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The Sea Islands of South Carolina

My beautiful home state of South Carolina boasts 187 miles of Atlantic coastline renowned as the Lowcountry and Just off our sand beaches lays one of its most striking features, the Sea Islands; an extended string of twenty-five barrier islands that transform constantly with the changing winds and tides and are rich in history and spectacular natural beauty. The islands are celebrated for their magnificent long and wide stretches of palm treed sandy beaches that attract thousands of tourists yearly and their residents are devoted to preserving the islands’ fragile ecosystems for all to enjoy. So large tracts of island lands are designated and protected as parks and wildlife refuges that are vibrant with limitless species of fowl and other wildlife. These extraordinary islands are widely considered to be some of the unsurpassed fishing destinations in the southeastern United States.

Settled by indigenous cultures over thousands of years, the islands were selected by Spanish colonists as sites for the founding of colonial missions. Historically the Spanish influenced the Guale and Mocama Indian tribes by establishing Christian missions in their key settlements from St. Catherine’s Island south to Fort George Island, present-day Jacksonville Florida, that extended to the coastal areas on the mainland. The South Carolina tribes included the Bear River Indians, Cape Fear Indians, Catawba, Cheraw, Cherokee, Chowanoc, Machapunga, Moratok, Natchez, Occaneechi, Saponi, Shakori, Tuscarora and Waccamaw.
In 1520, Spanish explorer and slave trader Lucas Vazquez de Ayllon explored the area near Pawley’s Island and took about 140 Native Americans as slaves including one man named Francisco Chicora who was transported back to Spain and taught to speak Spanish. Most of the other natives captured died within two years. Then, in 1523, Chicora was returned to the area to assist in establishing a colony, but escaped soon after his arrival. Later, following exploration of the coast in 1521 by Francisco de Gordillo, the Spanish tried unsuccessfully to establish a colony near present-day Georgetown in 1526. The French also failed to colonize Parris Island near Fort Royal in 1562 with the assistance of the Cusabo Indians.
Afterwards, during the 18th-century European-American settlement of Georgia and Florida, crop planters purchased and enslaved Africans to work the labor-intensive cotton, rice, and indigo plantations on the Sea Islands that generated much of the wealth for the colony; enslaved natives developed the notable and distinct Gullah Geechee Creole culture and language which has survived to present-day times.
Tragically, the Indian population in South Carolina and throughout the United States suffered substantial decline after the arrival of Europeans because the tribes were weakened by traditional European diseases such as smallpox for which they hadn’t any immunity and so epidemics killed enormous numbers of them reducing some southeastern tribes by as much as two-thirds. And that resulted in many of South Carolina tribes becoming extinct meaning that there are either no surviving members or that they no longer organize themselves as distinct tribes. A few of them however, still exist, are active today, and are descendants of the original tribes who organize themselves, either socially or politically, as a group with the Catawba, Pee Dee, Chicora, Edisto, Santee, Yamassee, and Chicora-Waccamaw tribes all still active in modern day South Carolina as are quite a lot of descendants of the Cherokee.
Subsequently, during the American Civil War, the Union Navy and Army occupied the islands inciting the white planter families to relocate to alternative locations on the mainland, sometimes leaving behind their slaves who then functioned on their own during the period and who had already created cohesive communities because many planter families had often stayed on the mainland to avoid contracting malaria and to avoid the loneliness and remoteness of the islands. Consequently, a majority of the slaves that worked the land had limited interaction with whites, which permitted them to develop their own distinct culture. During the war, the Union Army managed the plantations and assigned plots of land to slaves for farming, then after the war ended and President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became effective on January 1, 1863, more than 5,000 slaves on Union-occupied islands were granted their freedom. And although the emancipated slaves or “freedmen” had anticipated being granted land as compensation for having worked it for so many years in slavery, the federal government generally returned properties to the planters after their refuges or exiles. But, countless freedmen stayed in the area anyway working on their former plantations as sharecroppers, tenant farmers or laborers as the system changed to free labor.
