Its natural beauty led to the transformation of Hilton Head from an isolated backwater to a world-famous resort and recreational community during the second half of the twentieth century.
(Beaufort County; 2020 pop. 39,619). Located in the southeast corner of the state, Hilton Head Island is the largest of the islands that flank South Carolina’s Atlantic coast. Its natural beauty led to the transformation of Hilton Head from an isolated backwater to a world-famous resort and recreational community during the second half of the twentieth century.
Native Americans lived on Hilton Head for more than two millennia before the arrival of Europeans in Port Royal Sound in the sixteenth century. Harsh conditions and hostile Indians defeated early French and Spanish efforts to colonize islands north of Hilton Head. In 1663 an English explorer, Captain William Hilton, sighted the headland of a “Countrey very pleasant and delightful” and named the island for himself. The first white settler on Hilton Head was Colonel John Barnwell, who came in 1717 to claim a one-thousand-acre land grant from the Lords Proprietors. Others followed and established a plantation economy based on slavery that lasted until the Civil War.
Despite losses inflicted by British attacks during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, the island flourished following the introduction of Sea Island cotton in 1790. Planters grew rich, consolidated their land and slaveholdings, and built fine houses in nearby Beaufort as well as in Charleston and Savannah. The plantation era came to an abrupt end in November 1861 when twelve thousand Union troops captured the island. Hilton Head became a base for the blockade of Charleston and Savannah, as well as for forays inland by the Union army. An estimated fifty thousand sailors, soldiers, officials, merchants, camp followers, smugglers, and black marketers crowded into the raw settlement, including thousands of former slaves from nearby plantations.
Following the war, much of Hilton Head Island reverted to nature. Few landowners returned, and none was able to restore holdings or prosperity. By the end of the nineteenth century, the only land under cultivation was farmed by African Americans on small plots on the northwestern corner of the island. Much of the rest of the island, now covered by magnificent forests, was acquired by wealthy outsiders for use as hunting preserves. Two-thirds of Hilton Head wound up in the hands of two New York financiers, Alfred L. Loomis and Landon K. Thorne. In 1950 Hilton Head had just over one thousand residents, ninety percent of whom were black. The island was isolated from the rest of the state. There was no bridge or ferry service, no electricity, and no telephones.
At this juncture, Hilton Head Island was “rediscovered,” this time by timber interests from Hinesville, Georgia. Led by Joseph B. Fraser and Fred C. Hack, the Georgians created the Hilton Head Company, purchased the Loomis-Thorne holdings, and harvested millions of feet of lumber between 1950 and 1952. The Hilton Head Company then turned to selling lots along the beach for vacation cottages. State backing was secured for a ferry, and then for the creation of an agency to build a toll bridge, which opened in 1956. Differences over how the Hilton Head Company should develop its land caused Fraser to withdraw from the firm in return for a sizable parcel on the southern end of the island.
Underlying the breakup was the desire of Joseph Fraser’s son, Charles, to create a new kind of resort community, one featuring sensitivity to nature and architectural harmony. Charles E. Fraser organized the Sea Pines Company to develop the family’s land, pieced together financing from textile and insurance interests, and set to work to turn his dream into reality. The result was Sea Pines Plantation, an oasis of taste and beauty amidst the hodgepodge of seashore development that characterized much of the Atlantic coast in the 1960s. Sea Pines attracted affluent retirees, second-home buyers, and vacationers; its golf and tennis facilities and their televised tournaments drew national attention; and its architectural controls, gated entry, and mingling of residences and golf courses became prototypes for other developments on Hilton Head, then elsewhere in the state, the South, and into the Caribbean.
With the blossoming of Sea Pines came rapid growth. The Hilton Head Company followed Fraser’s lead, as did other developers who encircled the island with gated residential and resort communities. Resort hotels sprang up along the beachfront outside Sea Pines, along with restaurants, stores, banks, and movie theaters. With retirees and vacationers came developers, realtors, architects, lawyers, shopkeepers, doctors, and others who made their livelihood on the booming island. The island’s economy survived a serious slump in the wake of the oil crunch in the 1970s and the 1986 bankruptcy of the Hilton Head Company. Annual gross sales doubled between 1975 and 1981, and more than doubled to almost $700 million by 1990. Population grew rapidly, from 2,546 in 1970, to 11,336 in 1980, to 23,694 in 1990, and another fifty percent during the 1990s. Growth reduced the proportion of African Americans, from more than ninety percent in 1950 to less than nine percent half a century later. While growth brought connections to the mainland, better schools and health care, public utilities, and expanding economic opportunities, most blacks remained on the bottom of the economic ladder. Many lived in substandard housing with inadequate water and waste disposal, most worked in lower-paying service jobs, and large numbers were forced to commute long distances because they were priced and zoned out of Hilton Head’s housing market.
Growth issues have figured prominently in the modern history of Hilton Head Island. Dissatisfaction over the failure of Beaufort County to control growth on Hilton Head led to a long campaign for political independence, which culminated in the incorporation of the Town of Hilton Head Island in 1983. After incorporation, political conflict between retirees and residents centered on growth issues, involving local elections, referendums on no-growth proposals, and road construction. African Americans opposed incorporation and stricter planning and zoning controls, fearful that affluent whites would limit the ability of blacks to develop or sell their land. Paradoxically, these struggles over growth occurred in a place with the strictest land-use, building, and aesthetic requirements of any community in the state.
Modern Hilton Head Island boasts the state’s highest per capita income, excellent schools, superior health care, and fine hotels, restaurants, and shops. Its prosperity has spilled over to much of southern Beaufort County, in the form of resort and retirement communities, housing developments, shopping malls, and thousands of jobs in construction and services.
Carse, Robert. Department of the South: Hilton Head Island in the Civil War. 1961. Reprint, Hilton Head Island, S.C.: Impressions Printing, 1987.
Danielson, Michael N. Profits and Politics in Paradise: The Development of Hilton Head Island. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Grant, Moses Alexander. Looking Back: Reminiscences of a Black Family Heritage on Hilton Head Island. Orangeburg, S.C.: Williams Associates, 1988.
Greer, Margaret. The Sands of Time: A History of Hilton Head Island. Rev. ed. Hilton Head Island, S.C.: SouthArt, 1994.
Harvey, Natalie Ann. “The History of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 2000.