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History of Hilton Head Island

Guide to historical sites and attractions and timeline of Hilton Head Island history.

Hilton Head Island is named for the English sea captain William Hilton who was hired by a syndicate of Barbadian planters and claimed the island for England. Hilton "discovered" the island in 1663 but European colonization did not occur until around 1800. Before the Civil War, the plantations on Hilton Head Island prospered growing rice, indigo, and cotton.

The Hilton Head Island as we know it today began as an extraordinary vision of one man, Charles Fraser. His dream was to create a unique vacation resort where environmental concerns were intertwined with its development. Charles was a bold visionary who fought popular opinion in the 50's to create Sea Pines, a hugely successful and environmentally sensitive resort development. View our comprehensive timeline of historical events as well as our directory of historical sites and attractions on Hilton Head.
View map of Hilton Head Historical Sites »

Hilton Head Historical Sites & Attractions

Leamington Lighthouse

Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort
Leamington Ln
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

The Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort – also known as the Leamington Lighthouse - serves as a familiar sight overlooking the resort's award-winning Arthur Hills Golf Course.

This historic lighthouse, which is featured on the National Register of Historic Places and part of the Inventory of Historic Light Stations, occupies a unique place in Hilton Head Island history. One of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in South Carolina, the Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse is the only historic lighthouse on Hilton Head Island. Many share stories that the famed lighthouse is haunted by "The Blue Lady", the daughter of the last lighthouse operator.

Fort Howell

160 Beach City Rd
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Near the end of Beach City Road is the 5+ acre site containing Fort Howell, an excellent example of a Civil War era earthworks fort. Built in 1864 by the Union's 32nd Colored Infantry, it was to protect the freedmen's village of Mitchelville and to improve the defenses of Hilton Head.

In 1861, Hilton Head was captured by the Union Navy and became their headquarters in the South. Former slaves from Hilton Head and the surrounding plantations made their way to the encampment where many found employment. In 1862, Mitchelville was established near current Beach City Road and was the nation's first Freedmen's village, self-governing and with mandatory education requirements for the children.

The Fort is pentagonal in shape, surrounded by a dry moat, earthen walls 23 feet in height, and placement for 27 guns. Partially eroded and forgotten, it was rediscovered when neighboring Palmetto Hall was being developed and was donated to the Land Trust for preservation.

The Land Trust maintains the property in a natural state with adjacent areas for parking and with several interpretive signs. In 2011 it was listed as a National Historic site and the appropriate signage was erected. The upkeep and improvement of the site is an ongoing project of the Land Trust. It is open to the public during daylight hours. The Coastal Discovery Museum offers guided tours of the Fort on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month beginning at 9:30 called Uncovering the Roots of Reconstruction.

Fort Mitchel

65 Skull Creek Dr
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Many new visitors, who instantly note Hilton Head Island's small size and acres of pretty vacation homes and resorts, are surprised to learn that the island was once home to 4 military forts during the height of the Civil War. Sadly, while the remnants of the forts are, for the most part, long gone, visitors can still enjoy a glimpse of this history, and enjoy a leisurely cool and breezy nature walk to boot, with a stroll through Fort Mitchel.

Once on site, visitors can simply follow the small historical markers to the entrance of Fort Mitchel. A short paved pathway runs through the site, and extends both parallel to and along the earthen works that are, in fact, the fort's remains. Small walls are overgrown with wildly growing plants, but the trek is nonetheless an easy one, thanks mainly to the paved pathway. Scattered signs note points of interest throughout the site, and there are several era-appropriate cannons stationed in Fort Mitchel as well.">Stoney Baynard Ruins

85 Plantation Dr
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

Ruins of a 1793 Civil War plantation home and slave quarters with rumored ghost sightings. A mansion on Braddock Point Plantation (in the area now known as Sea Pines) was owned and occupied in the antebellum era by two families, the Stoneys and the Baynards. The tabby home was built by the former and subsequently purchased and later deserted by the latter, so that it is now called the Stoney-Baynard Ruins. The ruins are located off of Plantation Drive.

