By Donna Perry | Did you know that Beaufort County is said to be one of the absolute oldest settlements in the United States? The area also has the largest number of tabby structures in the entire country, built by early settlers in the coastal area using the abundant supply of oyster shells available to them. The Historic Beaufort Foundation has placed the county’s tabby structures on its endangered resources list.
Tabby is a concrete made from lime, sand and oyster shells. Its origin is uncertain, although early documents record Indian burial vaults with walls made of oyster shells and lime, no such structures have survived. It is likely that Sixteenth-century Spanish explorers first brought tabby (which appears as “tabee”, “tapis”, “tappy” and “tapia” in early documents) to the coasts of what would become South Carolina and Georgia. Tapia is Spanish for “mud wall”, and, in fact, the mortar used to caulk the earliest cabins in this area was a mixture of mud and Spanish Moss. There is evidence that North African Moors brought tabby to Spain when they invaded that kingdom, and a form of tabby is used in Morocco today and some tabby structures survive in Spain, though in both instances it is granite, not oyster shells, that is used.
Beaufort has an example of Tabby used in the late1500’s. In the New World, Fort San Felipe, built in 1577 on what is now Parris Island, S. C., is an early example of tabby construction. The compound contained more than sixty tabby houses.
Early settlers found only trees and the raw materials for tabby (and none of the stones and brick-clay they had known in Europe) when they began building permanent structures in this coastal area. The Native Americans of the Sea Islands had left many heaps of shells, the accumulation of countless past oyster roasts. Builders extracted the lime by burning the oyster shells. They then painstakingly removed all salt from the shells and from the sand to keep the concrete firm and whole (the salt weakened the concrete mixture). The cleaned sand, a mixture of coarse and fine varieties extracted from sand pits, was added to the lime and shells to make the tabby concrete. Oyster shells are primarily calcium carbonate, and when they are ‘burned’ they are heated to a high enough temperature to decompose the calcium carbonate to lime (calcium oxide) and carbon dioxide, which dissipates in the air. The resulting lime mixed with the sand, the oyster shells and water reacts with the water, and to some extent the sand, to form a bond for the mixture.
Wet tabby was poured and tamped into a wooden form made of two parallel planks extending along the full length of a wall. The planks were tied together by crosspieces. The boards were moved up repeatedly as each layer of tabby dried up to the desired height of the wall (the imprint of the planks is often visible on finished structures). To create a window or door space, builders placed a short plank across the inner and outer boards of the form and steadied it with two poles. Stucco overlays and scoring (to imitate brick patterns) were methods to disguise the humble tabby. The stucco also prevented the accumulation of moisture within the rough surface of the shells. Wood (for joists and lintels) and bricks (for corner columns, doors and windows) were often incorporated into the tabby structures, either during the pouring or when the mixture was still wet.
Settlers also made individual bricks of tabby and used the cement to construct all manner of houses, farm structures, churches, fortifications, sea and exterior walls, fireplaces, tombstones, and other structures — including an extant mill wheel made from tabby. Of only two remaining ruins of indigo vats in South Carolina, one is built of brick and the other, recently discovered in Beaufort County, was made of tabby (both date from the early 1700s). A report from 1775 mentions repairs to Fort Lyttleton’s “two tapis walls and a tapis breakwater wall.”
There is a list of places in Beaufort to visit to see these beautiful structures. For more information, please visit the Historic Beaufort Foundation at www.historicbeaufort.org
Tabby is everywhere in Beaufort. There is even a wall around the downtown area made of Tabby and many of our beautiful historic homes are made of Tabby. We even have a home named Tabby Manse, made of two foot thick walls. It’s everywhere!
Keep in mind while enjoying a part of our past that these places are very fragile and very old. Please leave them how you found them so that many generations to come can enjoy the history that is our Beautiful Beaufort.