The Spanish-speaking Indians from the Yemassee tribe met William Hilton when he arrived in 1663.

 They had moved north from Florida 100 years before.

Although little is known of the native Escamacus Indians as there is little that was documented of the early native inhabitants of the Island as far back as 4,000 years ago, it is said that Hilton met them.

There are still remnants of bizarre shell rings that measure up to 240 feet across and with a height of nine feet found on the Island. Like the evasive rocks of Stonehenge and the Easter Island carvings, their secrets stay hidden. Today, we can view these artifacts at Sea Pines Forest Preserve and at Green Shell Park.

Plantation Life

In 1698, the English king gave John Bayley several islands and some mainland. Although we refer to the whole area as Bayley’s Barony, Hilton Head Island was known as Trench’s Island. This is in honor of Alexander Trench, Bayley’s collector of land-lease fees and property agent.

In 1717, John Barnwell became the first English settler at Hilton Head Island after he got a grant of 1,000 acres in what is today Hilton Head Plantation.

Even with all this, the Island did not gain global recognition until 1790 when William Elliot – another planter – successfully grew the first long-staple Sea Island cotton crop. Will Seabrook, Elliot’s neighbor, helped him come up with a new fertilizer for the cotton. It resulted in record crops and wide acclaim for the Sea Island cotton.

As a result, Hilton Head Island had 24 plantations in operations by 1860. Cotton was the main crop but they planted rice, indigo, sugarcane and other crops as well. Since the Island was at a low elevation and experienced hot summers, the wealthy landowners built their townhouses in the less tropical surroundings on the mainland spending little time on the Island.

Baynard Mausoleum and Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery

They buried most of the family members from the original colonial families of Hilton Head Island in the Baynard Mausoleum and Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery. The Heritage Library owns and maintains the cemetery and is named at the National Register of Historic Places. It’s open to the public for any respectful visits.

Hilton Head During The Civil War

Seven months after South Carolina’s secession from the Union, the shots fired on Fort Sumter echoed on Hilton Head Island. Until today, the 7th of November 1861 went down in history as one of the days when the Island experienced the biggest amphibious landing by the U.S. forces. Over 12,000 Union soldiers jetted on the Island.

In under five hours, the Union had seized Fort Beauregard and Fort Walker. The Island fell into the hands of the Federal troops. Consequently, they forced most of the families to leave their plantation homes. The Civil War and the successive abolition of slavery changed the patrician and prosperous lifestyle of the plantation owners. In Mitcheville, the freed slaves tried growing Sea Island cotton. However, they failed due to the boll weevil which became more devastating. As such, the Island fell into obscurity and stayed isolated for more than 90 years.

There was a small population of the slave’s descendants that remained. They survived on small pieces of land and as fishermen and hunters. The preservation of the Gullah culture and language was preserved to honor their perseverance and strength.

The Island was sort of reborn in the late 1940’s. This was after its potential as a source of timber was discovered by timbermen in the straight and tall pines. Referred to as sea pines, the trees created lumber for multi-purpose use.

The First Resort

Charles Fraser, in 1956, realized Hilton Head Island had lots to give than just timber. His family was among the many other families that owned most of the land. With the right energy, vision, and money, he designed the first resort community master plan. Sea Pines Plantation – the first family resort at Hilton Head Island. It became the prototype of the modern-day resort community that was copied across the globe.

If you liked this page on History of Hilton Head Island, be sure to check out our other pages like Hilton Head Arts and Culture.

Charles Sampson of Charter One Realty: 843-384-7300

Hilton Head Real Estate