Hilton Head Island History

Welcome to the Lowcountry!

You could explore the world over and not find a more inviting area to call home than the Carolina Lowcountry. Our pleasant subtropical climate complements the breathtaking natural environment, offering a unique blend of coastal relaxation and Southern charm. And now, more than ever, people are relocating in droves, staking their claim to this elegant paradise.

While the Lowcountry has a history dating from colonial times, its latest incarnation as the destination for vacationers and those simply seeking a higher quality of life began in the mid 1950's when Hilton Head's glittering future was just a shimmering dream in the imagination of the visionary developers Charles & Joe Fraser. It was then that the development of Hilton Head Island began in earnest, and it wasn't long before the neighboring town of Bluffton began its metamorphosis from sleepy 18th century village to its present-day suburban boomtown.

Spend a day on Hilton Head Island, lounging on the beach, working on your golf or tennis game, perhaps taking in a world-class performance in the evening. Whatever you desire, you can find it here in the Lowcountry.

A Brief History of Hilton Head Island-from Ancient Tribal Village to Modern Community

Hilton Head Island is inseparable today from its miles of beaches, challenging golf and tennis, and vacations that will forever be incomparable. Its present-day appeal is rooted in history, however. Woodland Indians first settled on Hilton Head Island some 4,000 years ago. These Woodlands tribes were drawn here not only by its beauty but by an abundance of fish, game & land. The great bounty of shellfish, deer and wild boar provided everything these Native Americans needed to survive. One can still find the shell rings that marked their territories.

For over a century, starting in 1520, Spanish conquistadors stopped along the island's shores to replenish their stocks of food and supplies. "Spanish Wells" is but an echo of the early days of the New World explorations. Later, Huguenots settled in the area, imparting French influences and Gallic names which still populate local telephone directories.

The island takes its contemporary name from English naval captain William Hilton, who scouted it in 1663. His glowing reports so impressed the English crown that mapmakers have forever linked his name with the land he surveyed. Later English settlers established plantations which cultivated rice, sugarcane and indigo, and the island moved into a period of prosperity that came to its end with the American War of Independence. During this revolutionary era, conflicts flared between Hilton Head Island's Patriots and the British Royalists who populated neighboring Daufuskie Island. Skirmishes among the groups resulted in the destruction of several island plantations by British troops.

The introduction of Sea Island cotton spurred the economic recovery of the islands as the War for Independence ended and European demand for this crop grew. Plantation owners, relying on slave labor to cultivate and harvest this remarkable fiber, eventually found themselves at moral odds with their brethren over the issue of human bondage. This growing divide triggered conflicts that set off a war which would once again turn the island into a battlefield.

The Union Navy soon captured the island in an engagement which still stands as the largest naval assault on the shores of the continental United States, the Battle of Port Royal. At its conclusion, Union forces claimed the island and it became an encampment for Union soldiers and sailors as well as freed slaves.xxxUpon the surrender of Confederate forces, ownership of the sea islands from the Carolinas to Florida was granted to freed slaves. For decades afterward, freedmen families on the island lived in near isolation from the rest of the world. Their West African traditions became the basis for the Gullah culture, which survives today.

Inevitably, the island's rich resources would again draw the attention of wealthy Northerners who'd come occasionally to enjoy wild game hunts. Speculators were able to purchase large tracts for hunting preserves, and eventually their interests turned to more lucrative purposes for their holdings. Tracts of virgin pine were offered to a lumber business in southeast Georgia, and when the lumber company sent representatives to survey the island's potential, a new era was about to begin. The lumber company was owned by General Joseph B. Fraser.

The astounding value of the timber pines growing on the south end of Hilton Head Island convinced General Fraser and Fred Hack, another Hinesville Georgia businessman, to form the Hilton Head Company, which subsequently purchased the property from its owners Loomis and Thorne. Over the next couple of years Fraser crews, led by the General's son Joseph B Fraser, Jr., worked with portable sawmills to harvest the tall straight pines. As the Korean War escalated, General Fraser was called back to active duty and a creosote plant came to the island to cut the remaining trees. The land was nearly sold at that stage to a paper company, but the transaction was aborted when the General's younger son proposed a different use for the property.

Charles E. Fraser was a young law student at Yale University when he was inspired to develop deed covenants under a "master plan" concept. This unique idea he envisioned could only be successful if a developer controlled every aspect of planning within a community, from the layout of its streets to the design of each building. Charles persuaded his father that the Hilton Head Company land should become a radically new sort of resort. This was the genesis of Sea Pines.