The Gullah people are African Americans who live in the Lowcountry region of South Carolina and Georgia, which includes both the coastal plain, and the Beaufort Sea Islands. The Gullah are renowned for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States. And they inhabit many of the other one hundred Sea Islands which stretch along the Atlantic Ocean coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida that are marshy tidal and barrier islands having a humid subtropical climate. Sea Island, St. Helena Island, St. Simons Island, Sapelo Island, and Hilton Head Island are some of the most significant islands in the chain. Eighteenth-century plantation owners and enslavers in South Carolina and Georgia wanted enslaved people to work on their plantations because growing rice is an extremely difficult task so they were willing to pay high prices for slaves imported from the African “Rice Coast.” Thus, thousands of black Africans who were enslaved in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Angola, and other countries were, prior to their voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, held in cells in Western Africa where they began to fashion a pidgin language; a grammatically simplified means of communication that develops between two or more groups that do not have a language to facilitate their communication with people from other tribes. Then after their arrival in the Sea Islands, the Gullah blended their pidgin language with the English spoken by their enslavers and eventually this morphed into the Gullah language that we know today that’s also referred as Gullah-English, Sea Island Creole English, and Geechee.
By the mid-20th century, ferries, roads, and bridges were constructed to connect the Sea Islands to the mainland United States and rice was also grown in other states reducing the demand for Sea Island product resulting in many Gullah having to change their means of earning a living. Moreover, many resorts have been built there causing lingering controversy over ownership of the land and resulting in many Gullah deserting the islands for higher education and employment opportunities and they now work in the tourism industry. However, in recent years the Gullah people, spearheaded by Penn Center, one of the country’s first institutes for formerly enslaved individuals, and other determined community groups have been tenacious in efforts to retain control of their traditional lands.
Over the years the Gullah culture has attracted various historians, linguists, folklorists, and anthropologists interested in their rich heritage and numerous academic books on the subject have been published. The Gullah have also become a symbol of cultural pride for blacks throughout America and a subject of general interest by the media and this has given rise to countless newspaper and magazine articles, documentary films, and children’s books on Gullah culture, and to a number of popular novels set in the Gullah region. Currently, Gullah people organize annual cultural festivals in towns up and down the Lowcountry such as the Gullah Celebration on Hilton Head Island in February, the Gullah Festival in Beaufort in May, and Heritage Days at Penn Center on St. Helena Island in November.
The Gullahs of the past and present have an intriguing ethos that they deeply love and want to preserve. Customs, including storytelling, folklore, and songs, have been passed down through generations and women make crafts like baskets and quilts; drums are a popular instrument among them. The Gullahs are Christians so attend church services regularly, and families and communities celebrate holidays and other events together where they enjoy savory dishes prepared with fresh ingredients from the crops they traditionally grow. Great efforts have been made to preserve the Gullah culture with the National Park Service overseeing the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, a National Heritage Area established by the U.S. Congress to recognize the unique culture of the Gullah Geechee people, and a popular Gullah Museum is sited on Hilton Head Island. The story of the Gullahs is vital to African American geography and history and with a separate and distinct language being spoken off the coast of South Carolina and Georgia Gullah culture will undoubtedly survive. Even in the modern world the Gullah are an authentic, unified group of people that deeply respect their ancestors’ values of independence and diligence.
Today, one of the most popular and visited of the Sea Islands is port Royal Island and the city of Beaufort that is the second oldest town in South Carolina, originally established in 1711. Port Royal Island is one of 65 islands comprising Beaufort County. In 1969, the 304-acre area including the original town was listed in the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) and subsequently was designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL). Beaufort SC is heralded by some as the best place on God’s earth where still today Gullah is spoken, African traditions are carried on, and salty marshes perfume the air. It’s a place where crabbers skiffs plow the crimson swamp using dip nets, and fishermen ply the waters on shrimp boats their nets spread wide like angels’ wings to pluck pearly shellfish from the river. Founded in 1711, this lovely little harbor town located on Port Royal Island features exquisitely preserved antebellum architecture and a downtown designated in its entirety as an historic district, and It boosts some of the south’s most unique and stunning Bed and Breakfasts, restaurants, and hotels and is the setting of several famous movies such as Forrest Gump, The Big Chill, The Great Santini and The Prince of Tides. Beautiful beaches and heaps of outdoor adventures to choose from round out a visit to this amazing place.
