History of Hilton Head Island
History and nature are inextricably mixed on Hilton Head Island. The first islanders were native Indians who lived here as early as 4000 BC, supported by the rich bounty of the earth and sea. In 1664, 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.
As 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 1780’s, that made the planters wealthy beyond their dreams. By the mid-1800’s, at the height of the plantation era, more than a dozen large landowning 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 city, 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.
1521 The Spanish entered Port Royal Sound, beginning the era of colonization and contact with local Indians.
1562 Captain Jean Ribaut and his Frenchmen entered the sound which he named Port Royal. They settled Charlesfort which is believed to be near the town of Port Royal and, since they were Huguenots, the first Protestant settlement in the United States.
1566 After the French returned to their native land, Spaniards from Florida founded Santa Elena and made it the capital of La Florida. Archeologists have positively determined the location to be on the Parris Island golf course.
1663 British Captain William Hilton sighted Hilton Head Island.
1698 John Bayley of County Tipperary, Ireland, took title to a barony of 16,200 acres. Twenty-four years later his son appointed Alexander Trench as his agent, and Hilton Head had its first real estate salesman.
1717 For acts of bravery in quelling the rioting Yemassee Indians, Colonel John Barnwell was granted 1,000 acres on the northwest corner of the Island by the Lords Proprietors and became the Island’s first white settler.
1790 William Elliot, an Island planter, grew the first crop of long staple sea island cotton on Hilton Head.
1813 British forces landed on the Island and burned most of the houses.
1861 Union troops invaded Hilton Head Island in the Battle of Port Royal. The Island’s population swelled past 40,000 by 1865.
1862 Mitchelville, the first freedman’s village in the United States, was established along the present day Beach City Road area.
1898 During the Spanish-American War, Fort Walker was the site of a new dynamite gun.
1950 Logging took place on 19,000 acres - 97% of the Island’s high ground. The population was 300 residents.
1953 Ferry service began operation from the mainland outside Bluffton to Jenkins Island (now Outdoors Resort). The Sea Crest Motel opened with two rooms and had expanded to eight rooms by 1960.
1956 The James F. Byrnes Bridge, a two-lane turn-bridge, was constructed, opening the Island to daily automobile traffic from the mainland.
1957 Palmetto Electric opened offices to provide electric service. Some of the natives say that electricity was the greatest single thing that happened to Hilton Head.
1965 The Audubon-Newhall Preserve was established on 50 acres of land donated by Sea Pines Plantation Company.
1970 Jonathan Daniels, Ralph Hilton and Tom Wamsley started a 12-page tabloid which they called “The Island Packet”. The first issue was published July 11,
1974 Whooping Crane Pond Conservancy (137 acres) and Cypress Conservancy (50 acres) were designated as permanent preserves in Hilton Head Plantation.
1975 Hilton Head Medical Center & Clinics completed. Resident population of the island was 6,500.
1983 Advance-treated residential effluent, called reclaimed water, was first released in freshwater wetlands in Sea Pines Forest Preserve. The ecology was restored in wetlands that had been dying due to nearby lagoon construction.
1983 The Town of Hilton Head Island was incorporated.
1994 The permanent population exceeded 26,000. 1.6 million persons visited Hilton Head Island.
1995 - present Construction for the Cross-Island Parkway, an intra-island bypass route, was begun in 1995. The road, projected to alleviate growing automobile traffic and aid hurricane evacuation, opened in the spring of 1998. Exit 8 connecting I-95 to the Island on Hwy 278 was opened in 1997. The Town of Hilton Head Island purchased land for the Crossings Park (85 acres) adjacent to the proposed road. The park includes a 32 acre wetland preserve.
1998 2.4 million visitors to Hilton Head Island