George Cunningham


George Cunningham arrived in Charleston in 1852 at the age of 17 from his home state of Tennessee.  He came here with his employer, a Mr. Metcalf, to work.  Within a year, George was involved with the cattle and butchery trade, an industry that he would engage in for over 32 years.

Cunningham also ventured into real estate, beginning his acquisition of land on Daniel Island in 1876.  He owned more than 4,700 acres in Berkeley County and his land conglomerate consisted of 2,900 acres here on Daniel Island that was used for raising cattle and growing sea island cotton.    Daniel Island was an ideal location for a cattle operation since it was easy to transport his meat into the city.  It’s likely Cunningham hired tenants to run the cattle business and a tenant/sharecropping system was used to handle his sea island cotton venture.  

Tenant farming allowed a person to rent farmland and pay the owner in cash or in crops.  Another version of tenant farming is when a laborer was given a home, small plot of land, supplies and other things such as wood gathering rights, in exchange for a set number of days per week of labor.  Sharecroppers owned nothing. All the land, crops, home, supplies, etc. belonged to the landowner.  Divided into predetermined percentages, the income from the crops was used to help settle the debt of the sharecropper for the goods supplied by the landowner.

Cunningham would expand his business ventures into cultivating Sea Island Cotton.  Beginning in 1786, this product was introduced to South Carolina to replace the declining Indigo market after the American Revolution.

Cotton was planted in March and April and the harvest would last from August to December.  Picking of the cotton needed to be done as soon as the buds burst.  Prolonged exposure to the sun and to bad weather damaged the fibers.  Harvesting usually happened approximately every 10 days (a season’s average would be 10-12 pickings) The labor of those enslaved and free Blacks contributed to the success of this crop.  

Cotton was always handpicked even if machinery was available.  Because the plant could grow up to 8 feet tall, its continuous blooming made it difficult to use machines for harvesting.

The name Sea Island Cotton applies only to cotton that was grown on the islands such as James, Johns, Wadmalaw and Daniel Island. (see map below for more details) A variety of the long staple cotton that was cultivated in Berkeley County was call Santee Cotton.  The difference in soil and climate found on the islands yielded a cotton that was a higher quality than its inland sibling.  Therefore, planters would focus on quality not quantity of their product.  The superiority of the Sea Island Cotton was such that the price reached as high as $2 a pound which in today’s money would be anywhere from $48- $58 a pound. The cotton grown in South Carolina was considered the highest quality fiber more so than the cotton grown in Georgia and Florida.

Grown for only 134 years, the boll weevil that arrived in 1920 destroyed the Sea Island Cotton industry.

When not involved with his businesses, Cunningham was engaged in local politics.  His first political position came in 1868, when he was elected alderman (city council) for the City of Charleston.

He also served as:

  • President of the Charleston Waterworks Company
  • Chairman of Charleston County Board of Commissioners
  • United States Marshall for South Carolina
  • Postmaster of Charleston

In addition, Cunningham held the post of Republican Mayor of Charleston from 1873-1877.  His time as Mayor took place during the Radical (Congressional) Reconstruction in South Carolina.  It was a politically turbulent period, and several riots would plague his term.  One of those was in Cainhoy on October 16, 1876.  A Republican political rally was to be held at St. Thomas Church located a couple of miles from the Cainhoy village.  The Democrats asked for a joint discussion which meant speaking time at the Republican rally.  

Dr.  Martin R. Delany, a Black gentleman who was raised in Pennsylvania, was the first to speak for the Democrats. A physician in Charleston who studied medicine at Harvard, Delany had served as field officer with the rank of Major in the Union Army and also as a Charleston trial judge. To learn more about Dr. Delany  He was speaking at the Cainhoy rally in support of Democratic candidate for Governor, Wade Hampton III.

The rally reportedly turned violent after Dr. Delany spoke. One black man and five white men were killed and 15-50 blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans, were injured.

Cunningham passed away in 1902 and is buried at Magnolia Cemetery on the peninsula.  In 1905, the sale of the land by his estate to A.F. Young and Company started the era of truck farming on Daniel Island. To learn more about truck farming visit https://dihistoricalsociety.com/mitchell-pier/

Image: George Cunningham Accounts 1902-1903

Image: Geographical distribution of market classes of long-staple cotton. Image from The Story of Sea  Island Cotton by Richard Dwight Porcher and Sarah Fick