The Hilton Head Island as we know it today began as an extraordinary vision of one-man, real estate developer Charles Fraser whose dream was to create a unique vacation resort where environmental concerns were intertwined with its development. Charles was a bold visionary who fought popular opinion in the 50’s to create Sea Pines plantation, a hugely successful and environmentally sensitive resort development. The Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse at Palmetto Dunes Oceanfront Resort also known as the Leamington Lighthouse serves as a familiar sight overlooking the resort’s award-winning Arthur Hills Golf Course. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places it occupies a unique place in Hilton Head Island history as one of only a handful of surviving lighthouses in South Carolina and is the only historic lighthouse on Hilton Head Island and is supposedly haunted by “The Blue Lady”, daughter of its last lighthouse keeper.
Hilton Head visitors who often note the Island’s small size with acres pretty vacation homes and resorts are surprised to learn that the island was once home to four military forts during the height of the Civil War. Sadly, while most remnants of the forts are long gone visitors can still enjoy a glimpse of their history and enjoy a leisurely cool and breezy nature walk through Fort Mitchel where historical markers designate the entrance of the Fort and then to a short-paved pathway that runs through the site and extends both parallel to and along the earthen works that are in fact the fort’s remains. Its low walls are overgrown with wild flora and scattered signs note points of interest throughout the site having several era-appropriate cannons positioned as well. Near the end of Beach City Road is the five-plus acre site of Fort Howell, an excellent example of a Civil War era earthworks fort. Built in 1864 by the Union’s 32nd Colored Infantry, it was intended to protect the freedmen’s village of Mitchelville and to improve the defenses of Hilton Head.
In 1861, the island was captured by the Union Navy and became their Southern headquarters where former slaves from the surrounding plantations made their way to the encampment to find employment. In 1862, Mitchelville was established and was the nation’s first Freedmen’s village, self-governing and with mandatory education requirements for the children. The Fort is pentagonal in shape, surrounded by a dry moat, earthen walls 23 feet in height, and placement for 27 guns. Partially eroded and forgotten, it was rediscovered when neighboring Palmetto Hall a 750-acre non-resort gated community was being developed and it was donated to the Land Trust for preservation that maintains the property in a natural state. In 2011 it was listed as a National Historic site and the appropriate signage was erected and the upkeep and improvement of the site is an ongoing project of the Land Trust and it is open to the public during daylight hours. The Coastal Discovery Museum is dedicated to preserving the cultural and natural history of Hilton Head Island as it once was before it became one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world. The museum is located on 68 acres called Honey Horn Plantation in 19th century buildings and offers guided tours of the “Uncovering the Roots of Reconstruction.” The Ruins of a 1793 Civil War plantation mansion and slave quarters with rumored ghost sightings, the Braddock Point Plantation is located in the area now known as Sea Pines and was once owned and occupied in the prewar era by two families, the Stoneys and the Baynards. The brindled home was built by the former and subsequently purchased and later deserted by the latter, so that it is now called the Stoney-Baynard Ruins.
Just under five decades old, the red-and-white-striped Harbour Town Lighthouse serves not only as a beacon to the many vessels that reside in the Yacht Basin but also as a landmark that has come to symbolize Hilton Head Island to people all over the world. The addition of the Lighthouse Legends Tour in 2001 transformed the iconic lighthouse into an informative, educational, and fun experience for all. In addition to the historical lighthouse tour there is a unique gift shop featuring one the largest collections in America concerning lighthouses.
In recent years, most of the islands have been extensively developed for upscale resort, recreational, and residential use. However, their Native American and seafaring history is being preserved for visitors to explore and enjoy when not joyfully frolicking under the warmth of the South Carolina sun on the glorious beaches or otherwise recreating in the ocean and waterways. So, throw off the dock lines or weigh anchor and set your GPS coordinates for Hilton Head Island at 32° 10′ 44.0040” N, 80° 44′ 35.0052” W. or for Beaufort on Port Royal Island at 32° 22′ 44.69″ N, 80° 41′ 33.40″ W and come on down, or just jump aboard an airliner.