History of Hilton Head
The island has a rich history that started with seasonal occupation by native Americans thousands of years ago, and continued with European exploration and the Sea Island Cotton trade. It became an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports during the Civil War (link to lower part of same page). Once the island fell to Union troops, hundreds of ex-slaves flocked to Hilton Head, which is still home to many ‘native islanders’, many of whom are descendants of freed slaves known as the Gullah link to lower part of same page) (or Geechee) who have managed to hold onto much of their ethnic and cultural identity.
The Early Days
An ancient Shell Ring can be seen near the east entrance to the Sea Pines Forest Preserve. The ring, one of only 20 in existence, is 150 feet (46 m) in diameter and is believed to be over 10,000 years old. Archeologists believe that the ring was a refuse heap, created by Native Americans that lived in the interior of the ring, which was kept clear and used as a common area. You can visit the Shell Ring site today when walking in the Sea Pines Forest Preserve.
Since the beginning of recorded history in the New World, the waters around Hilton Head Island have been known, occupied and fought for in turn by the English, Spanish, French, and Scots.
A Spanish expedition led by Francisco Cordillo explored the area in 1521, initiating European contact with local tribes, whose names are still found all over South Carolina today. Edisto, Ashepoo, Combahee, Yemassee, and Daufuskie Island, a Creek Indian word meaning “land with a point”.
In 1663, Captain William Hilton sailed on the Adventure from Barbados to explore lands granted by King Charles II to the eight Lords Proprietors. In his travels, he identified a headland near the entrance to Port Royal Sound. He named it “Hilton’s Head” after himself. He stayed for several days, making note of the trees, crops, “sweet water” and “clear sweet air”.
In 1698, Hilton Head Island was granted as part of a barony to John Bayley of Ballingclough, County of Tipperary, Kingdom of Ireland. John Bayley the second appointed Alexander Trench as the Island’s first retail agent. For a time, Hilton Head was known as Trench’s Island. In 1729, Trench sold some land to John Gascoine which Gascoine named “John’s Island” after himself. The land later came to be known as Jenkin’s Island after another owner.
In 1788, a small Episcopal church called the Zion Chapel of Ease was constructed for plantation owners. The old cemetery, located near the corner of William Hilton Parkway and Mathews Drive (Folly Field), is all that remains.
Hilton Heads role in the Civil War
Fort Walker was a Confederate fort in what is now Port Royal Plantation. The fort was a
station for Confederate troops and its guns helped protect the 2-mile (3 km) wide entrance to Port Royal Sound, which is fed by two slow moving and navigable rivers, the Broad River and the Beaufort River. It was vital to the Sea Island Cotton trade and the southern economy. On October 29, 1861, the largest fleet ever assembled in North America moved South to seize it. In the Battle of Port Royal, the fort came under attack by the U.S. Navy, and on November 7, 1861, it fell to over 12,000 Union troops.[
Hilton Head Island would have tremendous significance in the Civil War, becoming an important base of operations for the Union blockade of the Southern ports, particularly Savannah and Charleston. The Union would also build a military hospital on Hilton Head Island with a 1,200 foot frontage and a floor area of 60,000 square feet.
Hundreds of ex-slaves flocked to Hilton Head Island, where they could buy land, go to school, live in government housing, and serve in what was called the First Regiment of South Carolina Volunteers (although in the beginning, many were “recruited” at the point of a bayonet). A community called Mitchellville (in honor of General Ormsby M. Mitchel) was constructed on the north end of the island to house them. Many of descendants of these ex-slaves are still living in the Lowcountry and enriching the local culture with traditional Gullah history, customs, and folklore.
Although it had its origins in slavery, the history and culture of the inhabitants that call Hilton Head Island and the Lowcountry coastal region of South Carolina “home” is an inspiration to all Americans. Living simply just as they did more than a hundred years ago, these people, whose ancestors are known as the Gullah subscribe to high religion and the celebration of spiritual redemption in leading their daily lives.
The original Gullah were African slaves who were shipped across the Atlantic from West Africa to work the cotton plantations of the South. While plantation owners built their fortunes upon slave labor, the slaves were able to create something of their own — the unique culture that is now known as Gullah. With that culture came a thriving mix of language, folktales and superstition, a mix that has shaped generations of families who live on Hilton Head Island and in the Lowcountry today. In addition to attending the annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration held each February, which gives visitors the opportunity to share in rich cultural traditions and crafts.
In 1931, Wall Street tycoon, physicist, and patron of scientific research, Alfred Lee Loomis along with his brother-in-law and partner, Landon K. Thorne, purchased 17,000 acres (69 km2) on the island (over 63% of the total land mass) for about $120,000 to be used as a private game reserve.
In the early 1950s, three lumber mills contributed to the logging of 19,000 acres (77 km2) of the island. The island population was only 300 residents. Prior to 1956, access to Hilton Head was limited to private boats and a state-operated ferry. The island’s economy centered on shipbuilding, cotton, lumbering, and fishing.
The James F. Byrnes Bridge was built in 1956. It was a two-lane toll swing bridge constructed at a cost of $1.5 million that opened the island to automobile traffic from the mainland. The swing bridge was hit by a barge in 1974 which shutdown all vehicle traffic to the island until the Army Corps of Engineers built and manned a pontoon bridge while the bridge was being repaired. The swing bridge was replaced by the current four-lane bridge in 1982.
The beginning of Hilton Head as a resort started in 1956 with Charles Fraser developing Sea Pines Resort, with the center piece being Harbour Town. Fraser was a committed environmentalist who changed the whole configuration of the marina at Harbour Town to save an ancient live oak. It came to be known as the Liberty Oak, known to generations of children who watched singer and song writer Gregg Russell perform under the tree for over 25 years. Fraser was buried next to the tree when he died in 2002.
The Town of Hilton Head continues to support Charles Fraser’s vision and manage the island’s growth and commercial development with strict guidelines and local ordinances on colors and electronic signage such that the natural beauty will be preserved for the future.