Hilton Head Island History

The waters around the Hilton Head Island are acknowledged ever since the beginning of recorded history in the New World. For centuries these waters for occupied and fought over by the Spanish, English, Scots, and French. The local tribes in Hilton Head Island came in contact with the Europeans for the first time in 1521 when a Spanish expedition explored the area.


Captain William Hilton sailed in 1663 from Barbados to explore the lands granted by King Charles II of England. He identified a headland close to the entrance to Port Royal Sound and named it “Hilton’s Head” after his own name. The area was granted as a part of a barony in 1698 to John Bayley of Ballingclough.

Zion Chapel of Ease, a small Episcopal church was built for plantation owners here in 1788. In 1790, William Elliott II of Myrtle Bank Plantation grew the initial crop of cotton in Hilton Head Island. Port Royal Sound became vital to cotton trade and the southern economy over the next several decades. In 1861, the largest fleet in North America moved south to seize the port.

Hilton Head Island had great significance during the Civil War and became a key operational base of the Union blockade of the Southern ports. A military hospital was also built here by the Union. Many erstwhile slaves flocked to Hilton Head Island because here they were free to purchase land, seek education, and reside in government housing.

During the early 1950s, logging activity was carried out over 19,000 acres of area by three lumber mills. The population of the island at that time was only 300 residents. In 1956, Hilton Head Island’s development as a resort began. The Heritage Golf Classic was inaugurated at the Sea Pines Resort in 1969, and it has remained a regular stop on the PGA Tour till today.

While all this was happening on the Island, Bluffton, the town across the water was experiencing a totally separate history.