Hilton Head Island Real Estate
 Real Estate

Hilton Head Island History


Find out more about Hilton Head Island Living

The name Hilton Head comes from English explorer Sir William Hilton, who first marked the island on nautical charts in 1663 as he sailed along the Atlantic Coast. Impressed by the naturally protected expanse of today's Port Royal Sound, he listed the island's prominent tall pine trees as a sailors' reckoning point, or "head", and it has been called that ever since. Discovery of the island preceded Hilton by thousands of years, however, as Indian tribes used the area for hunting and gathering as far back as the Archaic period in 8000 B.C., and an ancient 150-foot shell ring still exists in Sea Pines Plantation Forest Preserve. Also known as a midden, the shell ring is a distinctive mark of nomadic tribes, who would build temporary huts around which rings of debris would arise from discarded shellfish, animal bones and broken pottery. Still clearly visible, the ring is only one of twenty known to exist today, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Hilton Head's natural abundance would also attract later French and Spanish explorers during the 16th century, and brief settlements were made on nearby St. Helena and Parris islands in the 1560's by adventurers Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon and Jean Ribault. They valued Hilton Head's ample fresh-water springs, noting its location on maps with the descriptions "agua dulce" and "l'eau douce", meaning sweet water. Neither the Spanish nor the French colonies would survive Indians and starvation, but the traditional island water still makes its mark on current maps, as lovely Spanish Wells is home to modern-day inhabitants on Hilton Head's western shore.

Throughout the colonial period, the island was coveted by warring European nations as well as local pirates who lurked in marshes and creeks near today's Pinckney Island Wildlife Refuge, where Hilton Head Plantation's Skull Creek is a lasting reminder of their terrifying flag. Indian attacks were a constant threat to permanent settlement until after the 1715 Yemassee War, when Indian-fighter "Tuscarora Jack" Barnwell was rewarded for his leadership with a grant of 1,000 acres to established the first permanent residence on Hilton Head.

As pirate, Indian, French an Spanish threats diminished by the mid-1700's, the island was increasingly cleared and cultivated for plantations. The first successful crop was a plant called indigo, which was converted to a bluish dye by soaking leaves in vats of water and crushed oyster shell, ingredients easily accessible in the plentiful marsh beds of Broad Creek that bisects Hilton Head island and borders Indigo Run today. Another plentiful raw material was timber, and by the late 18th century, the sturdy live oaks of Hilton Head had helped make coastal South Carolina one of the largest shipbuilding areas in America, a classic island industry that Shipyard Plantatoin conjures subtle memories today.

With the coming of American independence, times changed to include larger, more lucrative crops of cotton, which thrived in the island's rich soil and sunny climate. To work Hilton Head cotton plantations, thousands of slaves were shipped in from Africa, bringing with them the distinctive Gullah language and traditions that are unique to this sea island area today. Baskets of "sweetgrass" and cast-nets for fish and shrimp are still hand-woven by slave descendants, who also added a special flavor to island home cooking with the likes of okra gumbo, she-crab soup, and hoppin' john. For many years before Hilton Head's first mainland bridge was built in 1956, generations of these poor island residents would fill homemade, shallow-draft bateaux with harvested crops and shellfish for a 25-mile sailing and rowing journey to Savannah's market dock, filing down Broad Creek where sleek pleasure craft exit the modern lock system at Wexford Plantation today.

The Civil War would end the plantation system and drastically change Hilton Head's fortunes. The island's strategic location and sheltered sounds became central to the Union's plan to blockade Southern ports, and in December, 1861, the largest naval battle ever fought in America took place off beaches of Port Royal Plantation, as a fifty-ship Union flotilla blasted its way to victory. Confederate cannoneers made a gallant defense behind a fortification built from palmetto logs and sand called Fort Walker, whose ruins still stand. With overwhelming firepower and numbers, the invading forces easily captured Hilton Head, establishing military headquarters, troop encampments and training grounds, and a pier for warships.

