Hilton Head Island, An Early History

Real Estate Agent with Keller Williams Realty

"When I first came here, the sellers were interested in showing me timber--but all the way back home, I couldn't forget...the most beautiful beach I had ever seen."

                                                                                                         Fred C. Hack, quoted in the islander, March, 1970

Just north of where the Savannah River flows into the Atlantic Ocean lies one of the largest and most beautiful islands that punctuate the east coast of the United States.  Twelve miles of magnificent beaches flank the ocean, wide and sparkling white with gentle surf and clear, balmy waters.  Like the other sea isles that stretch along the southern Atlantic coast, Hilton Head Island is flat and sandy, reaching only 25 feet above sea level at its highest point.  Its climate is glorious in spring and fall and moderate, with brilliant blue skies in winter.  Its summer heat and humidity are tempered by cooling trade winds. 

  The preceeding paragraph is how Michael N. Danielson describes Hilton Head Island in his book, Profit and Politics in Paradise.

Hilton Head has had many inhabitants beginning with Native Americans who can be traced back to the second millennium B.C. the Europeans, who came in the early sixteenth century, met these "Indians" who hunted and fished the area.  The Eruopean settlers were not good to the indigenous personnel, basically decimating them.  The last tribe in the area was the Yemasee--they lasted into the early eighteenth century.

The first Europeans to explore the coastal islands were the Spanish.  It's unclear whether 1521 and 1526 expeditions set foot on Hilton Head; however, history has recorded a fellow, Pedro de Quexo sighted the distinctive headlands in August, 1521.  A band of French Huguenots, seeking refuge from religious persecution in their native land sailed along Port Royal in 1562.  They actually founded a settlement on Hilton Head, but it only lasted a year.  Four years later the Spanish returned, this time to stay on nearby Parris Island.  Three decades later the Spanish abandoned Port Royal in the face of Indian attacks and growing English sea power.  Almost a centruy would pass before the English attempted to colonize the area.  In 1662 King Charles II granted Carolina to eight lords who promptly sought settlers for their possessions.  Among those interested in the new lands were a group of sugar and indigo planters in Barbados who commissioned Captain William Hilton in 1663 to explore the Carolina coast.  Hostile Indians and a fearsome hurricane persuaded the English in 1670 to concentrate their colonial energies some 100 miles north in Charles Town.

The first white settler was Colonel John Barnwell, who arrved  in 1717 to lay claim to a 1,000 acre grant on the northwestern tip of the island.  Over the next decade, more settlers came as the threat of hostile Indians was finally eliminated.  Growing rice and indigo, they established a plantation economy based on slavery that dominated Hilton Head for more than a century.  During the Revolutionary War, as well in the War of 1812, Hilton Head's planters suffered because of the island's strategic location for naval forces blockading Charleston and Savannah and from the near impossibility of defending the seaward island.  The British captured Savannah in 1778 and Charleston in 1780 and occupied much of the area.  In the war of 1812, Britain struck again, burning most of the plantation homes that were easily accessible from the sea.

Plantation life came to an end early in the Civil War.  Less than seven months after the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, more than 12,000 Union soldiers and marines landed on Hilton Head in the largest naval engagement ever fought in American waters.

Information for this blog came from the book Profit and Politics in Paradise by Michael N. Danielson

Nest:  HIlton Head and the Civil War

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