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Early History



The Early Decades


Francisco Cordillo, for whom a prominent road is now named, led a Spanish expedition to become the first Europeans to encounter local inhabitants.

That was in 1521.


More than a century passed, and in 1663 Capt. William Hilton sailed from Barbados to explore the area, which had been granted by King Charles II to eight Lord Proprietors, and the area was appropriately named.


In the next century, Beaufort was founded in 1711 and by the 1760s shipbuilding had taken hold of the local economy driven largely by the availability of suitable hardwoods, the live oaks.


Suitability for profitable agriculture emerged, and by late in the century, about 1790, the first long-staple Sea Island cotton was grown on the Myrtle Bank Plantation by William Elliott II.


The Civil War Years


By the outbreak of the Civil War, 1860, 20 working plantations had been established on Hilton Head Island, which was populated by slaves and overseers. Plantation owners did not live on the island.


By 1862, Hilton Head was referred to as Port Royal in recognition of the British encampment on the island. By 1868 large-scale military occupation of the island had ended, and once again the area was referred to as Hilton Head Island


Nearly a century later, the 1940s, the island's populated had dwindled to about 1,100 and was comprised of freedmen, who fished and took their catch to market in Savannah.


After World War II, a group from Hinesville, GA, perceived the island's commercial timber potential and purchased 20,000 acres at the southern tip of the island for $60 an acre. Among them was Joseph B. Frazier, whose heirs would be responsible for the first commercial residential development, Sea Pines Plantation.


The Awakening


In 1950, the population was little more than 300, but in 1953 the state began operating a car ferry and in 1954 Hilton Head Elementary School was opened, and in 1955 the Sea Crest Motel was opened in the Forest Beach area.


In 1956 a "supermarket" and the Chamber of Commerce were opened; a toll bridge was opened; and Charles Frazier bought the logging acreage from his father, Joseph, for what would become Sea Pines Plantation.


That same year, Frazier sold his initial beach-front lots for $5,350. Six years later, the same lots were selling for $9,600. Today, if available, they are priced in the millions.


In 1959, the island's first golf course, the Ocean Course, designed by George Cobb, was built in Sea Pines Plantation.


The McIntosh family subdivided 360 acres of The Hilton Head Company in 1960 and started Spanish Wells.


The next year, Fred Hack began development of Port Royal Plantation.


Then came the medical center and the first mall, and in 1967 Sea Pines Plantation installed the island's first gates.


Harbour Town village was completed in 1969, and the island's full-time population had risen to 2,500.


Shipyard Plantation began in 1970 and Hilton Head Plantation on the island's north end in 1971.


By 1975, the resident population had climbed to 6,500, with 250,000 annual visitors.


The much-dated two-lane swing bridge onto the island was replaced in 1982, the same year that Wexford Plantation and Long Cove Club were begun.


The actual Town of Hilton Head Island was incorporated in 1983.


And Today...


Upscale golf and resort attire of plaid shorts, khakis and polo shirts for men and Lilly Pulitzer's bold print dresses and bright shorts were the uniforms  often seen emerging from BMWs and Mercedes.  Today's more casual style has taken over and the Polo's and Pulitzer's are often replaced by denim -- though some places, like the Sea Pines Country Club, do not allow denim in the dining room.


Collectively, these traits characterize a lifestyle that is casual and refined, and a demographic where the median age is 46.


During the Spring Break and summer months, the island's gentile politeness gives way to a higher volume-level that is often centered around Coligny and the Forest Beaches.


Keeping Busy


Dining is often a major daily event with couple hundred choices — and price ranges — from which to choose. Some of the best seafood is served at simple “local” establishments snuggled unassumingly on sandy back street.


While the island has more than two dozen golf courses [including 20 open to the public], tennis comes in as a strong second in popularity followed by power boating, fishing and kayaking.


Seemingly, almost everyone bicycles, using the abundant and well-maintained paths, which simultaneously accommodate foot traffic.


Other activities include visiting the more-than-four-dozen galleries and shops, an island culture museum, a performance center, a symphony orchestra, an international piano competition, as well as day trips to Charleston, Savannah and tours of real Southern "Plantations" of the Carolina Low Country.


