In the antebellum era, Beaufort became a summer retreat for rich Sea Island cotton planters and even richer mainland rice planters, who maintained a wealthy and cultivated society in the town.
(Beaufort County; 2020 pop. 13,204). Beaufort was chartered on January 17, 1711. It is the second-oldest town in South Carolina and was named for Henry Somerset, the second duke of Beaufort, a proprietor of Carolina from 1700 to 1714. The town was laid out around a fort and blockhouse that had been built in 1706 to guard against Spanish invasion. For thirty years Beaufort was a military outpost of the Carolina colony and the southern frontier of British North America. The Yamassee Indians destroyed the town in 1715, but Beaufort recovered quickly. In 1740 the colonial legislature passed “An Act to Encourage the Better Settling the Town of Beaufort,” which enlarged the town to the west and added new streets. In 1748 two additional streets were laid out to the west, marking the limits of Beaufort in the colonial era. Beaufort became the center of the Sea Islands and the seat of Beaufort District in 1769. The regional economy based on rice plantations on the mainland and indigo plantations on the Sea Islands brought an economic boom to Beaufort in the years prior to the Revolutionary War. Beaufort also became a shipbuilding center, utilizing local live oak trees for ship timbers.
During the political disputes leading to the Revolutionary War, the royal governor Lord Montagu called the Commons House of Assembly to meet in Beaufort, not Charleston, in October 1772. For four days Beaufort was the colonial seat of government before the angry legislators forced Montagu to move the assembly back to Charleston. The “Beaufort Assembly” helped inspire the fourth clause of the Declaration of Independence, which included Beaufort resident Thomas Heyward, Jr., among its signers. During the Revolutionary War, the British occupied Beaufort almost continuously from June 1779 to December 1781. Much of the colonial economy was destroyed by warfare and damaged by a population sharply divided between patriots and Loyalists. Beaufort’s leading Loyalist was Major Andrew DeVeaux, who fled Beaufort for Florida, outfitted a small private army, and recaptured the Bahama Islands in 1783 for the British. Loyalists who fled to the Bahamas successfully planted cotton seeds and then shipped seeds back to relatives in South Carolina. This precipitated the state’s first cotton boom and brought fabulous prosperity to Beaufort.
In the antebellum era, Beaufort became a summer retreat for rich Sea Island cotton planters and even richer mainland rice planters, who maintained a wealthy and cultivated society in the town. Beaufort College, the second-oldest college in South Carolina, was founded in 1795. The Beaufort Arsenal (1798), the Baptist Church of Beaufort (1804), and the Beaufort Library Society (1807) respectively became the leading military, religious, and intellectual institutions of the town. By 1860 Beaufort was one of the wealthiest towns in America and a center of the secession movement, led by Beaufort native Robert Barnwell Rhett, the “Father of Secession” in South Carolina. During the Civil War, Beaufort was the first southern city conquered by Union forces after the U.S. Navy victory in Port Royal Sound on November 7, 1861. Beaufort became the headquarters of the U.S. Army, Department of the South, and most of the buildings were converted into hospitals for Union army wounded. At the end of the war, a National Cemetery was laid out north of Boundary Street as a burial place for Civil War dead.
Beaufort became a leading center of the Reconstruction regime in South Carolina. Beaufort’s military governor, Major General Rufus Saxton, directed the U.S. Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands in South Carolina, and Beaufort was the site of the first Freedmen’s Bank in the state. A leading political figure of the Reconstruction era was Robert Smalls, a Beaufort native and former slave. Smalls organized the Republican Party in Beaufort in 1866 and served in the state legislature and U.S. Congress for many years between 1868 and 1887. He authored the public school provision of the constitution of 1868 and was the founder of Beaufort School District One, which established the town’s first public school in 1868.
From 1870 to 1893 Beaufort prospered as a commercial and industrial center led by transplanted northern or immigrant merchants and capitalists. Cotton, timber, phosphate mining, and shipping all transformed Beaufort from a model of the Old South before the war to a model of the New South after the war. However, a series of natural disasters and economic changes caused a rapid reversal of fortunes. In 1893 a hurricane demolished the town and flooded neighboring Sea Islands. The phosphate industry migrated to Florida shortly thereafter. The last commercial rice crop was produced on the Combahee River in 1914, and the world decline in cotton prices ended Beaufort’s historic crop by 1919. In 1907 an accidental fire burned down much of the central business district. These events signaled for Beaufort a long economic decline that hit bottom during the Depression of the 1930s.
During the 1920s the old cotton docks and warehouses along the Bay Street waterfront were converted for use by the new gasoline powered shrimp trawlers that had moved up from Florida. Some of the old cotton fields were converted to vegetable farming, and many of the old rice fields were converted to hunting preserves. None of these new businesses provided more than a fraction of what the old cotton, phosphate, and timber industries had provided, and therefore Beaufort declined as a commercial center.
During World War II, Beaufort began to revive based on the payroll provided by the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot on Parris Island, established in 1915, and the U.S. Naval Air Station, which opened in 1943. The military’s impact on the town’s economy increased further with the establishment of a naval hospital at Beaufort in 1949. Since then, Beaufort has grown steadily, supported by the U.S. Marine Corps and a regular stream of tourists. In the twentieth century the evocative, Old South charm of Beaufort attracted not only visitors and retirees but also Hollywood movie producers. The Great Santini, The Big Chill, Prince of Tides, Forces of Nature, and the Oscar winner Forrest Gump were all filmed in Beaufort, adding to the prospering local economy.
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.