Roots Run Deep


Gullah farming with oyster shells and marsh grass fertilizer in fields. Illustration: Todd Ballantine

THE GULLAH people, the true native culture on the S.C. coast, have a wise saying. It goes: If you don’t know where you’re going, at least know where you’ve been. In this post, we’ll time travel and remember origins—our coastal landscape, past and modern settlers, and how well we have preserved our environment for future generations. How are we doing?

Water built this land

The Lowcountry (translation: the Atlantic Coastal Plain in South Carolina and Georgia) is a level landscape formed from sediments deposited by the Atlantic Ocean over 25,000 years ago. Hilton Head Island, closer to sea, was primarily built from sand—quartz, feldspar, and shell bits and a sprinkling of organic matter. For most of the Island, drainage is fairly good.

In contrast, the Bluffton area is the remnant of former salt marshes and their mucky sediments—silt and clay. The farther inland you go, the slower the water percolates into the ground. This organic fact of life—different soils—changed course of history in Southern Beaufort County.

The Gullah have seen it all

The two soil types set up very different development and economies on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton. On the Island, sandy soils were well suited for Sea Island cotton, a fine-fibered hybrid cultivated after 1790, and drew the highest prices. In Bluffton’s clayey land supported small farm agriculture, but little cotton. The real money was made in the muck—of the New River. Planters grew Carolina Gold rice in impounded fields built along the water edge. From Bluffton’s New River Linear Trail you can see remnants of the vast rice fields and hugging the riverbank.

Hilton Head Island’s cotton plantations and Bluffton’s rice culture thrived with the use of slaves. The unfortunate Africans who were shipped to the Charleston and Savannah slave markets primarily came from Africa’s West Coast and interior lands such as the Niger River delta. This region has similar soils and drainage to South Carolina-Georgia coast.

On Hilton Head Island, slaves taught planters how to mulch the sandy soil with “salt hay”—dried salt marsh grass stalks, and add crushed oyster shells to the soil to supply lime and other minerals. By 1850, over 20 successful cotton plantations were in cultivation on the Island. Sometimes when exploring open space, you might kick loose and oyster shell, even in the middle of the woods. Now you know where that shell came from.

In western Bluffton, on the New River, skilled slaves introduced the 3,000-year old technique of riverside impoundments for sheltering the rice fields, and crafted unique rice trunks to let water in or out of the fields, following tidal cycles and the rice-growing season.

Union forces invaded Hilton Head Island in 1861 (in the Battle of Port Royal). Southern landowners abandoned their plantations, and their slaves sought protection of the army on Hilton Head Island. In 1862, Union command established Mitchelville, America’s first town for former slaves. Mitchelville sat on high ground with arable soil, and overlooking the productive Fish Haul Creek basin. Though the town lasted for only a few decades, it was the genesis of proud Gullah (from Angola or Gola) culture.

The Town of Hilton Head Island has exciting plans to restore Mitchelville with a visitor center, classrooms, interpretive exhibits, archaeological investigations, educational tours and more.

Many secrets await discovery in the good earth at Mitchelville and on the banks of the New River. These places guard our heritage—where we have been. Do we know where we are going?