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Historic Hilton Head Island: A Journey Through Time

By Hilton Head Insider

Hilton Head Island is home to a wealth of history. Here, you can experience the legacy, traditions, and artistry of the Gullah, explore Mitchellville and the Coastal Discovery Museum for fascinating insights into the Island’s heritage and its unique connection to the sea, visit the numerous art galleries, museums, and cultural venues across the Island for the latest in local, national, and international shows and performances, and so much more. If you’re a history lover, we invite you to take a journey through time to discover some of the historic people and places of Hilton Head Island.

A History to Remember, A Culture to Cherish

For over three centuries, the Gullah have lived a compelling history—from the struggle for freedom as enslaved people of West African descent to the Gullah Hilton Head Island community of today. Through the resiliency of courage and the heritage of its forefathers, the Gullah remains one of the most culturally distinctive African-American populations in the United States. 

It is a profound story — beginning in ancestral Africa, living in isolated coastal settlements, and evolving into a vibrant culture that is now honored and celebrated. Though born of heartache and saved through perseverance, the Gullah culture has not only survived, but continues to flourish and grow through its language, stories, foods, music, skills, and art. 

Learn more about the “living, breathing” Gullah people of Hilton Head Island.   

Mitchelville park

The Town Where Freedom Began

Mitchelville: the first self-governed freedman’s town in the United States. More than simply a historically significant site, the Mitchelville story continues to educate, enlighten, and inspire.

At the height of the Civil War — before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 — a group of escaped enslaved people set about creating their own town on the grounds of a former Hilton Head Island plantation. Instead of making it one of the more prevalent camps, Union General Ormsby Mitchel created an actual town with orderly streets, wooden homes, and a church. 

Most importantly, the inhabitants had the freedom to govern themselves. The newly minted citizens went about their business with elections, enacted various laws, collected taxes, made a living, and named their town “Mitchelville” in honor of the forward-thinking General Mitchel. 

Today, over 150 years after the Civil War began, local Gullah — the direct descendants of Mitchelville — carry on the traditions of their history-making ancestors. They are working with a diverse group of Islanders to preserve and promote Mitchelville and its story of freedom at the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park. 

The Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park is part of an inspired plan to celebrate the American spirit through the story of the first freedman’s town in America. Once complete, this commemorative park will include an 18,000-square-foot visitor center, event lawn, and reconstructed interpretive homes and buildings representing Mitchelville during its historic period.

Learn more about the Mitchelville story. 

A Hidden Jewel on Hilton Head Island

The Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn is a Smithsonian Affiliate beautifully located on the 68-acre Honey Horn property. This gem of a place is a wonderful way to experience Hilton Head Island’s heritage and environment through a variety of land and water excursions.

Uncover Gullah Geechee history and culture on a journey through Honey Horn. Listen to stories about the Civil War and the Battle of Port Royal on a guided tour. Take a stroll through the Heritage Garden to learn about Lowcountry history through plants, or take a bus tour to five historic sites and discover Hilton Head Island’s significance to the American story. 

Delve into the secret lives of bugs and blooms with a visit to the Museum’s Butterfly Habitat, Insect House, and Carnivorous Plant Garden. Find out why the Atlantic Blue Crab plays such an important role in the coastal ecosystem, as well as in the history of Lowcountry civilization.

Explore the local marine environment at Fish Haul Beach. Go on a walking tour of Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge to see natural habitats like salt marshes, maritime forests, and a freshwater lagoon. And entertain and educate the little ones at the Kids Zone, “packed with interactive Lowcountry treasures, info, artifacts, and inhabitants.” 

Learn more about the many fun-filled learning experiences at the Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn. 


A Historic Landmark & A Beacon of Light

One of the few remaining lighthouses in South Carolina, the Hilton Head Island Rear Range Lighthouse — also known as the Leamington Lighthouse due to its location in the 
Leamington neighborhood of Palmetto Dunes Resort — is a historic treasure. It was erected between 1879 and 1880, and over the years, it served as a crucial beacon, guiding ships safely to Port Royal Sound.  

Today, the lighthouse holds the distinction of being Hilton Head Island’s sole authentic lighthouse. It is recognized on the National Register of Historic Places and listed in the inventory of Historic Light Stations, embodying a rich legacy of maritime history on the Island. 

Visit the Hilton Head Island Rear Range Lighthouse website for more information. 

The Island Where History Lives On

From historic sites, museums, and landmarks to signature cultural events and annual festivals, taking a journey through time is as simple as setting foot on Hilton Head Island. 

So, in addition to visiting some of the places we have mentioned, be sure to check our Event Calendar for festivals, concerts, and exhibitions taking place during your stay here. Attending these events is a fantastic way to enjoy our vibrant culture while spending quality time on our beautiful Island!

For a complete list of all the historic attractions and activities on Hilton Head Island, request your copy of the Hilton Head Island Vacation Planner.

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