The island's prominent position along the coast would guarantee a Federal presence for many years after the war. In what is now Palmetto Dunes Plantation, the Coast Guard built a light house at Leamington Point in the 1870's, and added a Marine Corps developed a training camp that featured huge anti-aircraft and naval guns at nearby Camp McDougal during World War II. Even the Fort Walker location was reactivated during the Spanish-American War, as guns were briefly installed for fear of invasion.

Unfortunately, the biggest attack suffered by Hilton Head since the Civil War came from the great hurricane of 1893 and the boll weevil infestation few years later, effectively ending the cotton era. Over the next fifty years, the island population would decrease from several thousand to less than 300, mostly descendants of slaves. Without a bridge to the mainland, there was little economic opportunity on Hilton Head at the end of the 19th century, and island fields were converted to smaller subsistence crops of tomatoes, potatoes, watermelon, sugar cane, butterbeans and corn. The surrounding waters were also a source of income, as island residents gathered oysters by hand from area mudflats and, in the 1890's, an oyster canning factory was established on Jenkins Island near today's Windmill Harbor.

With ample varieties of waterfowl, wild turkeys, raccoons and deer, much of Hilton Head was sold to absentee owners for hunting preserves, and as late as 1930, hunting barons were paying $6 an acre for land that, some seventy years later, Pete Dye would sculpt into a world-class championship golf course at Long Cove Club.

From old island cotton fields, massive pines brought timber interests in the 1940's, and three newly-constructed mills required the first electric power to be brought to the island, and the opening of the first car ferry to Bluffton. New access brought the first tourists to Hilton Head during the 1950's, and in 1955, the island's first motel was opened at Forest Beach. In 1956, a bridge was built connecting the island to the mainland, and the same year, Charles Fraser bought out timber interests and began developing Sea Pines Plantation. Fraser recognized Hilton Head's potential as a natural recreational paradise to draw homeowners, investors and vacationers, and over the next five years, planned and built the first marina, inn and golf course on the island.

As Hilton Head development grew, so did its reputation as as luxury oceanfront community and golf resort, and in 1967, the island's airport was opened near today's Palmetto Hall, as the first plane to land belonged to Arnold Palmer. In 1969, the full-time island population was 2,500, but that same year, the Heritage Golf Classic was played for the first time at the Harbour Town Links in Sea Pines, ushering in an era of tourism and developmental growth that would increase the local population and tourism exponentially.

Today, Hilton Head is an incorporated town of more than 39,000, with more than two million vacationers visiting annually. Graced with twelve superbly-developed communities, more than 20 championship golf courses, as well as world-class beach resort hotels, tennis and marina facilities, Hilton Head is at the cutting edge of upscale modern living without losing its natural character.

Diligent environmental stewardship programs protect vulnerable species and natural areas, well-conceived zoning, utility and construction planning gives inhabited areas of the island a more pleasing aesthetic perspective, and with its canopy of towering trees set against pristine blue water and white sandy beaches, William Hilton himself would recognize this stunning spectacle as Hilton Head.


 

 

Hilton Head Island Communities and homes


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Sea Pines Plantation Wexford Plantation Palmetto Dunes
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Long Cove Club Port Royal Plantation Forest Beach
Hilton Head Plantation Spanish Wells Windmill Harbour
Indigo Run Palmetto Hall Shipyard
  

Bluffton Communities and homes


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Conviently located on the mainland off Hilton Head Island is Bluffton, South Carolina. Bluffton is one of the fastest growing communities in South Carolina.
Colleton River Belfair Berkeley Hall Bluffton Map
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Rose Hill Hampton Hall Old Field
Hampton Lakes Eagle's Point Moss Creek
Shell Hall Sun City The Crescent
Westbury Park

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Lottie Woodward • 11 Park Ln, Hilton Head Island, SC 29928 • 843.785.4460 | toll free 800-831-0359
Cell Phone: Lottie Woodward 843-384-4488

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Hilton Head Island subdivisions