Forty years before Samuel F. Smith wrote "My Country 'Tis of Thee" using the melody of "God Save the Queen," a South Carolinian captured by the British during the Siege of Charleston used the tune to create a song called "God Bless the 13 United States."
Thomas Heyward Jr. sang the new song constantly while he was a prisoner of war during the American Revolution.
Five years before his capture, Heyward signed the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, according to Melanie Wilson, chief interpreter for the Historic Houses of the Charleston Museum. At age 29, he was one of the youngest men to sign the historic documents, she said.
On Saturday, about 50 people gathered around Heyward's tomb at the Old House Plantation in Ridgeland to honor his contributions to American history. The home where he grew up burned to the ground in 1785, but a sign a short distance from his grave marks where it used to stand. Heyward died in 1809.
Saturday's event -- the "Pilgrimage to the Grave of Thomas Heyward Jr." -- has been held for 26 years, always close to the Fourth of July holiday. The Hilton Head Island and Beaufort chapters of the Sons of the American Revolution alternate hosting the ceremony each year. This year, the Dr. George Mosse Chapter of Hilton Head hosted.
Keeping Heyward's legacy alive is important to the state's identity, Jim Robinson Jr., president of the Sons of the American Revolution of Hilton Head Island, said Saturday.
"He was the closest (signer) to this section of the Lowcountry," Robinson said. "If we don't remember our history, it will be lost."
This year, at least four people in the crowd were direct descendants of Heyward.
One of them was Anne Heyward, a fourth-generation grandchild, has been going to the event for more than 20 years. In 1936, she was the last Heyward born on the Old House property. She and her siblings grew up in the Pine House in Old Town Bluffton. She said the legacy of her forefather's accomplishments was a part of every day life growing up.
"I don't know of a time when I didn't know about Thomas Heyward, Jr.," she said Saturday.
The ceremony was brief and the group didn't stay in the sweltering heat long.
They did manage one final tribute, though. They stood to sing "My Country Tis of Thee."
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