Bluffton

1844 –

Located on the twenty-foot-high bluffs of the May River and facing the cool, southerly winds, it was an ideal summer refuge for planter families. The town, known first simply as May River and then later as Kirk’s Bluff, was officially named Bluffton in 1844. The development of Hilton Head as a major tourist destination in the early 1970s marked a revitalization of Bluffton. Annexations and the spread of Hilton Head’s resort and tourism economy led to a seventy-five percent increase in Bluffton’s population during the 1990s.

(Beaufort County; 2000 pop. 1,275). Bluffton originated as a summer resort for antebellum plantation owners of St. Luke’s Parish in Beaufort District. Located on the twenty-foot-high bluffs of the May River and facing the cool, southerly winds, it was an ideal summer refuge for planter families. The town, known first simply as May River and then later as Kirk’s Bluff, was officially named Bluffton in 1844. The town’s streets were formally laid out in the late 1830s, and Bluffton was incorporated by the General Assembly in 1852.

Cotton wealth and steamboat service from Savannah led to the construction of a growing number of summer cottages in antebellum Bluffton. Additional construction included several general stores along Calhoun Street, two churches, and a school for the children of planters.

With the capture of Hilton Head Island by Union forces in November 1861, residents evacuated Bluffton, which was subsequently attacked and burned by Union troops in June 1863, destroying more than two-thirds of the homes. The attack may have been retribution for the role played by Blufftonians in the secession movement. The first secession movement in the state was started in 1844 by the planters of St. Luke’s Parish and became known as the “Bluffton Movement.”

The building of the Coastal Highway (U.S. 17) and bridging of the Savannah River in 1926 ushered in a new phase in Bluffton’s history, when its status as a center of local trade gradually diminished following the discontinuation of riverboat service to the town. Bluffton’s economy depended mainly on its seafood business and construction of oyster sloops. While Bluffton continued to draw summer residents, its economy declined until the construction of the Talmadge Bridge, which created a shorter route to Savannah, and the construction of a bridge connection to Hilton Head Island. The development of Hilton Head as a major tourist destination in the early 1970s marked a revitalization of Bluffton. Annexations and the spread of Hilton Head’s resort and tourism economy led to a seventy-five percent increase in Bluffton’s population during the 1990s.

A Longer Short History of Bluffton, South Carolina and Its Environs. 2d ed. Hilton Head Island, S.C.: Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, 1988. 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.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title Bluffton
  • Coverage 1844 –
  • Author
  • Keywords ideal summer refuge for planter families, "Bluffton Movement", Coastal Highway (U.S. 17) and bridging of the Savannah River, development of Hilton Head
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date May 18, 2021
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update July 20, 2016
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