History Begins at Beaufort


Beaufort County encompasses some of the earliest contact points of Europeans in America, outside of the Vikings.

I recommend for reading: The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, Volume 1 1514-1861, Rowland, Moore, and Rogers, USC Press, 1996.  Just plain excellent!  This book is in print.

The information below was located using the SC Information Highway site.  This information was assembled  in chronological order using web sites from the South Carolina State Library (1996), the Hilton Head Island web site, and the Beaufort Co. web site. Most of the links in the text below are off site back to these web sites.  All errors from compiling these data together are mine alone, and do not reflect upon the excellent sources that I have so heinously butchered, adapted, and mod-defiled. :o)

(SC) History Begins at Beaufort!

(with apologies to Kramer1, and to Charleston!  Well, maybe not Charleston.)

The area now known as Beaufort County has a rich, written history beginning 500 years ago with the discovery of the area by Spanish Captain Pedro de Salazar in 1514. The Spanish attempted settlements at Parris Island (now within the confines of Beaufort County).

As early as 1521, only a few years after Columbus' first venture to the hemisphere, the Spanish explorer Francisco Gordillo landed on the Sea Islands of Beaufort County. He named the island now known as Hilton Head "Santa Elena."  Little did he know how popular this island of sand would be in our day!

In 1562, French explorer Jean Ribaut said of the area "There is no fairer or fitter place."  These French Huguenot explorers established a French fort in 1562. Ribaut and others attempted to establish permanent settlements nearby, but all failed, or fell victim to fighting among the colonial powers.

The Spanish again prevailed in 1566, and established a Spanish fort.  Neither of these settlements survived, however.  

Eventually the English controlled the area.  But the population seems to have ever been diverse.  These early settlements are under archeological exploration today.  The Scots arrived in the area in 1686. The first trade was with the Indians for deer skins, regarded as a very valuable commodity back in England. Indigo became the first cash crop. The climate and soil on the Sea Islands were favorable for its growth. There was a great market for Indigo back in England. The Indigo was processed here.  Throughout this period Indian skirmishes were numerous. The Yamassee Indians were particularly fierce.  Settlement of Savannah in 1733 and the colony of Georgia was encouraged to set up a buffer between the Indians and South Carolina and in particular the area around Beaufort where the valuable crop of Indigo, was thriving.

Both Beaufort County and its county seat, the town of Beaufort, were named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort (1684-1714), one of the colonial Lords Proprietors of Carolina.  (These links are off site)

All of the earlier settlements failed until 1710, when Beaufort Town was founded under the authority of the King's representatives, the Lords' Proprietors.  The new town was the second successful permanent community in South Carolina. The town of Beaufort, the second oldest town in South Carolina, and is now County Seat of Beaufort County.  The picturesque old port town of Beaufort is located on Port Royal Island, one of 64 Sea Isles which make up Beaufort County. This area is known as the South Carolina Low Country. It is 45 minutes north of Hilton Head Island and 1½ hours south of Charleston. Facing the Intracoastal Waterway, Beaufort has one of the best natural harbors on the Atlantic Coast.

Purrysburg was founded in 1734 by Swiss immigrants on the Savannah River (from The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina).

Beaufort district was formed in 1769 from the parishes of Prince William, St. Luke, St. Helena, and St. Peter. It remained relatively unchanged in size until 1878, when a large portion was removed to form Hampton County.

As tension between the Colonies and England increased in the time leading up to the revolution, Thomas Heyward, Jr., a local Rice Plantation owner, wanted to represent this vast area containing Beaufort, the Low Country, and the Sea Isles. The English refused to allow this. This led to the inclusion, in the Declaration of Independence, of a phrase regarding large areas not being allowed to have Representation. Thomas Heyward, Jr. signed the Declaration of Independence.  This area was largely destroyed during the Revolutionary War. The Tories burned all the plantations on Hilton Head. This act served to solidify the settlers in the area against the British. The Tories stronghold was on Daufuskie Island. From here they continually raided the area, even after Cornwallis surrendered.  The Battle of Port Royal Island occurred in 1779.  The Colony of South Carolina had more battles fought on its land, lost more men, and gave more money to the Revolution than any other Colony; a fact little known in our history.  After the Revolution, the market for Indigo in England vanished, and the settlers turned to cotton. Hilton Head Island was the first island to grow cotton. The Sea Isle Cotton became the finest cotton available in the world. Cotton brought the greatest wealth to America of any crop. Southern Planters became the wealthiest of all Americans. Within the city of Beaufort are 90 Historic homes and buildings. The earliest dates back to the early 1700's.

