The History of Bluffton, South Carolina
Bluffton’s coastal location along the May River with its adjacent forests, saltwater estuaries and wildlife provided a rich environment for the birth of this 19th century town. The story of Bluffton is as authentic and chocked full of history as that of its home state, South Carolina.
The First Inhabitants
Beginning more than 250 years ago settlers began making their mark in this pristine wilderness, just north of the Savannah River. But the area was already occupied by a group of over 1,200 indigenous people, the Yemassee Indians, when in 1715 the Yemassee War broke out and after several years of fighting, the tribe migrated to Florida.
Opening the “Indian Lands” to European settlement, the Lords Proprietors carved the area into several new baronies in 1718, including the Devil’s Elbow Barony that contained the future town of Bluffton.
Historic Old Town Bluffton emerged in the early 1800’s in small dwellings atop high river bluffs overlooking the May River. This coastal community grew in popularity during the antebellum period as an escape from the harsh inland plantation conditions in the summer months that often manifested into yellow fever and malaria outbreaks. Strong southerly breezes from the river kept the infectious mosquitoes at bay and made sultry summer days bearable.
The layout of the town's streets in 1830 indicate that it started as a summer haven, and soon developed into a commercial center for isolated plantations in the vicinity that received their goods from Savannah via the May River. The town was a place where children could attend school and planter families could socialize and discuss the politics of the day. Two notable structures reflecting the history and architecture of the time are The Heyward House, circa 1840, and The Church of the Cross.
War & Uncertainty
Literally a hotbed for political rhetoric, in 1844 some of the first cries of secession were first given voice and debate in Bluffton. Incensed planters gathered beneath what became known as the "Secession Oak" (still existing today, but on private property in Bluffton) and the secessionist movement was born. Sixteen years later South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.
On June 4, 1863, several Union gunboats and a transport carrying 1,000 infantrymen steamed up the river to Bluffton because, as the officer in charge wrote in his report, "This town has been the headquarters for the rebels for a long time in this vicinity." Troops were landed with orders to fire the town. Confederate soldiers attacked but were outnumbered and outgunned. When shelling and torching ended and the Union forces withdrew, 34 or more homes, churches and other buildings had been destroyed.
With the Civil War raging and the occupation of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort by Union forces, the town was mostly abandoned by residents and utilized as a base for Confederate pickets observing Union troop movements. The town was pillaged by Union forces on several excursions up the May River and eventually burned in June of 1863. Although the overall destruction was severe, 75% of the town was destroyed, only 15 homes and 2 churches survived.
Commercial Resurgence & Summer Resort
By the turn of the century, the town again experienced growth with the opening of several hardware and dry good stores and the growth of a burgeoning oyster harvesting business. Lowcountry residents returned to Bluffton, a place many continue to call home for the summer. The 1922 construction of the Houlihan Bridge from Port Wentworth, GA to SC Highway 17 ended commercial trade by water within a few years. But this shift away from commercial trade ushered in a new phase of Bluffton development, where again it became predominately a summer getaway.
Over the last 60 years Bluffton has attracted many full-time residents due to the growth of Hilton Head Island as a major vacation destination. Today Bluffton is one of the fastest growing towns in South Carolina and has become an important tourism partner with Hilton Head Island.
Bluffton Walking Tours
Meander the oak-lined streets of Old Town Bluffton on a self-guided walking tour. You can take a tour of the historic landmarks or visit the shops, galleries and museums. Click here to view our Historic Walking Tour Brochure (360kb PDF) , which details the historic stops throughout Bluffton’s National Register Historic District. Click here to view the Old Town Merchant’s map (3.14mb PDF) of shops, restaurants and other attractions.
The Heyward House & Museum
Begin your Bluffton discovery with a tour of the Heyward House, a museum and welcome center located in the heart of Bluffton’s National Register Historic District at 70 Boundary Street. Built as a summer home for a local plantation owner, the structure was constructed in 1840 and is one of only eight antebellum homes remaining in Old Town Bluffton. With its original slave cabin and summer kitchen, the Heyward House is named for the Heyward family who owned the home from the early 1880s until the late 1990s.
The house demonstrates a home that has been virtually untouched by time. This simple timber framed structure is an excellent example of the Carolina Farmhouse Style that was brought from the West Indies and made popular from the Colonial period up to the Civil War. Because of its well-preserved condition, the Heyward House is now an Official Project of the Save America's Treasures Program, a public-private partnership between the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Owned and operated by The Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, the Heyward House also houses the Caldwell Archive, a collection of valuable historical resources that pertain to Bluffton and Beaufort County and noted as one of the largest collections of archival resource materials in the state.
The Heyward House is open to the public and offers docent guided tours Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The tour cost is $8 for adults, $2 for students and free for children under 10 (must be accompanied by an adult.) The tour time is approximately 30 minutes. Be sure to ask your guide about the frequent supernatural activity many have reported at the Heyward House – a great mix of local lore and haunting, Lowcountry history!
Cyrus Gardner, a freed slave, built the small cottage named the “Garvin House” on the banks of the May River in approximately 1870. The house was sold by the Garvin family in 1960. Unfortunately, by this time it had crumbled into ruin after being used for many years as storage for the Bluffton Oyster Factory. The Town of Bluffton, working with experts, restored the house and was able to reclaim and use roughly fifty percent of the original building materials. A fine example of the South Carolina vernacular architecture of the late 19th century, tours are offered on Tuesdays and Thursdays by reservation through the Heyward House Historic Center in Bluffton, South Carolina.
Guided Walking Tours
Contact the Heyward House Historic Center for information about their guided tours. Guided tours include a 30-minute tour of the house museum and grounds and a one and a half hour tour of the Historic District. The cost for the Walking Tour is $18 for adults, $12 for students, and the tour is offered by appointment only. Tour times can be arranged by calling (843) 757-6293 or emailing [email protected] .
The Church of the Cross
A place of worship, beauty and spiritual reflection for over 150 years, The Church of the Cross has played a pivotal role in the Bluffton community since July of 1854, when the present building was consecrated. As one of Bluffton’s oldest surviving buildings, and listed with The National Register of Historic Places since 1975, The Church of the Cross overlooks the May River at 60 Calhoun Street. Free docent guided tours are offered Monday – Saturday 11am-2pm.
Passing through the heavy pine front doors of The Church of the Cross feels like a step back in time. It’s easy to imagine the summer congregation of island planters beginning June Sundays with worship. Episcopal services on “The Bluff” of the May River first took place in the early 1830s.
Architect E. B. White designed a structure described then as a “handsome cruciform Gothic building”, which remains today. Fanned arches with a look of palmettos top its mullioned windows that are framed by latticed shutters. The builders sent to England for the rose-colored glass in the windows. Inside, soft-pink scored plaster enhances the warm light. Exposed pine timbers evoked power and stability for the time.
The Church of the Cross has witnessed much in 150 years plus it has graced the May River bluff. From the Civil War and burning of Bluffton to the hurricane of 1898 and up to growth of present-day Bluffton, the church has not only sheltered its own burgeoning congregation, but also remained a devoted and much-loved community institution.
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