Misinterpretation of historic sites or names is understandable in a city with a past as extensive as Charleston’s. There are aspects of our history that are not well-docmented or obscured by legend, and any interpretation is worth considering if it is based on some precedent. One common mistake that is often repeated, however, is simply a matter of confusion over similarly-spelled French words. The subject of this confusion is the spiked metal apparatus that adorns several locations in the city, most prominently at the Miles Brewton house on King Street. The spikes were put up as a deterrent to house invasion after a city-wide scare of slave revolt in 1822. The infamous Denmark Vesey conspiracy was uncovered to reveal gruesome details for plans of mass murder, and many in the city continued to be fearful of plans to climb into their homes during the night.
To create an obstacle that provided protection, Charlestonians turned to a method made famous by Dutch armies in the 17th and 18th centuries during their battles with Spain. Because the Dutch could not counter the fearsome Spanish cavalry, they revived an idea used in the flat northern province of Friesland to hold back invaders - sharp wooden spikes protruding from logs.
The rows of pointed spikes proved effective in holding back the Spanish horses, and became known as “Frisian horses”, which, in the language of international diplomacy at that time (French), was called “chevaux-de-frise”. You can see this type of defensive position in Civil War pictures of trenches at various battlefields, and it also became known as “abattis”.
Charlestonians assumed what worked against horses would also serve against human beings, and for lasting protection, had the spikes wrought from iron to make them impervious to rot and fire.
The confusion over the old French name came much later, as tours went past old houses, and the term “chevaux-de-frise” was misinterpreted by some who translated “chevaux” as “cheveux”, which means “hair”, and mistakenly added an accent to “frise”, which makes it translate as “curly”.
Thus was born “curly hair”, which doesn’t have much story-telling appeal, so the translation became “spiked hair”, which is often heard on the streets of Charleston today.
Sorry folks, they didn’t wear spiked hair in 1822, and the true translation is “Frisian horses”.