Mind-Blowing History on Hilton Head Island

October 2, 2017
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PHOTO: A map showing the historical outline of Mitchelville, the first town built in the United States specifically for freed slaves, located on Hilton Head Island. (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

For most people, the history of Hilton Head Island starts in 1956 with Charles Fraser’s founding of Sea Pines*. That’s all they need to know:

That’s the point at which sleepy barrier island began its transformation into a world-renowned vacation destination defined by wide sandy beaches and some of the best golf on the planet.

But dig a little deeper and you’ll find some fascinating history. From Native American shell rings to the remains of a rare steam cannon, Hilton Head Island has a story to tell.

Prehistory – The Island’s Shell Rings

The first tourists to Hilton Head Island arrived while the Egyptians were building the pyramids. Roughly 40,000 years ago, Paleoindian tribes were regular visitors to the island, drawn by its gentle climate and bountiful seafood. So basically, they were the Ohioans of their day (I kid, Ohio. We love you guys).

What they left behind is equal parts inspiring and mysterious: Vast shell rings tucked away at several spots on the island. Forming a near perfect circle of discarded shells and debris, these earthen mounds mystified researchers for years.

The general consensus is there was some kind of ceremonial purpose to the rings—they’re not tall enough to be a fortification, and there’s no signs anyone lived within the ring. But debate still continues.

You can check out the most well-preserved ring inside the Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

Antebellum Hilton Head

As long as you’re in Sea Pines, you can check out some true American ruins. What remains of the Stoney-Baynard Plantation, which once covered most of Sea Pines, is a haunting structure of crumbling tabby.

Fences were recently erected around it to keep people from climbing on the historic structures (the author pleads the fifth), but along with them came signage showing what the plantation house would have looked like in its heyday.

Just up the trail from the main house, a sober reminder of our nation’s tragic history awaits in the form of two stone footprints marking the site of former slave cabins.

Tiny and separated from the main house by a long walk through dark woods, this remnant of oppression stands in stark contrast to the implied grandeur of the plantation house itself. 

Another insight into Hilton Head Island’s plantation era can be found right on the side of 278, the island’s main drag, at Matthews Drive. Here, the Baynard Mausoleum and Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetary serves as the final resting place for many of the island’s earliest families.

Mitchelville – The First Taste of Freedom

When the Union Army arrived on Hilton Head Island, they were greeted by the remaining population of slaves who had been abandoned when the island’s plantation owners fled. What began as around 150 slaves swelled to a population of 600 or more, drawn by the promise of protection under Union soldiers.

In order to house this sudden surge of refugees, now freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, General Ormsby M. Mitchel ordered the creation of a town they could call their own. Bearing his name, Mitchelville became the first freedman’s village in the United States.

While the sea has since swallowed up the remains of Mitchelville, efforts are underway to build an educational park near Fish Haul Creek Park.

The Steam Cannon

In what can only be called the Wile E. Coyote phase of our national defense, at one point the military decided to defend our coastlines with 13 50-foot cannons that used steam and dynamite to shoot a projectile more than three miles. The remains of one of them can be found on Hilton Head Island inside Port Royal Plantation, which is gated and private. You may not be able to visit this one without a guest pass, but it’s still cool.

All that’s left now is a vast concrete ring and the ruins of a nearby bunker.

However, if you get a chance to stand on one of these you’ll get a taste of what America’s military did to kill time between the Spanish-American War and WWI. Namely, build a giant cannon, fire it about 100 times, then disassemble it a year later. Hey, idle hands.

* “Most people” in this case does not include the producers of “Pretty Little Liars,” who for some reason thought we had resorts back in the 1920s. I’m starting to question the amount of historical research that goes into making “Pretty Little Liars.”



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