Island History and Population

Today's Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina, USA, is far removed from its ancient beginnings. Paleo-Indians are the first known people to have roamed the island ten to fifteen thousand years ago. From around 8,000 to 2,000 B.C. Woodland Indians grew crops and fished the abundant waters here during the Autumn and Winter seasons. You can still see shell rings from this period on Hilton Head Island.

Actual written history of the island starts with Spanish exploration in the early sixteenth century with the discovery of Indian settlements and farming. The French followed in the later sixteenth with Captain Jean Ribeaut leading an exploration in which he built a fort and naming it Port Royal. The Port was located near the modern towns of Port Royal and Beaufort, which are a short drive from Hilton Head. Not until the middle of the seventeenth century did England started developing the area, after taking it back from the Spanish nearly 100 years earlier. England's King Charles II granted eight men the property known as "The Low Country" which includes Hilton Head Island up through Charleston, South Carolina. These men were called Lord Proprietors and they proceeded to name the low country "Carolina"

At the same time, English Captain William Hilton sighted the high bluffs of our island while exploring Port Royal Sound. He immediately claimed discovery of the island and named it after himself and the visible headlands from his ship. (the eight "Lord Proprietors just hadn't moved fast enough!) Hilton Head Island was born. Spanish sponsored Indian attacks kept white settlers from establishing settlements here until 1717. Colonel John Barnwell was given 1000 acres on Hilton Head by the Lord Proprietors to settle, but it was a slow process. Fifty years later, there were still only 25 families living on the island.

During the American Revolution, Hilton Head Island was frequently raided by the British, as nearby Daufuskie Island was occupied by the Tories, making it a convenient and frequent target. Once the war ended in victory for the colonies, the island recovered nicely, as cotton, indigo and rice crops flourished. During this "Golden Age", the houses on the island were not what you always see pictured - pillared mansions. The homes were large, yet most homeowners' main homes were located in Beaufort, Savannah or sometimes Charleston, of which many are still lived in or being used in some other way today.

South Carolina was one of the richest states in the Union and the first to secede from it on December 20, 1860, signaling growing unrest in the southern states, and eventually the start of the US Civil War. The Union troops of the north eventually freed 1000 slaves and maintained their presence in the area until the end of the Civil War. During the war Hilton Head Island became a transfer point for prisoners and wounded, plus Union soldiers on their way to battle. The first black union troops, mainly freed slaves, came from this area. They earned a salary during their service, and after the war were able to buy land on Hilton Head Island. General Ormsby Mitchel helped foster the beginning of housing for the homeless black people who had come to the island since the War began. Appropriately named Mitchelville, the town provided schools and adequate housing for it's freedmen residents. After the war, the Federal troops left and the only people that remained in the area were the Mitchelville residents. Eventually, the town disappeared and the freed slaves lived off the land and sea. Farming, fishing and basket weaving became the island trades, and Hilton Head Island was all but forgotten by the North. The Gullah language, a mixture of slave, native, cadence and English was spoken and the culture and lifestyle are preserved to this day. Gullah descendants still live on the island today, and help to keep this rich culture alive.

In the late 19th century, northerners "rediscovered" Hilton Head Island as a hunting ground. By 1931, all the government owned land was acquired for hunting, making it a much desired travel location for northerners looking for adventure. Others began traveling here also, namely those with a flair for the creative. They fell in love with the gorgeous sub-tropical surroundings and found the island to be a muse of sorts for their work, as well as an untamed and relatively uncontrolled playground. Many remained throughout the development and modernization of the island, and you can find works of art that bear their names in some of the fine art galleries you will find here.

Visionary Charles Fraser and his partner Fred Hack discovered the untapped riches of Hilton Head and in 1951 put a group of investors from the state of Georgia together to purchase nearly all of the island's rich land. It was sold to developers, who quickly saw the value of the island land as a tourist destination. Fraser's visionary skills are evident today, as he ushered in a new system of land use that has become the standard for most private communities in the United States today. Paying close attention to the preservation of the natural environment, Sea Pines "Plantation" was developed and built. Plantation is the term used to define a private community, and is used frequently on Hilton Head Island. All the communities that followed Sea Pines followed the strict developing guidelines, creating a vibrant, yet environmentally friendly island that blends well with its surroundings. The town of Hilton Head was incorporated in 1983, and has been nurturing and growing its reputation as a superior vacation destination ever since.

For a wide-ranging look at Hilton Head Island, it's history, heritage and ecological uniqueness, make a stop at the Coastal Discovery Museum and Honey Horn Park. They provide different tours and programs daily, and will give you a better understanding of our little paradise.


While the island and the surrounding area are steeped in American history, especially when it comes to the US Civil War, Hilton Head itself is not your typical southern town. There is still a small but vibrant Gullah population located here, but the majority of our primary residents come from somewhere else. Most hail from somewhere east of the Mississippi River, came here for a vacation and fell in love with the place. We sometimes wonder if there is anyone left in the state of Ohio. Especially from April through September. The allure of Hilton Head Island continues to mesmerize visitors form all over the world, (not just Ohio) making it a favorite "second home" location as well. Everyone is welcome here. We sure would like to see more people from locations other than Ohio, though.

Today, our population of permanent residents over 39,000, and represents a diverse cross section of active and entrepreneurial people. Unlike many destination cities in the state of Florida, 70% of our population is under 60 years old. In fact, about 18% of our residents are under 18 years of age, keeping the island feeling and looking young and vibrant. Hilton Head Island is definitely much more than a "retirement community", with all kinds of activities and events geared for the young and young at heart. You will discover a real entrepreneurial spirit here, steeped in a "can do" attitude that makes for great little businesses, eateries, boutiques and artists for you to enjoy. But this is an island though, so no one moves all that fast or that early in the day, for that matter. So just relax and enjoy.

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