Coastal Discovery Museum

70 Honey Horn Dr, Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Learning center with programs and walks on 68 coastal acres with ancient buildings, trees and wildlife. The Coastal Discovery Museum is one of the most memorable destinations on Hilton Head Island. Explore natural history and cultural heritage on the 68 acre Honey Horn property. The Museum's trails, gardens, live oaks, butterfly enclosure, and horses are just a few of the fun experiences you will encounter during your visit. Mon. - Sat. 9-4:30 and Sun. 11-3.

Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island

Gullah "Little House"
3 Farmer's Club Road
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island is a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization that was established in 2003 to preserve Gullah history, culture, customs, traditions, language, stories, songs and structures on Hilton Head Island.

Gullah Heritage Trail Tours

70 Honey Horn Dr
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

Gullah Heritage Trail Tours was founded in 1996 by a Hilton Head Island Gullah Family Partnership. This outstanding family has been involved in preserving Gullah cultural heritage, blending Gullah cultural values, in the SC-GA Low Country, for more than 40 years. Based on Hilton Head Island, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours caters to Low Country visitors interested in learning about the history of Gullah Culture.

Harbour Town Lighthouse

149 Lighthouse Rd
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

Just under five decades old, the red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse serves not only as a beacon to the many ships that reside in our Yacht Basin but also as a landmark that has come to symbolize Hilton Head Island to people all over the world. With the addition of the Lighthouse Legends Tour in 2001, we were able to transform this icon into an informative, educational, and fun experience for all. In addition to the historical lighthouse tour, we proudly offer one of the most unique gift shops on Hilton Head Island, featuring one the largest collections about lighthouses in America.

St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church

45 Beach City Rd
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926

In 1984 the Bishop of Charleston announced that a second parish would be formed at the northern end of Hilton Head Island. With a mixture of parishioners gathered from Holy Family Parish on the island's south end and rapidly arriving newcomers from the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, the Spirit-infused adventure began.

Heyward House Historic Center

70 Boundary St, Bluffton, SC 29910

Welcome to Historic Bluffton! Begin your visit here at The Heyward House, official Welcome Center for the town of Bluffton. Tour our House Museum, built by slaves in 1841; find maps and brochures for area businesses, and get a taste of the culture and history of our fair town. The Heyward House Museum and Welcome Center is owned and operated by the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, a non-profit, 501-(C)-3 corporation, dedicated to the preservation of the culture and history of Bluffton.

Zion Chapel of Ease

Mathews Dr
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

This is the site of the first church on Hilton Head Island which was completed in 1788. This location was the center of activity on the island in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the church was in close proximity to a Militia muster house and a Masonic lodge. It is also home to the oldest existing structure on the island, the Baynard Mausoleum, which was built in 1846 by William Baynard, a wealthy Plantation owner. The cemetery contains the graves and memorials for four Revolutionary War Patriots: Isaac Baldwin, James Davant, John Stoney, and Charles Davant. Charles Davant was ambushed by a Tory militia unit, was mortally wounded, and is the only known Patriot casualty on the island.
History of Hilton Head Island

A Timeline of Hilton Head Island History

The following information was provided by the Coastal Discovery Museum. The Museum gathered the information for the timeline from Town residents and long-time Islanders. The Museum relied on significant input from the Community to put together the timeline. A book entilted "Images of America Hilton Head Island" covers the island's history and is available for sale at the museum at 843.689.6767.

Native American Occupation (8000 B.C. - 1500 A.D.)

Native Indians resided on Hilton Head Island as early as 4000 BC. Evidence of early settlement remains today in the form of a 3400 year old "Indian Shell ring" in Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

  • 8000 B.C. - 1000 B.C. - Archaic Period Native Americans visited this area seasonally.
  • 1335 A.D. - Green's Shell Enclosure, a 4-foot-tall shell ridge that encloses 2 acres, was built along the banks of Skull Creek.

