Historical records paint a sketchy, though colorful portrait of Sullivan’s Island’s namesake. By Marci Shore
On St. Patrick’s Day, 1670, Florence O’Sullivan from County Cork, Ireland, was aboard the Carolina, when it drifted into Sewee Bay inside of Bull’s Island. Having embarked the prior year from England in August 1669, the ship had stopped off at Kinsale, Ireland then Barbados and Bermuda, before continuing a harrowing journey to the coast of what would become South Carolina. During the voyage the other two ships in the feet were destroyed in storms.
The Carolina carried 93 passengers, of mostly English and Irish descent, including indentured servants and one black slave. It was loaded with provisions essential to starting a colony from scratch: 30 gallons of brandy, 15 tons of beer and 240 pounds of glass beads to barter with the Indians. There are no physical descriptions of Captain Florence O’Sullivan, but the salty characterizations of this soldier of fortune flowed freely from the pen of the other colonists, portraying a contentious character, respected mostly for his ruggedness in an unforgiving, wild frontier.
Virtually all that is known about O’Sullivan is derived from the Shaftesbury Papers—correspondence documenting the trials and tribulations of the new colony of Charles Town through Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the Lords Proprietors of North America, who oversaw the venture from in front of his London fireplace. Five years before arriving in Charles Town, O’Sullivan and Captain John Staplehill had been commissioned to raise a company of infantrymen against the French on the island of St. Christopher, now commonly known as St. Kitts. The French and English had co-existed on the island since 1625, but the French had recently attacked and tried to expel the English. O’Sullivan and Staplehill seized two French ships near Guadeloupe, but their own vessels were forced ashore by storms. After 11 days, they surrendered due to lack of supplies and were taken prisoner for 11 months, until the English Treasury paid a royal bounty for services in the Caribbean Island.
This military service won O’Sullivan high rank with the Lords Proprietors, resulting in a deputyship of Charles Town, along with 12 servants, 1,900 acres and the title of Surveyor General. At the onset of the expedition, there were short-lived praises for O’Sullivan from the Lords Proprietors as stated in his commission for service in the new colony: “We [are] assured of the wisdom, prudence and integrity... of our trusty and well-beloved Florence O’Sullivan.”
Almost immediately reports of incompetence, thoughtlessness and irreverence began faltering back to England with a consistency difficult to defend, even allowing for historical bias. Stephen Bull, of one of the most famous early Carolina families, made an early complaint that O’Sullivan was involved in “unjust practices,” that his work was “almost triple the rate of other settlements,” and that he was “dissentious and troublesome.” Furthermore, he claimed there were “gross errors” in surveying of the lots. “He is ashamed of nothing, uses private watches to overreach people and is daily complained of for ill acting,” report the Shafesbury Papers.
Captain Henry Brayne complained to the Lords Proprietors, that “by his absurd language, [O’Sullivan] doth abuse the Governor, Council and Country by his rash and base dealings... and hath caused everyone in the country to be his enemy.” Complaints may be qualified somewhat by the existence of factions amongst the colonial planters about the proper way to manage the colony. O’Sullivan expressed his frustration in a letter to Lord Ashley Cooper, regarding the quarrelling. He advised him to send “an able counselor to end controversies amongst us and put us in the right way.” Seeming in search of some spiritual counseling as well, he also advised to send a minister “qualified of the Church of England.”
The barrage of criticisms against O’Sullivan compounded. Famous philosopher John Locke, Lord Ashley Cooper’s secretary and confidant, was troubled by the reports and wrote that O’Sullivan was “dissentious, troublesome... no able surveyor, knavish... disliked, unfit, ignorant in surveying,” and another description that lacks clarification but is highly unflattering at best: “an ill-natured buggier of children.” By December 1671, O’Sullivan was replaced as Surveyor General, but retained his deputyship and was still a member of the colonial assembly.
In 1674, the controversial figure was given the duty of manning a cannon on a small barrier island at the mouth of the harbor, “to be mounted near the river’s mouth to be freed upon the approach of a ship one charge of power at a time.” In addition to daily struggles of the colonists to provide food, shelter and avoid illness, there was the constant threat of Indian attack or invasion by the Spanish from St. Augustine in Florida, who saw the settlement as a “flagrant intrusion” upon their own soil. Therefore, it was O’Sullivan’s duty to fire the cannon should hostile ships approach, giving the colonists time to organize themselves. Tat island became known as Sullivan’s Island and its use as a military base to protect the colony and subsequent iterations continued well into the 20th century.
At one point, in desperate need of provisions, with crops failing and morale low, a riot broke out threatening the settlement’s stability. O’Sullivan left his island station to join the disturbance. He was reprimanded for leaving his post and putting the colony at risk, charged with sedition and fend. Provisions finally arrived, along with fresh faces, which revived the exhausted settlement.
Despite, by all accounts, his disagreeable attitude, O’Sullivan retained an important position in the colony for 13 years until his death in 1683, as officer of the militia, commissioner of public accounts, and recipient of one of the largest land grants among the planters. History does not mention a wife, but his daughter, Katherine O’Sullivan, inherited the tract of land in 1692, at which time it was broken up and sold.
Documents paint a portrait of Florence O’Sullivan as a man regarded for his brawn over brains, and while he may have been a neighbor many would like to have forgotten, his is one of the few original colonists’ names that has withstood the test of time. It remains Sullivan’s Island.