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History of Hilton Head and the Low Country

The hauntingly beautiful landscape of the Lowcountry- comprised of the four counties of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper- harbors a past of discovery and settlement, bloodshed of battles, agricultural riches, vast plantations, and a modern evolution ever-concerned with preserving the fertile land and the beauty over which it was long-ago fought.

The tribe names of its earliest native American inhabitants are found all over South Carolina today. Edisto, Ashepoo, Combahee, Yemassee, and Daufuskie Island, a Creek Indian word meaning "land with a point", all echo the native American history of the region. Relics unearthed in the Lowcountry, and on Hilton Head Island, point to inhabitance as early as 10,000 B.C. Coastal Discovery, the Museum of Hilton Head Island, displays a variety of artifacts that represent Native Americans way of life. The Museum displays the history of the Lowcountry expertly through its informative and fascinating exhibits and tours. (See inset for more information on the Museum).

In 1525, Spanish sailors encountered a prominent headland on the coast of South Carolina and named it "la Punta de Santa Elena." The anglicized St. Helena (near Beaufort) survives and is one of the oldest continually used European names of geography in North America.

Explorers from throughout Europe came to South Carolina on their oceanic travels to discover new lands to claim for their royal crowns. The French briefly interrupted the early Spanish occupation, then returned in 1680 when 45 Huguenots immigrated to the new colony.

In 1663, the abundant, untamed island was surveyed by William Hilton, an English sea captain, sailing from Barbados in search of tropical lands on which to establish profitable English plantations. Hilton then claimed it for the British crown, establishing the legacy with his own name... Hilton's Headland.

Hilton touted the island's beauty, encouraging settlement there. English settlers waited for the threat of both Spaniards and Native Americans to dispel before colonizing in 1670 to found South Carolina's first permanent settlement at the confluence of the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, then called Charlestowne, now Charleston. Immigrants from Switzerland and lowland Scots from Northern Ireland settled the early townships. In the early 1700's, the current town of Beaufort was chartered, becoming the second English settlement in South Carolina.

As the Lowcountry grew, plantation owners looked for new crops to thrive in this welcoming climate. The early 1800's saw the advent of agriculture to the rich island soil, and among the crops grown was Sea Island Long Staple Cotton, which flourished in the warm subtropical climate. Rice and indigo were also grown. These labor intensive crops allowed planters to prosper during the pre-Civil War time period; however, with the onset of the war, gracious homes and prolific crops were abandoned by the planters. The striking blow was what was later seen as the largest naval engagement of the entire war, The Battle of Port Royal. In many ways, Hilton Head remains much the same as its earliest beginnings. Yet, it has emerged to become a relaxed, easy-paced environment that is home to over 27,500 residents and considered the preferred vacation destination for over a million and a half visitors each year. The "modern" Hilton Head Island has existed for only a few decades. Its development began in the fifties. The first bridge was erected in 1956.

Vacationers come for the scenery as well as for the limitless attractions and recreational opportunities like the more than twenty championship golf courses and hundreds of tournament-quality tennis courts. Hilton Head Island as we know it today experienced a rebirth during the 1950s and beyond due to a man named Charles Fraser. He had inspiration to create an unprecedented resort community which would encompass uncommon beauty and spirit while preserving the land's inherent natural endowments. With exactingly careful preparation, Fraser developed Sea Pines, the first planned island community. Since then, his same environmentally sound covenants have become effective guidelines for all subsequent development.

A hidden Hilton Head can be discovered by learning about its history while seeing the sights. Some of the island landmarks include: Baynard Ruins in Sea Pines, the ruins of Braddock's Point Plantation House; Steam Cannon at Port Royal; Cotton Hope Plantation; Fort Mitchell, on a bluff overlooking Skull Creek; Rose Hill Plantation House, just over the bridge; the Zion Cemetery; and Baynard Mausoleum, the final resting place of many Revolutionary War soldiers.

Though still much like a time when the earliest inhabitants lived off of the land and over the waters, the island is further favored with an abundance of things to do and see. Through it all, the island begins and ends with the windswept beauty that the passage of time has not erased.