The native Indians were living here seasonally as early as 4000 BC. Evidence of early settlement remains today in the form of a 3400 year old "Indian shell ring" in Hilton Head Island's Sea Pines Forest Preserve.
Written history began 500 years ago with the discovery of the area by Spanish Captain Pedro de Salaza in 1514. Thus, Beaufort County was the site of the second landing on the North American continent by Europeans, in 1514. The first landing --Ponce de Leon at St. Augustine-- was only a year earlier.
The seaport of Beaufort is located at the head of one of the largest natural harbors on the Atlantic coast, which explains the early interest of the Spanish and French explorers that followed . When they sailed up the sound in the 1520's, they found a land inhabited by many small tribes of Native Americans, the largest of which were the Cherokees and the Catawbas.
French explorers visited this area long before the English arrived. In 1562, Captain Jean Ribaut and his Frenchmen entered the sound which he named Port Royal. They settled near the present town of Port Royal. As they were Huguenots, this was the first Protestant settlement in the United States.
When Ribaut returned to France for reinforcements the soldiers who were left behind revolted, built themselves a ship, and sailed for France the next year. This was the first ship built in America to cross the Atlantic Ocean.
After the French fled, Spaniards from Florida built Fort San Felipe on Parris Island in 1566 and made the new settlement there, known as Santa Elena, the capital of La Florida Province. In 1576, under attack from Native Americans, Santa Elena was abandoned, but the fort was rebuilt the next year. Archeologists have positively determined the location to be on the Parris Island golf course.
In 1587, England's Elizabeth I sent Sir Francis Drake to drive the Spanish from "La Florida". The Spanish decided to concentrate their forces in St. Augustine, and withdrew from Santa Elena.
South Carolina was again left to the Native Americans. But, English development plans formally began on March 24, 1663, when King Charles II granted the Coastal Area to 8 Lord Proprietors. They named their territory "Carolina" in honor of King Charles I.
Hilton Head Island is named for the English sea captain William Hilton who was hired by a syndicate of Barbadian planters. He sighted the high bluffs of the island in August of 1663, while exploring the Port Royal Sound, and named it for himself, "Hilton Head," referring to the headlands visible as they sailed the uncharted waters. Within a few years, the English had established the first permanent European settlement of South Carolina at Albemarle Point, near present-day Charleston, on the Ashley River in 1670. The proprietors' first settlers included many Barbadians, and South Carolina came to resemble more closely the plantation economy of the West Indies than did the other mainland colonies.
The Scots arrived in the area in 1686. The first trade was with the Indians for deer skins, a valuable commodity back in England, but indigo became the first cash crop. The climate and soil on the Sea Islands were favorable for its growth, and England was a great market for indigo.
Carolina was divided in 1710 into South Carolina and North Carolina
Indian attacks, sponsored by the Spanish, continued to harrass the settlers in the area. The Yemassee Indians were particularly fierce. Settlement of Savannah and the colony of Georgia was encouraged so as to set up a buffer from the Indians --in particular the area around Beaufort where indigo was thriving. Indians last significantly threatened the colony's existence in the Yemassee War of 1715.
Settlers from the British Isles, France, and other parts of Europe built plantations throughout the coastal Lowcountry. Beaufort, the second oldest town in South Carolina, was founded in 1711. Both Beaufort County and its county seat of Beaufort were named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort (1684-1714), one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina.
African slaves were brought into the colony in large numbers to provide labor for the plantations, and by 1720 they formed the majority of the population. The ports of Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort became important centers of commerce and culture. In the years before the Civil War, rice, indigo, and sea island cotton plantations brought great wealth to the entire Lowcountry region.
Parris Island, (Santa Elena) was bought in 1715 by Alexander Parris, Public Treasurer of South Carolina.
In 1717, For acts of bravery in quelling the rioting Yemassee Indians, Col. John Barnwell was granted a thousand acres on the NW corner of Hilton Head Island by the Lord Proprietors. He became the first white settler. By 1766, approximately 25 families lived on Hilton Head Island.
Beaufort County was formed in 1769 from the parishes of Prince William, St. Luke, St. Helena, and St. Peter.
Thomas Hayward, Jr., a local rice plantation owner, signed the Declaration of Independence.
As talk of Revolution escalated in the Colonies, Hilton Head Island sided with the Colonists. Daufuskie Island, just 1 mile south, was occupied by the Tories and was a British stronghold. During the Revolution, the British frequently raided Hilton Head Island and burned plantations and captured slaves who were later sold in the West Indies. The raids continued even after Cornwallis surrendered.
South Carolina lost more men, and gave more money to the Revolutionary cause than any other Colony. More Revolutionary War battles and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina than any other colony.
England had provided the market for indigo, this vanished after the Revolution. The settlers turned to cotton. In 1790, Hilton Head Island was the first island to grow cotton. Sea island cotton became the finest cotton available in the world.
Many of the sea island plantation owners built their summer homes on the banks of the Beaufort River to catch the cool prevailing breezes. Beaufort was referred to as the "Newport of the South." The majority of the houses on the out-lying plantations, though large, were not pillared mansions.
During the War of 1812 the British again invaded Hilton Head Island and burned most of the houses located near navigable waters.
As the Civil War (expanded section) approached, Beaufort County was a focal point of secessionist sentiment, and the original Ordinance of Secession was drawn up in Beaufort.
Only seven months after the firing on Fort Sumter, a massive Federal armada steamed into Port Royal Sound and occupied the sea islands and port communities for the rest of the war. Because of this, much of Beaufort escaped the destruction of property --but the economy collapsed.
Besides freedom for the plantation slaves, the Civil War in Beaufort provided an opportunity for their Gullah culture to flourish and saw the establishment of Penn Center, then Penn Normal School, the first school for freed slaves in the South.
In 1878, a large portion of Beaufort County was removed to form Hampton County.
By 1890, Northerners again came, this time to hunt and fish the abundant game. Thousands of acres were sold to private hunt clubs for the wealthy. Hunt lands continued to expand. In 1931, remaining lands owned by the federal government were acquired as well. Access to the islands was by water only.
In 1891 a small detachment of Marines were sent to the area. The United States Marine Corps began training recruits at Parris Island in 1915. Nearly 20,000 Marines now graduate here each year.
During WW2, the Leamington Lighthouse on Hilton Head was the site of Camp McDougal. Gun emplacements along the Atlantic are still visible south as the sands shift with the tides.
Like many of the South's coastal regions, Beaufort's non-military economy in the first half of the 20th century depended upon agriculture, lumbering, and commercial fishing. Electricity and telephones were late coming to the remote regions, many small communites were not supplied until 1960. However, 1950 marks the beginning of modern development of Hilton Head, and the gradual transition of the coastal areas to resort, golf, and residential communities.
In the early '50s, Georgia investors purchased of 19,000 of Hilton Head Island's 25,000 acres. While lumbering occurred over much of the island, the southern tip became Sea Pines Plantation. Begun in 1956, Sea Pines is the site of Harbour Town and its landmark hexagonal lighthouse, world-class harbor and chic boutiques.
Dirt roads gave way to paved ones. Beautiful bridges replaced ferry boats accessing the sea islands. Residential communities were developed, often around original plantation boundaries.
Rapid growth of Hilton Head Island began in 1970. In 1983, the Town of Hilton Head was incorporated.