time when life kept pace to the clippety-clop of a horse's hooves. When
the scent of magnolia mingled with a salty breeze. And the welcome was as
warm and long as a sea island summer day.
and nature are inextricably mixed on Hilton Head Island. The first
islanders were native Indians who lived here as early as 4000 B.C.,
supported by the rich bounty of the earth and sea. In 1664, the fertile
land of the New World drew English sea captain William Hilton to explore
the Island on behalf of a syndicate of Barbadian planters. His report was
enthusiastic, and in honor of his pioneering explorations, the Island was
christened Hilton's Head - a reference to the headlands that marked the
way into Port Royal Sound. However, it was not until the threat of the
Spaniards to the south and the Indians to the west was quelled in the
closing years of the 17th century, that English colonists would settle
permanently in the area.
18th century dawned, the Island prospered with large indigo and later,
rice plantations. But it was sea island cotton - first successfully
cultivated in the 1780's- that made the planters wealthy beyond their
dreams. By the mid-1800's, at the height of the plantation era, more than
a dozen large land-owning families divided the Island's riches among
of the Civil War brought an abrupt end to the cotton dynasties. The fine
homes and fertile fields of the planters were destroyed by occupying Union
troops after what would prove to be the largest naval engagement of the
entire war: the Battle of Port Royal. A freedman's city, Mitchelville,
sprang up briefly, but its life was short, and when the Union troops left,
the Island to a long period of bulcolic quiet, with those who remained
make a modest living farming, fishing, and oystering.
When Hilton landed on the Island in 1663, he was greeted by
Spanish-speaking Indians from the Yemassee tribe who had
migrated north from Florida a hundred years earlier at the
behest of Spanish colonists. He also encountered the native
Ewascus Indians, but little is known of the earlier native
civilization which inhabited the Island 4,000 years ago.
Remnants of mysterious shell rings, measuring up to 240 feet
across and nine feet high, can still be found on the Island.
Yet, like the enigmatic rocks of Stonehenge and the carvings of
Easter Island, their secrets remain hidden from history. Today,
visitors to Hilton Head Island can view these rings in Sea Pines
Forest Preserve and on the north end of the Island off Squire
In 1698, the English king granted several islands and some of
the Lowcountry's mainland to John Bayley. While the entire area
was named Bayley's Barony, Hilton Head Island was referred to as
Trench's Island, in honor of Alexander Trench, Bayley's property
agent and collector of landlease fees.
John Barnwell became Hilton Head Island's first English settler
in 1717 after receiving a grant of 500 acres in what is now
Hilton Head Plantation. However, Hilton Head Island did not gain
worldwide recognition until 1790 when another planter, William
Elliott, successfully raised the first crop of long-stem Sea
Island cotton. Elliott, with the help of his neighbor, Will
Seabrook, pioneered a new type of fertilizer for the cotton,
resulting in record crops and wide acclaim for the Sea Island
By 1860, 24 plantations were in operation on Hilton Head Island.
Although the main crop was cotton, indigo, sugar cane, rice and
other crops also were cultivated. Due to the land's low
elevation and the hot summers, the wealthy landowners spent
little time on the Island, opting to locate their beautiful
townhouses in less tropical environments on the mainland.
Seven months after South Carolina seceded from the Union, the
shots fired on Fort Sumter reverberated on Hilton Head Island.
On November 7, 1861, the Island became the scene of the largest
naval battle fought in American waters. More than 12,000 Union
soldiers and marines landed on the Island, and in less than five
hours, the Union fleet captured both Fort Beauregard near
Beaufort and Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island. The Island fell
into the hands of Federal troops, forcing Island families to
evacuate their plantation homes.
The Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery altered
the prosperous and patrician lifestyle of the plantation owners
forever. The boll weevil proved to be even
more devastating, as the new technology took a fearful toll on
Sea Island cotton. Consequently, Hilton Head Island lapsed into
obscurity, remaining isolated for over 90 years.
During this period, the Island maintained a small population of
mostly the descendants of former slaves. They survived modestly
on small farms and as hunters and fisherman. Their culture and
language, both known as Gullah, survive today as a living legacy
of their strength and perseverance.
In 1940's, the Island experience a sort of re-birth when a group
of timbermen recognized great potential in the Island's tall,
straight pines. Popularly called sea pines, the trees produced
lumber for a variety of uses.
The First Resort
In 1956, Charles Fraser, son of one of the families that owned
the Island, realized that Hilton Head Island had more to offer
than just timber. Armed with vision, energy, modern air
conditioning and investment dollars, he created a master plan
for a resort community. His efforts were aided by the
construction of a bridge to the mainland the same year. Sea
Pines Plantation became the prototype of the modern resort
community, now copied around the world.
Incorporated as a town in 1983, Hilton Head Island is now home
to several environmentally planned resort and residential
communities, supporting more than 30,000 full-time residents.
These communities have been named "plantations," but
cotton fields have been replaced by lush green golf courses,
tennis courts, shimmering lakes and beautifully designed resorts
Despite this development, much of the Island remains as it was
when sighted from William Hilton's ship more than 300 years ago.
Hilton Head Island's natural beauty, spectacular seascapes and
exceptional ecology now beckon a new generation of explorers.