This "high points" chronology was developed from information provided by the Town of Hilton Head Island. You can read the full blow-by-blow history here.

Daufuskie Island Historical Foundation Arts Center of Coastal Carolina RBC Heritage golf classic at Sea Pines Resort Hilton Head Symphony Orchestra Coastal Discovery Museum at Honey Horn
King Tide Guide, when and how much to expecgt

About the Low Country

The Low Country is defined by water — ocean, meandering rivers, tidal creeks and ever-present marshes — that trim the coast of South Carolina and Georgia. This is a land that barely rises above sea level, and provided part of the foundation for lucrative early American rice and cotton plantations.


From the earliest days, the area was a major agricultural power, producing nearly 50 million pounds of rice a year.


Records indicate that South Carolina rice planters were richer and more powerful than other plantation owners, who grew tobacco, sugar and cotton. Accordingly, South Carolina was the second wealthiest state in the country, following only the mill-based economy of Massachusetts.


Evolution of the Low Country culture


The coastal Low Country of South Carolina and Georgia emerges from the plantation heritage of African slaves, who were know as the Gullah and the Geechee. While there is uncertainty about the origin of the names themselves, they do signify cultural differences.


Gullah traditionally lived among creeks, rivers, marshes, and barrier islands of coastal South Carolina. Geechee lived along the coasts North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and north Florida. Those living on the mainland referred to themselves as Freshwater Geechee; and those living on the Sea Islands considered themselves Saltwater Geechee.


Both groups, however, used a Creole language and developed distinct cultures that were strongly influenced by their African ancestries.


They maintained their West African traditions in their language, arts, crafts, religious beliefs, folklore, rituals and food.


The Gullahs' home islands were accessible only by boat until the 1950s, when recreational development, job opportunities, and population moved them away from their traditional farming, fishing, hunting and small-scale marketing of subsistence products such as woven baskets.


Dislocation Begins


Even before commercial encroachment, the US military affected their lives. The Marine Training Center on Parris Island near Beaufort caused massive changes. Other government projects in coastal Georgia had similar dislocating influences.


However, the most expansive impact on Low Country communities came in the form of “the great transformation,” which began with recognition by developers that these vast areas of Palmetto scrub and pine forests had recreational potential.


As early as the mid-1950s, Charles Frazier initiated a strategy of converting isolated south end of Hilton Head Island from a logging forest into a luxury resort, which he named Sea Pines Plantation (later changed to Sea Pines Resort).


The successful realization of such a vision was enabled, at least in part, by the advent of air conditioning for residential and commercial use and completion of the interstate highway system. I-95 not only funneled travelers between New York and Miami, it also exposed them to the pristine, hot, humid Low Country.


Breading Success


The eventual efficacy of Frazier’s commercialization plan paved the way for scores of other developers’ projects along the full length of the South Carolina and Georgia coasts.


While the Gullah owned only about one-fifth of the property on Hilton Head — and more on Daufuskie Island — logging interests owned the majority. These absentee landlords, who once thought their land had little value, were eager to sell to developers and thus transformation of the Low Country was hastened.


Further stimulated by publicity and popular fiction — such as novels set in the area and written by Pat Conroy — the region’s appeal grew broadly, and gentrification expanded. (Conroy called isolated Daufuskie Island Yamacraw in his 1972 novel The Water is Wide.)


The impact of high-end recreational and retirement developments has had predictable results. Property values and taxes soared, the indigenous poor — black and white alike — were economically forced out of their homes and off their lands even as they found work among the newly-developed recreational “plantations.”


The out-migration is believed to have peaked in the 1960s, and now some Gullah children are returning to the area seeking to reconnect with their heritage.


(Special “Thanks” to the US National Park Service, whose research provided the basis for this report.)

Real Plantations

Ashley River Plantations


The three Ashley River Plantations of Drayton Hall, Magnolia Plantation and Middleton Place north of Charleston "provide a composite picture of grandeur the Ashley River barons lavished upon themselves," wrote Hank Leifermann in his guide South Carolina.


Drayton Hall [left] is a Palladian style home [right] built between 1738 and 1742 by Dr. John Drayton, a wealthy rice and indigo planter. John was the son of Thomas Drayton, who built Magnolia Plantation and Gardens.


