Around 1748, in the waning yet still optimistic days of Childsbury’s existence, a French Huguenot couple named Monsieur and Madame Dutarque ran a small school in the little village on the western branch of the Cooper River. One of their two boarding students at the time was a young girl named Catherine Chicken, who was about seven years old.
Though she was too young to appreciate her social status at the time, Catherine was related to two — and with her mother's recent remarriage now even three — very influential Charles Town families. On her mother’s side, she was the great-granddaughter of James Child, the founder of Childsbury. Catherine’s mother, Lydia, had inherited her grandfather’s Strawberry Plantation, as well as the Strawberry Ferry, which provided villagers with direct access to the main trading route to Charles Town.
On her father’s side, Catherine was the granddaughter of Col. George Chicken, who had led the decisive charge against the Yamasee in 1715, saving the colony of Charles Town from destruction. In fact, Catherine had been
named for her paternal grandmother, Catherine Bellamy Chicken. Catherine’s father, Capt. George Chicken, had also earned a reputation as an Indian fighter, having led Carolina’s troops against the Cherokee of western North Carolina. Also like his father, Capt. Chicken had distinguished himself as a civic leader within the Charles Town colony, holding numerous offices and appointments and becoming a successful planter, trader, and large landholder.
Following the death of his first wife, Capt. Chicken married Lydia Turnsteed Child of Childsbury. Catherine was their only child — her father died in March 1745 at the age of 36 while Catherine was still a toddler. Captain Chicken left most of his estate to his son and daughter by his first marriage, noting in his will that he knew his beloved little Catherine would be well taken care of by her mother’s family’s wealth.
Nevertheless, life could be precarious for young widows in those days, and less than two years later, Lydia Turnsteed Child Chicken remarried, this time to Elias Ball II, who had inherited nearby Comingtee Plantation, located just a mile or so from Childsbury where the Cooper River branched into its east and west tributaries. Ball had recently added Kensington Plantation to his landholdings, and by virtue of his marriage to Lydia, he added Strawberry Plantation as well, creating a huge plantation empire.
Soon the Balls were expecting their first child together and thought it best to temporarily board Catherine with her Childsbury school master and his wife until after the new baby arrived and Lydia had regained her strength following the birth.
This much of Catherine Chicken’s story then is indeed a “veritable happening of colonial Carolina,”1 as her life, including her later married life as Catherine Chicken Simons, mistress of Middleburg Plantation, is well documented. Until the recent sale of Middleburg, her oil portrait still hung as a cherished family heirloom, one which distinctly shows a drooping weakness on the left side of her face.
The rest of Catherine’s story, however, has come down to us primarily as an oral history, with myriad versions of the details. With that caveat in mind, what follows is the story of what happened one night in the graveyard of her great-grandfather’s Strawberry Chapel.
Given the prominence and wealth of Catherine’s families, one might assume that the Dutarques would feel honored to be entrusted with her as a boarder at their little school. Perhaps. Yet that privilege must also have come with a great sense of responsibility, and perhaps a touch of anxiousness, for the child’s welfare and safety. Nevertheless, all oral histories of Miss Chicken’s story agree that the Dutarques were a stern couple who brooked no misbehavior from their students.
A much beloved — and admittedly somewhat spoiled — child, Catherine was unhappy being with the Dutarques from the start. Although her cousins attended school there as well, she was the only one in her family who had to
board there, and to her it just didn’t seem fair, “for little Catherine had been always treated like a princess, and had thought the world was but a pretty place made for her to play in. Now she found it a bigger and sadder place than she had fancied.”2
On an unseasonably hot day in May 1748, both of the Dutarques, as well as Catherine, were feeling irritable and out of sorts, according to Mrs. Arthur Gordon Rose’s account, written in 1913 for the Colonial Dames of South Carolina and declared by many to be “from all appearances the most accurate and accepted” version of the story.3
Catherine was not focused on her assignment that beautiful spring day and was anxious to be outside playing. Madame Dutarque accused her of being lazy and set as her punishment “the sewing of a long seam.” Madame’s angry outburst caused Monsieur Dutarque to rebuke his wife, reminding her of the possibility that
Catherine might complain about them to her mother and stepfather, which wouldn’t be good.
Rather than escalate the argument, Madame Dutarque decided to take this opportunity to walk to the nearby market square and allow everyone’s tempers to cool a bit before that evening’s supper.
Monsieur Dutarque went back to his reading, and for a while Catherine tried to focus on completing the long seam she had been assigned as a punishment for her inattentiveness to her classwork. Soon, however, something outside again caught her attention. Though versions of the story vary, many claim the culprit was a turtle, which she followed outside to play with.
One interesting diversion led to another, and soon Catherine had wandered out of sight of the schoolhouse. When Monsieur Dutarque roused from his reading to find Catherine gone, he panicked, worrying about the dire consequences that would result if the little girl “had fallen into the river, been carried off by a bear, scalped by an Indian, or had bribed the boy Cupid to take her to her aunt’s [nearby plantation], where she would probably complain of them, to their great hurt and detriment.”4
Dutarque searched every nook and cranny of the house before racing out into the village’s streets, trying to find her. After a frightening and frustrating search, Dutarque finally found Catherine safe and sound under the
trees of a nearby grove, at which point “a wild and ungovernable rage against the child shook him through and through. As was the measure of his former
fears, so was the present measure of his wrath.”5
Flustered and frightened by Monsieur’s angry demeanor, Catherine tried to defend herself, saying that she did not mean to be bad; she had just wanted to be outdoors on such a beautiful day. To which Monsieur Dutarque exclaimed that if it was the outdoors where she wanted
to be, then that was where he would leave her.
And with that, he snatched the little girl by the arm and took her to nearby Strawberry Chapel, where he tightly tied her to a tombstone to “enjoy” the outdoors for a while.
Here the differing versions of the story provide various reasons for why the schoolmaster did not go back to get Catherine as darkness fell.