European Explorers (1500 - 1700)

  • 1521 - A Spanish expedition, led by Francisco Cordillo, explored this area, initiating European contact with local tribes.
  • 1663 - Capt. William Hilton sailed from Barbados, on the Adventure, to explore lands granted by King Charles II to the eight Lords Proprietors. Hilton Head Island takes its name from a headland near the entrance to Port Royal Sound.
  • 1698 - John Bayley, of Ireland, was given most of Hilton Head Island as a barony. Twenty-four years later, his son appointed Alexander Trench as his agent in charge of selling the land. For a short time, Hilton Head was called Trench's Island on some 18th century maps.

Plantation Era (1700 - 1860)

  • 1711 - Beaufort, South Carolina was founded.
  • 1760s - Beaufort County's shipbuilding industry was one of the largest in the 13 colonies. The deep-water creeks around Hilton Head and the prevalence of hardwoods (like live oak) made the island a popular place for shipbuilding. The USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," was rebuilt in 1997 using live oaks felled during construction of Hilton Head Island's Cross Island Parkway.
  • 1779 - Privateers sailing with the British navy burned many houses on Skull Creek and around the island on their way to Beaufort and Charleston. Hilton Head residents tended to be Patriots, while Daufuskie residents were Tories.
  • 1780 - Daufuskie Islanders burned several Hilton Head homes, including the Talbird home.
  • 1788 - The Zion Chapel of Ease, a small wooden Episcopal church for plantation owners was constructed. All that remains is the cemetery, home to the Baynard Mausoleum, near Mathews Drive.
  • 1790 - William Elliott II, of Myrtle Bank Plantation, grew the first successful crop of long-staple, or Sea Island, cotton in South Carolina on Hilton Head Island.
  • 1813 - During the War of 1812, British forces landed on Hilton Head Island, burning many of the houses along Skull Creek.
  • 1860 - There were more than 20 working plantations on the island before the Civil War. Most plantation owners did not live on Hilton Head. The island was populated with slaves and overseers.

The Civil War and the Union Occupation (1860 - 1865)

During the Civil War, Hilton Head Island was captured and occupied by the Union forces. Overtaken by a massive amphibious landing (the size of which was not attempted again until WWII), Hilton Head Island became a strategic outpost for the blockade of Confederate sea ports.
  • 1861 - Beginning in July, Fort Walker was built on Hilton Head Island at the entrance to Port Royal Sound in Order to protect the port from Union attacks.
  • 1861 - On November 7th, Union forces attacked Fort Walker (later renamed Fort Welles in honor of Gideon Welles, secretary of the Navy) and Fort Beauregard in the Battle of Port Royal. Nearly 13,000 Union troops flooded onto the island in the days after the battle.
  • 1862 - Hilton Head Island was also referred to as Port Royal, in reference to the Port Royal military installation. Port Royal was the home to the Department of the South.
  • 1862 - Hilton Head's population swelled to over 40,000, including Union troops, civilian store-keepers, missionaries, prisoners of war, and slaves seeking refuge from their owners.
  • 1862 - Gen. Ormsby Mitchel set up the town of Mitchelville to house the island's first freedman's village. Mitchelville residents elected their own officials, passed their own laws, and established the first compulsory education law in the state. The Mitchelville community was built along modern-day Beach City Road.
  • 1862 - Fort Mitchel was built as a battery to protect Skull Creek from Confederate attacks. Fort Sherman, which circled the military installation, was completed.
  • 1865 - The First African Baptist Church was founded in August. Several island churches formed out of this church, including St. James, Goodwill, Central Oakgrove, and Mt. Calvary.