About 10 miles from downtown Charleston, Drayton Hall is listed on both the National Register of Historic Places and as a National Historic Landmark.


Magnolia Plantation and Gardens, the first of the Drayton family homes in the area, was destroyed during the Civil War; however, the 50-acre lawn remains and is a spatula display of over 200 species of azaleas and 900 camellias.


The gardens were first planted in the 1840s, and have been open to the public since the 1870s. Drayton and Magnolia Garden hosted John J. Audubon, and today the adjoining blackwater swamp is the site of the 60-acre Audubon Swamp Garden.


Middleton Place is the nation's oldest landscape garden, and was established by Henry Middleton in 1740. The plantation house was burned during the Civil War. The guest wing, built in 1755, however, remains and is open for public tour.


The primary feature of Middleton place are its butterfly ponds and gardens, which provide year-round color with azaleas, camellias, kalmias, magnolias, crepe myrtle and roses.


Pea hens, cows and sheep graze the front lawn, and out buildings house yarn spinning and black switching. An excellent restaurant also is operated on the estate.


Cooper River Plantations


Dean Hall was settled by the Scottish Nesbetts of Dean, and was sold to William Carson in 1821.


In 1909, Dean Hall was sold to Benjamin Kittridge, who began raising azaleas and camellias in and near the cypress and tupelo swamps on the grounds. Today, the property is known as Cypress Gardens.



Hobcaw Barony


Waccamaw Neck lies between the Waccamaw River and the Atlantic Ocean and is the site of a number of rice and indigo plantations that developed as the result of a grant from King George II, the largest having been assigned to Lord Carteret.


Carteret was uninterested in plantation life, and during the 1800s his barony was divided and sold into 10 individual plantations. However, in 1905 the legendary financier Bernard Baruch, a native of Camden SC, reassembled the tract in a single 17,500-acre estate, which named Hobcaw Barony. Hobcaw is an Indian word meaning "between the waters."


Baruch initially hunted the property from a simple cabin, but built a mansion in 1931. His daughter, Belle, built her own mansion on the property in 1936.


Today Barony is jointly administered by the Belle W. Baruch Foundation (which owns the property), Clemson University and the University of South Carolina.


Brookgreen Gardens


Archer and Anna Hyatt Huntington purchased 6,600 acres and founded Brookgreen Gardens in 1931 to preserve the area's flora and fauna, and to display objects of art within that natural setting.


Today, Brookgreen Gardens is a National Historic Landmark with "the most significant collection of figurative sculpture in an outdoor setting by American artists in the world." The Gardens also include the only zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums on the coast of the Carolinas.


The gardens display 800 works of art among 2,000 plant species, art deco ponds and marshes along the Waccamaw River.


Bullbat Time


Some traditions float through time and are simply accepted, never reduced to paper. They just are.


Bullbat Time is one of those; it is hardly documented.


Yet Bullbat Time is a ritual that had its roots centuries ago among owners of cotton and indigo plantations that formed the economic foundation for the Low Country Carolinas.


Now, a different patrician class is responsible for maintaining the tradition. They are the lawyers, doctors, judges, merchants and merchant farmers who live in the coastal corner of South Carolina, an area called the Pee Dee for the Indian tribe.


Regardless of era, the daily onset of Bullbat Time is always signaled by the arrival of nighthawks— also called bullbats, which actually are more whippoorwills than hawks. At dusk, these birds swoop about to snatch their aerial insect dinners, thus the heralding of Bullbat Time.


On the ground, the human gentry recognize the nighthawks’ daily ritual with their own — the pouring of whiskey over ice, mint leaves and a bit of simple syrup -- and preferably into a silver Julep cup.


A traditionally suitable accompaniment for such beverages would include benne seed wafers, bowls of pimento cheese, paper-thin slices of salt-cured ham, and quarter-size beaten biscuits.


Bullbat Time beverages are imbibed from a “cup,” regardless of the actual nature of that container. It may, in fact, be a mere jelly glass, but by tradition it is a “cup.” And it is not a cup with a handle, but a Revere Cup.


All of which gives more meaning to such phrases as, "Would you care for a bit more in your cup, ma'am?”





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