The first half of the twentieth century was a time of hardship in Beaufort, which by then had declined into one of the poorest places in America.
(587 sq. miles; 2020 pop. 195,656). Beaufort County occupies the southernmost corner of South Carolina. Geographically, Beaufort has generally been defined by the Combahee and Salkehatchie Rivers on the northeast, the Savannah River on the southwest, and the Atlantic Ocean on the southeast. The region was first part of the proprietary county of Granville and later comprised the parishes of St. Helena’s (1712), Prince William’s (1745), St. Peter’s (1746), and St. Luke’s (1767). In 1769 the four parishes were combined into the Beaufort Judicial District. The parishes were abolished in 1865 and replaced by Beaufort County in 1868. Ten years later Beaufort was divided almost in half to create Hampton County, and in 1912 Jasper County was formed from portions of Hampton and Beaufort Counties.
Beaufort has one of the oldest records of European settlement on the North American continent, including the French on Parris Island in 1562, the Spanish at Santa Elena from 1566 to 1587, and the Scots of Stuart Town from 1684 to 1686. In 1670 the first fleet of English colonists arrived at Port Royal from Barbados, Bermuda, and the Bahamas to establish the Carolina colony. Fear of the Spaniards forced the Carolina colonists north to establish Charleston on the Ashley River. Continued military threats from Spanish Florida led the British to establish a fort (1706) and the town of Beaufort (1711) on Port Royal Island. By the early eighteenth century, Beaufort entered the plantation era. Cattle, rice, and indigo formed the foundation of this economy, as did the labor of African slaves. Slave importations between 1730 and 1776 transformed the population of Beaufort. A black majority was achieved by 1730 and remained until 1960.
During the Revolutionary War, Beaufort was divided between Loyalists and patriots. The district was overrun by the British in 1779, recaptured by the Americans in late 1779, and then reconquered and occupied by the British from April 1780 to December 1781. The war left Beaufort damaged and depopulated. Many Loyalists found refuge in the Bahamas and took thousands of their slaves with them. There, they successfully planted “Anguilla seed” cotton and shipped seeds to their relatives in South Carolina. William Elliott II grew the first large crop of Sea Island cotton in South Carolina at his Myrtle Bank plantation on Hilton Head Island in 1790, instigating a cotton boom that lasted until the mid-1820s. Together, cotton and rice brought great wealth to the Sea Islands and made the Beaufort region one of the richest in antebellum America. The boom also expanded the institution of slavery. The years 1800–1810 saw almost a doubling of the Sea Islands slave population, many of whom came from the Congo and Angola regions of Africa. This African influence contributed to the distinctive Gullah culture that survived on the Sea Islands of Beaufort County into the twenty-first century.
Beaufort planters were staunch defenders of slavery and leaders of the secessionist movement. When the Civil War began, Beaufort was the first Confederate city to fall into Union hands. On November 7, 1861, one of the largest U.S. Navy fleets of the nineteenth century steamed into Port Royal Sound, demolished Confederate forts on Hilton Head and Bay Point, and conquered the Sea Islands. Beaufort became the headquarters of the U.S. Army, Department of the South, and the staging base for Union army expeditions up and down the coast. Port Royal Sound became the headquarters for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. The Beaufort Sea Islands were also the site of the “Port Royal Experiment,” an attempt by northern philanthropists to prepare slaves for freedom. The most lasting result of the experiment was the establishment of free schools for former slaves, including the famous Penn School begun by Laura Towne on St. Helena Island in 1862.
When the Civil War ended, few planters returned to the Sea Islands. The federal government confiscated most of their lands, and the Thirteenth Amendment freed their slaves. Beaufort County contained a large black voting majority and became a Republican stronghold during Reconstruction. The Reconstruction years were also uniquely prosperous for Beaufort County. Phosphate mining, cotton, timber, and the completion of the Port Royal and Augusta Railroad in 1873 provided jobs and opportunity for many county residents. Port Royal harbor experienced its most active maritime era from 1870 to 1900, with lumber and phosphate schooners and deep-draft steamships making Port Royal a regular port-of-call. In 1877 the U.S. Navy established the Port Royal Naval Station, where dozens of warships were stationed.
Beginning in the 1890s, Beaufort County was struck by a series of misfortunes from which it took half a century to recover. In 1893 a hurricane swept the Sea Islands killing as many as two thousand residents and inflicting severe property damage. During the 1890s richer phosphate beds were discovered in Florida and the industry abandoned South Carolina. In 1899 the Port Royal Naval Station moved to Charleston. These events and the decline of world cotton prices caused a long economic downturn for Beaufort County, which brought about the outmigration of Sea Island blacks to northern industrial cities. In 1900 there were 32,137 African Americans in Beaufort County. By 1940 there were only 14,780.
The first half of the twentieth century was a time of hardship in Beaufort, which by then had declined into one of the poorest places in America. Truck farming succeeded in many of these years, but it was a poor replacement for cotton. Commercial fishing was introduced in the 1920s and provided a fair living in good years for a few local families. What kept the county afloat in the lean years was the U.S. Marine Corps, whose recruit depot on Parris Island provided badly needed payrolls to the Beaufort economy. The military presence expanded in 1943 with the establishment of the Naval Air Station, Beaufort (later the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station, Beaufort). Together, these Marine Corps installations remained the largest employers in Beaufort County into the next century.
In 1957 the first bridge to Hilton Head Island was opened and the recreation, retirement, and tourism boom in Beaufort County began. Before 1957 Hilton Head Island was one of the poorest and most isolated communities in a poor county. At the end of the century, Hilton Head Island (incorporated in 1983) had become the richest municipality in South Carolina. Beaufort County had achieved the highest per capita income in the state. With an economy based on tourists, retirees, and the U.S. Marine Corps, Beaufort County was the fastest growing county in South Carolina at the end of the twentieth century.
Danielson, Michael N. Profits and Politics in Paradise: The Development of Hilton Head Island. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Greer, Margaret. The Sands of Time: A History of Hilton Head Island. Hilton Head Island, S.C.: SouthArt, 1989. McLaren, Lynn. Ebb Tide–Flood Tide: Beaufort County . . . Jewel of the Low County. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
McTeer, J. E. Beaufort, Now and Then. Beaufort, S.C.: Beaufort Book Company, 1971.
Rowland, Lawrence S., Alexander Moore, and George C. Rogers. The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina. Vol. 1, 1514–1861. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1996.