkeys swam to Hilton Head after a shipwreck. “Those monkeys didn’t come from no shipwreck,” said Roy Davis, 77, of Burton.
He says they more likely got there on cargo barges, perhaps the ones hauling materials the U.S. Marine Corps used in the 1940s to build Camp McDougal in what is today Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort.
Davis said that it was in that same era that a brick building set back off U.S. 17 south of Ridgeland was known to locals as “the monkey house.” He said it belonged to the federal government, and it was a receiving center for monkeys imported for scientific research.
“Those monkeys would get loose,” he said.
Deer hunters around Pocotaligo would see monkeys from their deer stands.
A monkey was caught near the old train depot in Pritchardville.
Davis said it was common to hear tales of monkeys being spotted in yards throughout the area.
Bill Mixon of Beaufort called me with the story of the wild monkey near Bluffton.
“I’m 82 years old, and in 1954, I used to drive a dump truck for a guy, and at that particular time, we were working out of Bluffton,” Mixon said. “We were digging a canal for a plantation. The guy wanted to make a freshwater pond back there, just a fishing pond.
“There was a wild monkey back there. The reason we knew it was because he would go through the dump truck and steal our lunch.”
A guy he worked with “tried to catch the rascal.” He put a banana on a string tied to a long pole. He put a steel trap underneath the banana.
“That monkey took a stick and tripped the thing and got the banana,” Mixon said.
Davis said monkeys used to terrorize his uncle’s place in Okatie, in the vicinity of Pepper Hall and what is today’s St. Luke’s United Methodist Church at Sun City Hilton Head on S.C. 170.
When Davis was a child, his family would take the long journey from northern Beaufort County to Okatie to pick scuppernong grapes at his uncle’s farm.
His uncle’s monkey troubles started when he heard a fuss in the barn. The chickens would roost on top of horses and mules to get away from the ’coons. The horses provided protection by stomping raccoons.
“Next thing you know, a mule comes out of that stall, and a monkey was on its back,” Davis said. “It jumped on the mule to get a chicken, and the mule ran.”
A couple of days later, the monkey ruckus was in the corn field. “The monkey was running through slinging corn on the ground,” Davis said.
“My uncle got tired of it.
“One weekend, he turned a hunting dog loose on the monkey. They got in a fight, but the dog lost. The monkey jumped on that dog and rode the dog to death. They found the dog a couple of days later. The monkey bit him on the neck, and he bled to death. It was one of the best hunting dogs he ever had.”
Today, thousands of monkeys occupy the federally controlled Morgan Island in northern Beaufort County. But they don’t escape. Locals say it’s because monkeys won’t swim. But be warned. If you monkey with them, they will steal your lunch, ride your mules, eat your corn and kill your hunting dogs.