Reconstruction and Isolation (1870s - 1940s)

  • 1868 - Large-scale military occupation of the island had ended. The island's population dropped to only a few thousand.
  • 1870s - Some of Hilton Head Island's plantations were reclaimed by their antebellum owners after paying back taxes charged to their property. Other properties were held by the United States government, sold to speculators, or sold to freedmen who remained on the island after the Civil War.
  • 1872 - The island was once again referred to as Hilton Head Island.
  • 1893 - An enormous hurricane hit Beaufort County, killing at least 2,000 people in the county and flooding parts of the island with its 12-foot surge. Many of Hilton Head Island's structures were destroyed in this storm.
  • 1901 - A 15-inch steam cannon was installed and tested on the beach at Coggins Point (modern-day Port Royal Plantation). It was 1 of 13 designed to protect the United States coast.
  • 1917 - Troops were stationed at the former Union Fort Walker during World War I as lookouts for possible submarine attacks.
  • 1920s - Gullah native islanders sailed bateaux from Hilton Head to the mainland, carrying people, crops, and livestock to the market on River Street in Savannah. Charlie Simmons Sr. operated the first mechanized ferry in 1930 from Simmons Fish Camp, located near Marshland Road.
  • 1920s -The Hudsons and Toomers operated oyster factories on Hilton Head Island from the 1890s until the 1950s. By this time, the boll weevil had destroyed almost all of the Sea Island Cotton in the region.
  • 1940 -The island's population was approximately 1,100 most of whom were descendants from freedmen who had made their homes on Hilton Head.
  • 1941 -Marines were stationed at Camp McDougal near the Leamington Lighthouse. The lighthouse had been built in the 1870s - and was known as the Hilton Head Lighthouse until the Palmetto Dunes development, Leamington, began. Marines paved the first road on the island, which ran from the ferry landing at Jenkins Island (now Outdoor Resorts) to the lighthouse.

Mainland Connection and Modern Era (1949-1990s)

  • 1949 - A group of lumber associates from Hinesville, Georgia, bought a total of 20,000 acres of pine forest on Hilton Head's southern end for an average of nearly $60 an acre. They formed The Hilton Head Company to handle the timber operation. The associates were Gen. Joseph B. Fraser, Fred C. Hack, Olin T. McIntosh, and C.C. Stebbins.
  • 1950 - Logging took place on 19,000 acres of the island. There were three lumbermills built to harvest the timber. The island population was only 300 residents.
  • 1950 - The first electricity was brought to the island by Palmetto Electric Cooperative.
  • 1953 - A state-operated car ferry began running from Buckingham Landing (near Bluffton, on the mainland) to Jenkins Island (at Outdoor Resorts).
  • 1954 - Hilton Head Elementary School opened for the island's black students. Isaac Wilborn was the principal of the elementary school from 1954 until it closed in 1974. The school was replaced by a new integrated school constructed on a new site in 1975.
  • 1955 - Beaufort County state representative Wilton Graves opened the Sea Crest Motel on Forest Beach. At first, it consisted of two rooms. The first vacation cottages were developed on Folly Field Road.
  • 1956 - James F. Byrnes Bridge, a two-lane toll swing bridge, was constructed at a cost of $1.5 million. This opened the island to automobile traffic from the mainland. This year, forty-eight thousand cars traveled across the bridge. The toll was discontinued in December 1959.
  • 1956 - Charles E. Fraser, bought his father's interest in The Hilton Head Company and began developing it into Sea Pines Plantation.
  • 1956 - Norris and Lois Richardson opened the first supermarket on the island, located near Coligny Circle in the North Forest Beach area.
  • 1956 - The Hilton Head Island Chamber of Commerce was established.
  • 1958 - First deed to a lot in Sea Pines Plantation was signed. Beachfront lots initially sold for $5,350. By 1962, they were selling for $9,600.
  • 1958 - Telephone service was offered by Hargray Telephone Company. The first Hilton Head office did not open until 1960.
  • 1959 - The island's first golf course, the Ocean Course, designed by George Cobb, was built in Sea Pines Plantation.
  • 1960 - The McIntosh family subdivided 360 acres of The Hilton Head Company to start Spanish Wells.
  • 1961 - Port Royal Plantation was developed by Hilton Head Company, led by Fred Hack.
  • 1965 - The Sea Pines Medical Center was built. It was staffed by a retired doctor who lived in Sea Pines but served the entire island community.
  • 1965 - Hilton Head Island had its first rural mail route established.
  • 1967 - Sea Pines Plantation installed the island's first gates.
  • 1967 - The Palmetto Dunes area was acquired from the Hilton Head Agricultural Company by Palmetto Dunes Corporation, headed by William T. Gregory, for $1,000 per acre.
  • 1967 - The Hilton Head Airport opened.
  • 1969 - Harbour Town village was completed. The full-time population of the island was 2,500.
  • 1969 - The first Heritage Golf Classic played at Sea Pine's Harbour Town Links.
  • 1970 - Island Packet newspaper was first published.
  • 1970 - The Hilton Head Company started Shipyard Plantation.
  • 1971 - Sea Pines acquired land on the north end of the island, which was developed into Hilton Head Plantation.
  • 1974 - The swing-bridge was struck by a barge which force island residents to travel off the island on a pontoon bridge constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers. The bridge was closed for six weeks.
  • 1975 - The island's full-time population by this time was 6,500. Over 250,000 visitors came to Hilton Head.
  • 1975 -Hilton Head Hospital was completed.
  • 1979 - Hurricane David missed the island, but high winds left beached eroded and destroyed several Singleton Beach homes.
  • 1982 - A four-lane bridge was built to replace the two-lane swing-bridge to the island. The island's full-time population was 12,500. More than 500,000 visitors came to Hilton Head in 1982.
  • 1982 - Wexford Plantation and Long Cove Club were developed.
  • 1983 - The Town of Hilton Head Island incorporated as a municipality.
  • 1985 - Hilton Head's Comprehensive Plan was adopted by the town council. The population was over 17,000 full-time residents.
  • 1987 - The town council passed the Land Management Ordinance of the Town of Hilton Head Island.
  • 1989 - The Cross-Island Parkway project was approved. The Parkway's bridge spans Broad Creek and links the south end of the island to the north end.
  • 1995 -The permanent year-round population exceeded 28,000 people. The island had over 1.5 million visitors.
  • 1995 - Construction on the Cross-Island Parkway began.
  • 1996 - The Master Land Use Plan for Ward One was started by the Town.
  • 1997 - Cross Island Parkway opened in January. The total cost was $81 million for construction, land acquisition and planning.

