Today, Hilton Head Island is home to a vibrant paradise of vacation homes, luxury resorts, fine dining, and every kind of watercraft imaginable. Wherever you look you’ll see families playing on white, sandy beaches, tourists exploring the Harbour Town Lighthouse, and golfers strolling through deluxe courses. It’s hard to imagine a place as modern and luxurious as this has a deep history dating back to America’s founding days, but indeed, the roots of Hilton Head Island run deep.

The island has been inhabited for thousands of years, though not as densely as it is today. It was originally the home Yemassee tribe, which lived on the island for thousands of years before the arrival of European settlers. In 1663, only 20 years after the Mayflower arrived in New England, English explorer William Hilton was one such settler, and he named the island after himself after sailing into Port Royal Sound.

Many places in South Carolina have significance in the story of the Civil War, and Hilton Head Island is no different. In 1861, a Union naval squadron sailed into Port Royal Sound and attempted to capture the island from the east and west sides in a battle that lasted five hours before Confederate soldiers and planters fled. At the time, it was the largest naval engagement ever fought in American waters. Afterward, Hilton Head Island become a prominent Union army base and a refuge for slaves seeking asylum.

After the war, life on the island was mostly calm and quiet. It became a hotspot for the production of Sea Island, causing wealthy plantation owners to build homes there. Although people had inhabited the island for centuries, it was an isolated place until 1956 when a bridge was built between Hilton Head Island and the mainland.

The bridge changed everything. Suddenly, the secluded island that had once been home to a small community that relied on hunting, fishing, and growing food and small farms to survive became a paradise discovered by many. Only a year later, the Sea Pines Resort opened, offering visitors a luxurious island encounter unlike any other at the time. Since then, the Sea Pines Resort has welcomed generations of travelers and is still giving world-class vacation experiences today.

And while Sea Pines was the first, it certainly wasn’t the last resort to pop up on Hilton Head Island. The 1960s and 70s saw an enormous amount of growth, with resorts and residential communities being built all over the island, and home buyers and vacationers flocking to them. In 1969, the Harbour Town Lighthouse was erected and has become an iconic symbol of Hilton Head Island ever since. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination and an excellent place to collect seashells.

While the Hilton Head Island of today is well-known for its resorts and luxury vacation vibe, the community here is careful to honor and protect the foundation of history it stands upon. Modern-day efforts are underway to ensure the preservation of the island's natural landscape and wildlife habitats, as well as the Gullah culture of descended slaves who have lived on the island since its Civil War days. So the next time you visit Hilton Head Island and sink your toes into the warm sand, remember the people and communities whose legacy the island was built upon, and the many layers of history that lay just under your bare feet.

Posted by Russell Fielden on


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