A Little Bit of Hilton Head History

Everything seems new in Hilton Head, but there's history on this island

Something that strikes us when we’re on Hilton Head Island—aside from the natural beauty of the place—is the relative newness of what has been built there. This becomes even more evident when the island is compared with the Historic Downtown of Savannah some 35 miles to the southwest, an area where much of what you see dates from the 1800s and early 1900s.

In contrast, most of the structures on Hilton Head are less than 60 years old, a result of two momentous events in the island’s history that occurred in the mid-1950s. One was the opening of a set of two bridges connecting the 42-square-mile sea island with the South Carolina mainland. The other was the start of the Sea Pines residential/resort community by a southeast Georgian named Charles Fraser.

“The opening of the bridge had a major impact on development,” states Porter M. Thompson in the book, Hilton Head Island Images. “Suddenly building materials, equipment and people were able to come and go freely—Hilton Head had lost its isolation and a new era had begun.”

Sea Pines, in its basic form a residential area built around a golf course, set the tone for the other planned communities that would be created on Hilton Head and spurred the development of the island as a mecca for retirees and vacationers. Back in the early 1950s, Hilton Head was home to about 100 families, “little more than a quiet community of farmers and shrimpers,” as author Richard Rutt put it in Hilton Head Island: A Perspective. Now the island—with its natural assets of marshes, wide creeks, hardwood forests, and 12 miles of beach—is the site of 11 planned communities harboring a multitude of stylish homes and upscale condominiums known locally as villas. Hilton Head boasts 25 beautifully manicured golf courses, almost 400 tennis courts, 10 marinas, 4 large hotels, a bevy of villa-style resorts and midsize hotels and motels, more than 250 restaurants, and 36 shopping areas with more than 200 shops. Permanent residents now number approximately 33,000, many of them engaged in satisfying the needs of visitors, of whom there are 2.5 million annually, according to the island’s chamber of commerce.

All this growth has occurred in a manner that places an emphasis on preserving Hilton Head’s natural surroundings: live oaks, magnolias, pines, palmettos, and other flora. Following ideas originally credited to Fraser, most islanders continue to adhere to the concept that buildings must blend in with the environment and that development be as unobtrusive as possible.

Although Hilton Head’s modern era begins in the 1950s, the island’s recorded history goes back considerably further—to the 1500s, when Spaniards and Frenchmen visited while exploring the area bordering Port Royal Sound, the large bay on Hilton Head’s north shore that’s one of the world’s finest natural harbors. The Spanish and French fought over the sound for almost 50 years, with the Spaniards triumphing but never settling the area. That was left to the British, who in 1717 were responsible for the island’s first English-speaking settler, John Barnwell.

Englishmen had been in the area well before that, however. In 1663 sea captain William Hilton sailed into the sound and came upon the island. He spotted a headland on the northeastern end and named it after himself. As time went on, the entire island came to be called by the name of this promontory, Hilton Head.

The settlers who came to Hilton Head in the 1700s eventually planted the land in cotton, indigo, sugarcane, rice, and other crops. They purchased slaves brought to America from Africa and used them to create large plantations. According to Richard Rutt, there were 24 plantations on the island by 1860, most of them producing cotton. Also by that time, South Carolina was on the verge of seceding from the Union and leading the South into the Civil War, a conflict in which Hilton Head would play an interesting part.

The island was invaded by Union troops on Nov. 7, 1861, seven months after the war began, in an effort to control Port Royal Sound and establish a portion of the blockade of the Confederacy’s Atlantic coast. In the Battle of Port Royal, a Union fleet of 15 warships and 31 transports and supply ships exchanged shots with 4 Confederate gunboats and 2 forts, one of them on Hilton Head. The Confederate guns were silenced, the forts were evacuated, and Union forces took possession of the island and held it until the end of the war.

The area near the fort on Hilton Head—called Fort Walker by the Southerners and renamed Fort Welles by its Federal conquerors—became a town during the Union occupation, when the population of Hilton Head mushroomed to 40,000. “Enlisted personnel—both soldiers and sailors—constituted the bulk of that population, or, 23-30,000 men,” Rutt stated in his book. “The balance of Hilton Head’s wartime population consisted primarily of freedmen who sought refuge on the island, civilian dependents, and Yankee tradesmen. The latter opened and operated a variety of business establishments, ranging from hotels, blacksmith shops, and theaters to photography studios, tattoo parlors, and bordellos.”

The main street of the town, which was located in what is now Port Royal Plantation, was named Sutler’s Row after the merchants who lined it. The military men who paid exorbitant prices for the sutlers’ goods called it Robber’s Row, the name now borne by one of the plantation’s golf courses. Another settlement sprang up in what is now Hilton Head Plantation. It was called Mitchelville and consisted mostly of tents and barracks housing freed slaves who had fled to the island. When the war ended, the military and the sutlers left and, said Rutt, “the shops and houses of Robber’s Row and Mitchelville rapidly disappeared from the island, no doubt torn down by freedmen seeking to build homes of their own.”

From the end of the Civil War until the middle of the 20th century, Hilton Head was a sleepy sea island largely bypassed and forgotten by the rest of the world. All that began to change in 1950, when Fred Hack, C. C. Stebbins and Lt. Gen. Joseph B. Fraser bought 8,000 acres of pine forest and formed the Hilton Head Company for the purpose of selectively cutting the pines. In 1956 the company’s holdings were divided, with Fraser acquiring 4,000 acres on the southern end of the island. A year later Fraser’s son Charles, a University of Georgia and Yale Law School graduate in his 20s, bought his family’s holdings and another 1,200 acres and started planning and developing Sea Pines.

Meanwhile, Hack and O. T. McIntosh, who had purchased 12,000 acres on the northern end of the island in the early 1950s, began work on their own developments: Spanish Wells Plantation and Port Royal Plantation. (Sea Pines also used the term plantation in its name in its early years, as have many of the planned communities on the island; it refers to the antebellum plantations once located on the sites of the communities.)

“These few men,” wrote Porter Thompson in referring to Fraser, Hack, McIntosh and other developers, “began with the idea that large holdings of land could be subdivided into lots and sold for residential purposes. There was a twist to this. Hilton Head is ideally suited by climate and location for resort activity, so the communities developed would have to accommodate both resort and residential activities. It is Charles Fraser who is largely credited with first developing the concept that a resort/residential community could be successful, if a few considerations were made. He embodied two excellent and highly compatible interests: the understanding of development and a love of nature and of the natural beauty of the island.”

Among the concepts advocated and practiced by Fraser were blending development with the environment, creating green spaces, keeping the density of housing as low as possible, cutting as few trees as necessary, and restricting the height of buildings so they were no taller than the tallest surrounding trees.

Under Fraser’s direction, Sea Pines became, in the words of the Associated Press, “a big-time leisure landmark, a model for resort playgrounds and planned communities from Virginia to the Philippines.” Other developers followed his lead, creating their own planned communities and, in the process, transforming Hilton Head into the world-renowned resort that it is today. Note that the island is virtually “built out” today. Just about the only vacant land is that set aside for green spaces, so new construction generally requires demolition of something that’s already there. This has led to upscale development spilling off the island and onto the mainland, in the form of gated “plantation” housing, golf courses and shopping centers. Although this Hilton Head “sprawl” is well outside the actual Bluffton, this area is called Bluffton.