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Hilton Head Island Fishing Charters

Hilton Head Fishing Charters

The coast of South Carolina offers a vast ecosystem of salt marshes, tidal creeks, winding rivers, sounds and the Atlantic Ocean is unspoiled, healthy, and brimming with fish of all types. For deep sea fishing charters and offshore angling, there are a number of fishing charters and skilled captains who can help you navigate Hilton Head's vast ecosystem of salt marshes, tidal creeks, winding rivers, Calibogue Sound, Harbor River and the expansive Atlantic ocean.
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Hilton Head Island Beaches

Hilton Head Beaches

Hilton Head Island boasts 12 miles of expansive, hard-packed beaches which range up to 600 feet at low tide. The tide levels vary as much as 6-8 feet every 6 hours. All Hilton Head beaches are public, but some access points are private and vary by location.

Our beach guide includes Hilton Head beach information, access points and parking, beach photography, real-time tidal chart, beach rules and regulations, personal watercraft rules, fishing licenses and regulations, and local emergency contact information.
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Hilton Head Island Marians

Hilton Head Marinas

Hilton Head is surrounded by water, so its only natural that there are an extensive array of marinas, harbours, boat ramps, landings and marine service centers located all over the island. Popular facilities include Shelter Cove Marina, Skull Creek Marina, Harbour Town Yacht Basin, South Carolina Yacht Club, Hilton Head Harbor RV Resort and Marina, Yacht Club of Hilton Head, Wexford Harbourmaster and more.

The Calibogue Sound and Harbor River feed into the Atlantic Ocean and provide easy access for yachts and marine vessels of all sizes.
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Map of Hilton Head Island Historical Sites