The first colonial settler in the Pee Dee region of South Carolina was a Welsh lawyer named James James Jr., who led the first group of settlers into the area in 1736 by way of a ferry down the Great Pee Dee River.
Fast forward more than 370 years, and the James family Bible remains in near-pristine condition at the Darlington County Historical Commission building.
In fact, the Bible was already about 90 years old before it arrived in 1736 in the area we now call the Mars Bluff, according to commission director Brian Gandy.
“It’s the oldest document we have in our collection here in Darlington County, and it very well could be the oldest in the Pee Dee,” Gandy said. “We’re honored that we have something so rare. The book is in good shape, considering it’s 371 years old.”
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The Bible originally belonged to Morgan James and came to America with James James Sr. at the establishment of the church in Newcastle, Pennsylvania. It was then passed down to James Jr., who brought it to the Pee Dee.
James Jr.’s son, Phillip James, founded the Welsh Creek Baptist Church in modern-day Society Hill using this Bible and probably shared the text with the neighboring Cashaway Baptist Church – which ultimately became Mechanicsville Baptist Church.
Gandy said historians were aware of the Bible’s existence and significance for decades but thought it had been lost in a house fire during the 1930s. In 1989, however, a Darlington resident found the book in an old trunk and gave it to the commission after several years of restoration work in Columbia.
Gandy said the Bible is a testament to the tenacity of South Carolina settlers. A true work of craftsmanship, the Bible’s cover is made of leather-bound wood, inlaid with brass workings.
The Bible is so much a representation of the Pee Dee’s early history, he said, that the New Testament page was featured in “South Carolina: A History” by famed South Carolina historian Walter Edgar as a reference to that period of the state’s history.
“There aren’t too many documents we have that give me chills when I handle them, but this is certainly one of them,” Gandy said. “To know that James James, the very first person to settle in the back country of the Pee Dee, whose neighbors were Native Americans that had been there for thousands of years before, carried this Bible when he stepped off the boat … it’s extremely surreal.”
The first wave of settlers who came into the Pee Dee spread throughout the “Welsh tract” of colonial South Carolina, in what is present-day Marion, Darlington, Marlboro and Chesterfield counties along the Great Pee Dee, at the behest of Royal Gov. Robert Johnson.
“Gov. Johnson had an idea that he would create 10 townships that would serve as buffers between ‘the dangers of Native American attack' and the coastal settlements,” Gandy said. “We were one of those townships. As it turns out, the Pee Dee Indians who were in this area were very peaceable and actually intermingled and married some of the settlers.”
The Darlington County Historical Commission also houses original documents penned on linen paper and pig’s hide from the court of King George II, bestowing authority to the state’s provincial governor to run the Welsh tract.
“In the Pee Dee, we can go back to the first settler who stepped off the boat on the banks of the Pee Dee to establish the back country of South Carolina, and we can actually hold his personal Bible,” Gandy said. “Not many settlement groups can say that.”
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