The first North American Surfers. Were they from South Carolina?
by Chris Dixon
Yesterday morning, I paddled out for a surf at Pawleys Island, South Carolina. The waves from hurricane Bertha were pulsing onto the outer sandbars, the water was warm and the waves were chest-high and empty. Pawleys is one of my ancestral surfing homes. It’s a beautiful Lowcountry beach village, hunted and fished by Winyah Indians for thousands of years before being settled as a resort island in the 1700’s by wealthy rice and indigo planter families who sought breezy refuge from the steamy, malarial swamps their Georgetown County plantations became during summertime. (Though most of their slaves were not so fortunate.) One grouping of twelve or so ramshackle, hurricane-battered wood-framed homes dates back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
While sitting outside of the waves, my mind turned a hundred or so years back to an email I received in 2012 from a North Carolinian surfer and inveterate historian named Joseph “Skipper” Funderburg. Since I was surfing Pawleys, I thought that maybe it was time to share Skipper’s find.
In his original note to me, Skip wrote, “I am stoked to add to, and alter the history of surfing in the United States.” He went on to relate that he had been digging around in the library in Georgetown, South Carolina and stumbled upon a pair of fairly remarkable images. The hand-written caption on the first read: “1900. A man named Mr. Swanson is riding on an early version of a surfboard, a piece of cypress with a rope attached.” The other: “1900. Mr. Jones takes his turn on Pawleys’ first surfboard, a piece of cypress with a rope attached.”
Skip’s images created more questions than they answered. Who were these guys? Who was the photographer? How’d they catch the waves? Were they really surfing? Perhaps they’ve simply tied a rope to a hulking slab of 1000-year-old Carolina cypress and were messing around with it. Perhaps, Funderburg pontificated, they were pushing each other into the waves. Judging by the second photo in particular, this seemed logical. “In that era, they may have called it wave shooting, aquaplaning, wave sledding or riding the board,” he said. “Obviously, they were in the ocean trying to ride a wave, and obviously they were having fun.”
Unfortunately, the Library wasn’t able to help out much more than providing the photos. But if we consider a tantalizing historical connection, it seems quite possible, likely even, that these men are indeed trying their hand at The Sport of Kings in junky Carolina shorebreak.
First, a little evidence. Surfing was not entirely unknown on the U.S. mainland at the turn of the century. Captain James Cook’s Lieutenant James King described surfing in 1779. Mark Twain vividly wrote of Hawaiian surfing – and his failed attempt at it – in his 1872 travelogue Roughing It. “None but natives ever master the art of surf-bathing thoroughly,” he wrote.“I tried surf-bathing once, subsequently, but made a failure of it. I got the board placed right, and at the right moment, too; but missed the connection myself. The board struck the shore in three-quarters of a second, without any cargo, and I struck the bottom about the same time, with a couple of barrels of water in me.”
Furthermore, Carolinians have been “surf bathing” on the beaches of Pawleys Island since before the War Between the States. Funderburg has even found articles that date attempts at surfboard construction in Wilmington, North Carolina to 1909 and postcards of North Carolina ‘surf bathers’ riding wooden surfboards in the surf around Wilmington, North Carolina from as far back as 1912.
But perhaps the most compelling case for our pioneering pair of Pawleys Island surfers is the simple fact that “Mr. Swanson” and “Mr. Jones” are contemporaries of Alexander Hume Ford, a fellow Georgetown County native credited with rescuing Hawaiian surfing not only from obscurity, but perhaps outright disappearance. Ford was born in 1868. He was the orphaned son of a coastal South Carolina family whose slave-generated rice plantation wealth and acreage before the Civil War almost defies estimation.
A century before Alexander’s birth, the Humes had purchased Hopsewee Plantation along the Santee River from Thomas Lynch, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Like most Confederate planter families though, the Humes – and Fords – saw their fortunes decimated by the Civil War. A post-Civil War baby, Alexander was raised by his aunts who eventually moved from their beach home on Georgetown County’s North Island, fifty miles south to Charleston. There, Ford was educated at the Porter Military Academy and then worked as a reporter for Charleston’s News and Courier newspaper. But Ford was a salty and restless young adventurer, and when a horrendous earthquake struck Charleston in 1886, he was so rattled that he left for good. In New York City, he worked as a journalist and playwright, even producing a stage version of Tom Sawyer for Mark Twain. But by 1899, even New York had grown to small. So Ford set out for the Orient, where he reported on the building of the Trans-Siberian railroad and listened in horror as workers were dragged off by tigers in the dead of night. But on his way to the Orient, Ford first stopped off in – and fell in love with Hawaii. There, it seems he first witnessed surfing. It’s entirely possible that his ceaseless writing – and a description of surfing reached either a Georgetown newspaper, or one of the two men in the photographs.
By 1907, Ford had settled in Honolulu and took up surfing with a vengeance. He learned from seminal surfers like George Freeth, and befriended novelist Jack London, who would write extensively of his Hawaiian travels aboard his yacht The Snark.
“Learn to ride a surfboard,” Ford told London“It is the sport of kings.”
“I am always humble when confronted by knowledge,” London wrote. “Ford knew. He showed me how properly to mount his board. Then he waited for a good breaker, gave me a shove at the right moment, and started me in. Ah, delicious moment when I felt that breaker grip and fling me. On I dashed, a hundred and fifty feet, and subsided with the breaker on the sand. From that moment I was lost. I waded back to Ford with his board. It was a large one, several inches thick, and weighed all of seventy-five pounds. He gave me advice, much of it. He had had no one to teach him, and all that he had laboriously learned in several weeks he communicated to me in half an hour.”
Is it possible that Ford had written home to Mr. Swanson or Mr. Jones, and they decided to try their luck in the surf? The world may never know. Still, I was terribly intrigued by these photos, and more than a little hometown proud, so I went to the guru. First off, History of Surfing author and Encyclopedia of Surfing editor Matt Warshaw pointed out the first known surfing on the U.S. mainland happened in Santa Cruz, when Hawaiian brothers Jonah, David and Edward Kawananakoa rode the San Lorenzo Rivermouth in 1885 aboard Redwood boards. In 1907, yet another Hawaiian, George Freeth, is known to have given demonstrations of surfing across southern California – becoming quite a celebrity.
As to the significance of Skipper’s find, Warshaw wrote, “My take on these kinds of stories is always, Yeah, I get it, everybody wants to know who the first person was in any given area, country, etc. But in truth, if people are goofing around in the surf, anywhere, everywhere, somebody is going to up the ante and bring a device — a log, an ironing board, a palm frond, something — into the water. It’s just such an obvious thing to do. Bodysurfing itself, for that matter, is pretty much surfing, right? And making a distinction between visiting Hawaiian and non-Hawaiian seems…I don’t know, kind of nit-picky.”
But then Warshaw added one final point.
“Yeah, I think that’s the earliest photo of a non-Hawaiian surfing the mainland.”