Hilton Head Island

History of Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island is famous for its twelve-mile stretch of glistening sands. However, a visit here is much more than a day at the beach. There’s golf – perhaps more quality courses and programs than anywhere else on earth, including, of course, the RBC Heritage of Golf, one of the top events on the PGA Tour. And don’t forget tennis.

Then, too, there’s fishing, biking, boating, outlet shopping, rollerblading, horseback riding, nature watching, and a wealth of cultural and artistic activities to explore, and all that beach to enjoy.

History and nature are inextricably mixed on Hilton Head Island. The first islanders were Indians who lived here as early as 4000 B.C., supported by the rich bounty of earth and sea. In 1663, the fertile land of the New World drew English sea captain William Hilton to explore the Island on behalf of a syndicate of Barbadian planters. His report was enthusiastic, and in honor of his pioneering explorations, the Island was christened Hilton’s Head – a reference to the headlands that marked the way into Port Royal Sound. However, it was not until the threat of the Spaniards to the south and the Indians to the west was quelled in the closing years of the 17th century, that English colonists would settle permanently in the area.

altAs the 18th century dawned, the Island prospered with large indigo and, later, rice plantations. But it was sea island cotton – first successfully cultivated in the 1780s – that made the planters wealthy beyond their dreams. By the mid-1800s, at the height of the plantation era, more than a dozen large land-owning families divided the Island’s riches among themselves.

The onset of the Civil War brought an abrupt end to the cotton dynasties. The fine homes and fertile fields of the planters were destroyed by occupying Union troops after what would prove to be the largest naval engagement of the entire war: the Battle of Port Royal. A freedman’s village, Mitchelville, sprang up briefly, but its life was short, and when the Union troops left, the Island returned to a long period of bucolic quiet, with those who remained making a modest living farming, fishing and oystering.

Highly developed, yet in harmony with nature, Hilton Head has no billboards, neon signs, roller coasters or skyscrapers. In fact, no building can be higher than the trees. Signage ordinances keep signs low key and unobtrusive. Only 40,000 permanent residents live on the island, along with wildlife such as deer, osprey, pelicans, alligators, herons, and near-shore dolphins.

Be sure to visit the Coastal Discovery Museum located at 70 Honey Horn Drive. The museum features historical and ecological exhibits of Hilton Head Island’s colorful history and lush natural beauty and varied wildlife. Museum staff can tell you about upcoming environmental lectures and beach walks. Browse through the gift shop and make reservations for one of the historic or environmental tours hosted by the Museum.

The Arts Center of Coastal Carolina sponsors many ongoing activities and events. For information or a calendar of events, call the Center at 842-ARTS. The Coastal Discovery Museum sponsors nature walks, lectures and classes. For information call 689-6767.

The Hilton Head Art League sponsors ongoing exhibitions, lectures and workshops. For information call 843-681-5060.

Enjoy your visit to Hilton Head Island, an internationally known playground and family vacation spot.

Hilton Head Area

Click on the name of the attraction for more information.

Audubon Newhall Preserve
Palmetto Bay Road, (843) 842-9246
Audubon Newhall Preserve is a beautiful inland park on Hilton Head Island. It has a number of nice hiking trails winding their way through the woods. There are benches placed along the path. The center of the trail contains a scenic pond and wetland and boardwalk. In this 50-acre preserve, many native plants & many birds have been identified. Dogs are welcome on these trails.  According to the trail guide, “The Audubon Newhall Preserve was established in 1965 as the Island Wildlife Preserve, when Caroline “Beany” Newhall, (recognizing the need to conserve woodlands,) persuaded Charles Fraser of the Sea Pines Company to deed 50 acres of land for the preserve.”

Coastal Discovery Museum At Honey Horn
70 Honey Horn Dr. (843)689-6767
Honey Horn consists of 68 acres of breathtaking natural beauty and a dozen historic structures scattered throughout the property. Guided Walks and Terrace Talks teach of the varied nature and rich history of the area. An art gallery and interactive exhibits are found in the main structure.
Read our Coastal Discovery Blog.

Harbour Town Lighthouse
This beautiful marina is located at the end of Lighthouse Road in Sea Pines Plantation.  See the Harbour Town Lighthouse, Harbour Town Yacht Basin and many charming boutiques and restaurants. Admission fee to Sea Pines.

Heritage Library Genealogy & History Center
2 Corpus Christi, Suite 100, (843)686-6560
The Heritage Library offers research assistance on ancestry, along with classes and tours focused on Hilton Head Island’s history from prehistory to the modern era. The Heritage Library owns two historic sites, Ft. Mitchel and the Historic Zion Cemetery & Baynard Mausoleum.

Mitchelville Freedom Park
226 Beach City Road, (843) 255-7301
Visit Hilton Head’s historic Mitchelville freedom Park. This is the site of the first settlement for former slaves. This park is very important in the history of freedom towns that were established during the Reconstruction era. Tour the park at your own pace or join a tour group.

Old Zion Cemetery
574 Wm. Hilton Pkwy,
Grave sites of families of prominent Lowcountry Sea Island cotton plantations, most pre-dating 1860. Site of the Zion Chapel of Ease, part of the Angelican St. Luke’s Parish, established 1767.

Sea Pines Forest Preserve
The Sea Pines Forest Preserve is a 605 acre protected area for wildlife habitat and outdoor exploration in the heart of Sea Pines. The preserve includes bridle paths, wetland boardwalks, bridges and fishing docks. (843)671-7170, (800)732-7463