Scattered along the state’s approximately 185 miles of coastline, South Carolina’s Sea Islands shelter the mainland from storms and erosion. But this ever-changing string of islands, battered by ocean tides as well as by man’s influences, is more than just a physical buffer. The islands’ borders also protect a way of life, a unique cultural identity nurtured by the nearby warm Gulf Stream waters that provided the climate that has defined life on the Sea Islands.
The islands differ considerably in formation, size, and land use. Within this string of more than one hundred islands stretching from South Carolina to northern Florida, geologists describe two distinct types: active barriers and erosion remnants. Active barrier islands developed as currents and storms moved sand into beach ridges and dunes, held in place by persistent vegetation. These islands are the least stable of the two types and are subject to significant alteration by natural forces or wind and sea currents. Hunting and Fripp Islands are examples of this type.
Once part of the mainland, erosion remnant islands separated as the sea level declined during the Pleistocene epoch, forming valleys that were then flooded when the sea level rose again at the end of the most recent ice age. Richer and more stable, this type includes some of the larger barrier islands such as Hilton Head.
The islands vary in size from small enough to toss a stone across to large enough to lose sight of the bordering ocean or estuary. Traditionally focused on agriculture, many of the Sea Islands in the twenty-first century face problems associated with heavy development pressure, while some lie in areas shielded by state or national laws preventing development. The islands associated with the Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge and other protected areas along the coast remain pristine and natural. In some areas islands still support significant agriculture and development has been slower in coming. Wadmalaw Island, outside of Charleston, is one example.
Development on some of the islands was made more difficult by the passing of the 1983 Barrier Islands Act, which removed them from federal flood insurance programs and disallowed subsidies for the building of infrastructure needed for development, including roads and sewers. In spite of this, development has still occurred on some of the islands covered under this act.
Sea Island natural and cultural character can in large part be traced to the nearby Gulf Stream, which warms the air as well as the water as it passes the South Carolina coast. Many islands still feature the maritime forest vegetation that thrives only in the semitropical temperatures allowed by warm, humid salt air and sandy soils. This distinct type of forest includes live oak, palmetto, wax myrtle, groundsel, salt-tolerant slash pines, and yaupon holly. This jungle-like forest provides cover for a variety of wildlife species, including many insects, reptiles, crustaceans, birds, and mammals. For this reason, early settlers in the lowcountry called the islands “hunting islands,” where they went to pursue the plentiful game.
Warmth from the Gulf Stream also provided the long growing season—290 days—in the early days for cultivation of indigo. When the Revolutionary War ended trade with England, and thus indigo profits, planters turned to long staple, or “Sea Island” cotton, for which the area became famous. Sea Island cotton thrived in the long growing season, humidity, salty air, and arid conditions. As demand for Sea Island cotton grew, the plantation system flourished, dependent on large holdings and slave labor. Farmers made rich by raising the staple planted every available foot of land in Sea Island cotton. A planter elite grew out of the wealth produced on the Sea Island plantations. But with a limited amount of suitable land, plantations stopped expanding, and acres planted in cotton stabilized by the 1830s. With cotton land on the islands at a premium, cotton growers made extensive efforts to sustain and restore the soil, which became depleted during the antebellum period. They used soil, crushed oyster shells, and decayed vegetation for fertilizer. They drained low-lying areas to create more growing acreage and reclaimed some salt-marsh areas by diking and draining.
Plantation life during the heyday of Sea Island cotton was good for planters and their families. Plantation owners built large houses of tabby, a locally available building material of sand, lime, oyster shells, and water mixed to form the consistency of concrete and poured into forms to construct walls. Tabby ruins left throughout the Sea Islands testify to the popularity of this material, which was often covered with stucco. Game and seafood were plentiful, and wealthy families often left plantations for summer retreats on the islands, forming summer communities at places such as Eddingsville, Rockville, and Isle of Palms to avoid the diseases associated with hot weather. They believed that the sea air was healthy and prevented diseases, but it was actually the breezes keeping disease- carrying mosquitoes at bay that likely kept them healthy.
The cultivation of Sea Island cotton was done by hand and depended on a vast slave labor force. Slave populations surpassed the white populations on many Sea Islands, sometimes by a ratio of as much as ten to one. Africans and African Americans living in the Sea Islands passed on elements of African culture, from crafts and cooking to music and language. The influence of African culture remains apparent. Remnants of the slave Creole language, called Gullah, show up in the speech of longtime Sea Island residents. Gullah consists of a vocabulary of mostly English words arranged in African sentence structure. Because the islands remained isolated from the mainland for so long, these and other elements of the unique Sea Island culture remained long after the end of slavery. Slave culture and the Gullah language made indelible marks on the islands, and efforts are in place to preserve the remnants of this way of life.
Eighty years after the reign of Sea Island cotton began, the Civil War erupted. The Union occupation of the Port Royal region in the fall of 1861 led many island landowners to abandon their plantations. The Sea Island way of life never recovered after the Civil War. Many of the plantations were divided up among former slaves, who grew subsistence crops for food rather than for cash. Plantations that remained intact faced disabling labor problems. Sea Island cotton production struggled on for a short time after the war but continued to dwindle until the early 1920s, when it collapsed under the combined weight of hurricanes, the boll weevil, and competition from other cotton-growing regions.
After the demise of “King Cotton,” the Sea Islands residents continued to rely on the fruits of the land and sea. Truck farming provided staples: potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn, much of which is still grown on small Sea Island farms. Commercial fishing, including oystering, crabbing, and shrimping, also provided food and cash during the lean years. Shrimp remained the most valuable seafood product as of the early twenty-first century.
The development of Hilton Head Island in the 1960s paved the way for high-end residential and resort communities on other Sea Islands, such as Kiawah, Fripp, and Daufuskie. With changes from rural agricultural land to developed land that welcomes new residents by the thousands and visitors by the millions each year, tourism has become the economic mainstay. Despite dramatic demographic and environmental changes, the Sea Islands remain among the most unique natural and cultural attractions on the eastern coast.
Danielson, Michael N. Profits and Politics in Paradise: The Development of Hilton Head Island. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Fairey, Daniel A. South Carolina’s Geologic Framework. Columbia: South Carolina Land Resources Conservation Commission, 1977.
Jordan, Laylon Wayne, and Elizabeth Stringfellow. A Place Called St. John’s. Spartanburg, S.C.: Reprint Company, 1998.
Kovacik, Charles F., and John J. Winberry. South Carolina: The Making of a Landscape. 1987. Reprint, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1989.
Rhyne, Nancy. Chronicles of the South Carolina Sea Islands. Winston-Salem, N.C.: John F. Blair, 1998.