A Man for All Seasons

Sometimes a name triggers an immediate association:  George Washington?  Father of Our Country.  Thomas Sumter?  The Fighting Gamecock of the American Revolution.  Joel Poinsett?  Um…Christmas?

That is how it seems.  Poinsett’s name is mostly invoked in December, when poinsettias appear every place, and here in Sumter, our community holiday events are marketed as the “Poinsettia Festival.”   However, that’s not what Joel Poinsett represents to the rest of the country.

On a recent trip to Greenville, I went on a downtown walking tour and was confronted with a life-sized bronze statue of a gentleman who looked…well, vaguely familiar.  Imagine my surprise when the tour guide pointed him out as Joel Roberts Poinsett and began to talk about his importance to the city’s early development.  I never knew he’d even been there (although I don’t know why I’d think such a thing—he was, after all, the first US Ambassador to Mexico, which is a whole lot farther away than Greenville, SC!).  The sculpture is by artist Zan Lee Wells, who also created the charming boy-and-girl figures that decorate the south side of Swan Lake Iris Gardens (Sumter connection!).

Because this was a group of tourism professionals, and because I tend to talk rather a lot, I couldn’t resist the urge to raise my hand and ask to speak for a moment.  It was a great opportunity to tell others about Poinsett’s connections to Sumter County, and also encourage them to visit our community.

So, just who was Joel Roberts Poinsett, and why is he important enough to have a state park, Christmas flower and who knows what else (a bridge in Greenville, a county in Arkansas…) named for him?  Born in Charleston in 1779, he grew up in Britain for the most part, served three terms in the US Congress under Presidents Monroe and Jackson, became Minister to Mexico in 1825 and was appointed Secretary of War by President Van Buren (another Sumter connection—Van Buren’s acting First Lady was his daughter-in-law, Angelica Singleton, who was from Wedgefield).  Poinsett studied law and medicine, was a member of the SC State House for a time, and was invited by President Monroe to serve as Commissioner to South America.  Diplomacy, it appeared, was his very lifeblood, and his role in America’s entrance upon the world stage is sadly overlooked by history.  Even the idea for a national museum, which eventually manifested as the Smithsonian Institution, started with him.  

Oh, and by the way, he was an avid amateur botanist, as well, and brought the native Mexican plants back with him when he retired to Georgetown in 1841, and maintained a summer residence in Greenville (a-ha!) for the rest of his life.  Today, approximately $17 billion dollars are spent on these beautiful plants each holiday season.  In 2002, the US House of Representatives declared December 12 “National Poinsettia Day” in Poinsett’s honor.

Photo: Mike Dover

Poinsett died in Stateburg, SC on December 12, 1851 while visiting the home of his friend, Dr. William Wallace Anderson, at what is now known as the Borough House Plantation on SC 261.  His final resting place is across the road at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross, and each December, the church decorates the tomb with his namesake flowers.  The churchyard is open to the public year-round.

To learn more about this fascinating individual, the following links are helpful:

http://www.hmdb.org/Marker.asp?Marker=9187
http://millercenter.org/president/vanburen/essays/cabinet/194

http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/aroundthemall/2010/12/a-smithsonian-holiday-story-joel-poinsett-and-the-poinsettia/

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/466288/Joel-R-Poinsett

As it turns out, what we celebrate today was just the tiniest part of the life of a very big man of his time.  For more Sumter-related historical information, please visit us online at http://www.sumtersc.gov/AboutSumter/History.aspx or download the Tourism office’s brochure, “History, Heritage and Heroes” at http://www.sumtersc.gov/visitingus/PrintableBrochures.aspx.

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