Hilton Head Island History & Heritage
Rich in Culture, Rich in Spirit
Incorporated as a town in 1983, Hilton Head Island is home to more than 40,000 residents who live year-round in our renowned environmentally planned resort and residential communities. Yet much of the Island remains as it was when sighted from William Hilton’s ship more than 300 years ago. Over the centuries, Hilton Head Island’s natural beauty, spectacular seascapes, exceptional ecology and South Carolina historical sites have beckoned generations of explorers—with Native Americans, English, Spanish, French colonists, pirates, African-Americans and soldiers all leaving their footprints on the sands of South Carolina’s Treasured Coast. And now is the time for you to leave your own footprints in the sand…on Hilton Head Island.
Some of the most important historical sites in South Carolina are part of Hilton Head Island history. In 1663, English sea captain William Hilton sighted Hilton Head Island and, as a result, the seeds of the first successful plantations were sown. Commissioned by a group of Barbados planters to find new land on which to grow food crops, Hilton wrote about his voyage in his journal.
Hilton, however, was not the first European to visit the Island. In 1521, the Spanish were the first confirmed Island visitors. Fleeing persecution in their Catholic homeland, French Huguenot colonists sought refuge on Hilton Head Island as early as the 1560s. They christened Port Royale Harbour, now known as Port Royal Sound, and charted the Island on French maps as “Ile de la Riviere Grande”—Island of the Broad River. Soon they moved to more protected water, settling in an area that is now known as Beaufort, South Carolina.
When William Hilton landed in the Lowcountry in 1663, he was greeted by Spanish-speaking Indians from the Yemassee tribe, who had migrated north from Florida 100 years prior. He also encountered the native Escamacus Indians, but little is known of the earlier native civilization that inhabited the Island as far back as 4,000 years ago. Remnants of mysterious shell rings, measuring up to 240 feet across and nine feet high, can still be found on the Island. Yet, like the enigmatic rocks of Stonehenge and the carvings of Easter Island, their secrets remain hidden. Today, you can view these artifacts of Hilton Head Island history at Sea Pines Forest Preserve and on the north end of the Island, off Squire Pope Road in Green Shell Park.
In 1698, the English king granted several islands and some of the Lowcountry’s mainland to John Bayley. While the entire area was named Bayley’s Barony, Hilton Head Island was referred to as Trench’s Island, in honor of Alexander Trench, the Bayley’s property agent and collector of land-lease fees.
John Barnwell became Hilton Head Island’s first English settler in 1717 after receiving a grant of 1,000 acres in what is now Hilton Head Plantation. However, Hilton Head Island did not gain worldwide recognition until 1790 when another planter, William Elliott, successfully raised the first crop of long-staple Sea Island cotton. Elliott, with the help of his neighbor, Will Seabrook, pioneered a new type of fertilizer for the cotton, resulting in record crops and wide acclaim for the Sea Island cotton.
By 1860, 24 plantations were in operation on Hilton Head Island. Although the main crop was cotton, indigo, sugar cane, rice, and other crops also were cultivated. Due to the land’s low elevation and hot summers, the wealthy landowners spent little time on the Island, opting to locate their beautiful townhouses in less tropical environments on the mainland.
Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery and Baynard Mausoleum
The antebellum Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery and Baynard Mausoleum, situated among ancient moss draped oaks and facing the waters of Broad Creek, is the burial place of several of Hilton Head Island’s original colonial families. Named to the National Register of Historic Places, this 1846 cemetery is owned and maintained by the Heritage Library and is open to the public for respectful visits.
Seven months after South Carolina seceded from the Union, the shots fired on Fort Sumter reverberated on Hilton Head Island. On November 7, 1861, the Island became the scene of the largest amphibious landing by U.S forces until D-Day, as more than 12,000 Union soldiers landed on the Island. In less than five hours, the Union fleet captured both Fort Beauregard near Beaufort and Fort Walker on Hilton Head Island. The Island fell into the hands of Federal troops, forcing Island families to evacuate their plantation homes.
The Civil War and the subsequent abolition of slavery altered the prosperous and patrician lifestyle of the plantation owners forever. As the freed slaves in Mitchelville attempted to grow Sea Island cotton, the boll weevil proved to be even more devastating. Consequently, Hilton Head Island lapsed into obscurity, remaining isolated for over 90 years.
During this period, the Island maintained a small population of mostly the descendants of former slaves. They survived modestly on small farms and as hunters and fisherman. Their Gullah culture and language survive today as a living legacy of their strength and perseverance.
In the late 1940’s, the Island experienced a sort of re-birth when a group of timbermen recognized great potential in the Island’s tall, straight pines. Popularly called sea pines, the trees produced lumber for a variety of uses.
The First Resort
In 1956, Charles Fraser, son of one of the families that owned most of the Island, realized that Hilton Head had more to offer than just timber. Armed with vision, energy, modern air conditioning and investment dollars, he created a master plan for a resort community. His efforts were aided by the construction of a bridge to the mainland the same year. The first of the Hilton Head family resorts—Sea Pines Plantation—became the prototype of the modern resort community, now copied around the world.
Incorporated as a town in 1983, Hilton Head Island is now home to several environmentally planned resort and residential communities, supporting more than 40,000 full-time residents. These communities have been named “plantations” but cotton fields have been replaced by lush green golf courses, tennis courts, shimmering lakes and beautifully designed resorts and villas.
Despite this development, much of the Island remains as it was when sighted from William Hilton’s ship more than 300 years ago. Hilton Head Island’s natural beauty, spectacular seascapes, exceptional ecology and South Carolina historical sites now beckon a new generation of explorers.
Keep in touch with
Hilton Head Island
Request a free copy of the Hilton Head Island Vacation Planner and learn about all the attractions, activities, unique history and places to stay on Hilton Head Island.
Download Our App
Plan and Navigate your getaway on Hilton Head Island with our Island Compass app. Search for activities, restaurants, and attractions, get travel deals, view trip ideas, and create your own personalized itinerary.