With its excellent natural harbor and moderate climate, Beaufort quickly became a mercantile center. Since the first European visitors came to Beaufort, dozens of generations have built on the pre-colonial history of Beaufort. The early economy was based on the indigo, rice, and cotton plantations that once dotted the landscape, and Beaufort's Port Royal (off site) was the site of a thriving shipbuilding industry. 

In the early 1800's, before the Civil War, rice and sea island cotton plantations brought great wealth to the region.  The cotton industry blossomed, and Beaufort established itself as the "wealthiest, most aristocratic, most cultivated town of  its size in America," according to historian Edward McGrady. Beaufort College was also founded in this era. 

The majority of the slaves, 40,000, brought to labor on these Plantations came from a section of Africa known as Angola. It is thought by many that this led to what is known today as the Gullah Culture (An-Gullah). This rich culture is alive and well today. The African-Americans living here still speak its dialect, engage in art, cooking, storytelling, and music representing this heritage.  The first meeting to discuss seceding from the Union was held at the Milton Maxcy House in Beaufort, known today as the Secession House. Some Southerners mistakenly felt the North would not fight over the issue. The end of the Civil War brought the end of the South as it was known in those days.  Beaufort, occupied very early by the Union Forces during the Civil War survived this terrible war experience relatively unscathed.  Union troops occupied the area in 1861 (Gen. T.W. Sherman), one of the few captured territories largely spared from destruction by General W.T. Sherman (don't get these two Shermans confused) in his campaign to recapture the South.  Details of the Federal troop occupation of the town of Beaufort in December 1861 are on this link, and the first school in the South for freed slaves was established during the Civil War at what is now Penn Center on St. Helena Island.  These surviving homes and plantations provide visitors and residents alike with a living history of the south during the ante-bellum period leading to the war. The war, while not ruining the area physically, devastated the economy.

Beaufort District was organized in 1769.  Beaufort could only be reached by water, so the Courthouse was removed to Coosawhatchie 29 Feb. 1788.  It was moved again to Gillisonville 19 December 1840, and was burned by  Gen. W.T. Sherman's army in 1865.  The county seat was returned to Beaufort 15 Sept. 1868.  (Varnville, SC 1872-1997 R-M E. Williams, 1998)

Reconstruction and the decline of the cotton crop took a toll on the areas economy after the Civil War. It was not until the port expanded, and the Parris Island (offsite) military training facility opened in 1882, that the economy again began to thrive.  The United States Marine Corps began training recruits at Parris Island in 1915.  The strength of the local military presence was further enhanced when the Marine Corps Air Station joined Parris Island in 1942. In 1949, the 250 bed Naval Hospital was opened.

Since that time the area has enjoyed an economic boom led by military bases, resort and retirement communities. The area abounds with National Registry Historical Sites, Parks, Museums, and Recreational, facilities of all kinds.  Nearby on St. Helena Island is a collection of 17 buildings on the historic campus of the Penn School. The school was established in 1862 by Northern Missionaries as the first school in the South for freed slaves. The center and its museum are open daily.  Parris Island, (Santa Elena), the site of the Spanish and French attempts to establish settlements was bought in 1715 by Alexander Parris, Public Treasurer of South Carolina. What began in 1891 as a small detachment of Marines for a naval station has grown to a training battalion for nearly 20,000 Marines graduated each year. The on-site Museum has special exhibit rooms that reflect over 200 years of Marine Corps growth and Parris Island's development.  The Beaufort area is home to various well known artists, author's and performing artists. Local shops feature their work, theatres their presentations. Even before the Civil War Beaufort was known as the cultural center for the Low Country. That tradition continues today. Come and visit; you are sure to enjoy!!! 

Later in the twentieth century Hilton Head Island (off site) and neighboring sea islands have become popular resort and retirement destinations.  In recent years, the areas economy has grown from a healthy combination of tourism, new business and residential development.  The image at the right is the Rhett House Inn, and as you all know, that is pronounced "Ray-ette."

Some famous residents of Beaufort County are naturalists Alexander Garden (ca. 1730-1791) and Stephen Elliott (1771-1830); Robert Smalls (1839-1915), a former slave who became a United States Congressman; boxer Joe Frazier; and writer Pat Conroy. Compiled by South Carolina State Library 1996.

If you are confused by some of the early 19th century script, here is an image of the written double "s" (SS).

There were documented  Gypsies in this area in the early 19th century.  I have found one probable record of Gypsies in the area.


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SCGenWeb - Beaufort County, South Carolina

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1History Begins At Sumer, N. Samuel Kramer,  Doubleday & Company, Inc: Garden City, New York. 1959.