5-Minute History: A trawling tradition


Story by Richard Thomas + Illustrations by Carly Schultz

Though the visibility of oysters on the low-tide mounds of area creeks, or in the shell rings still there in various places on Hilton Head, make the oyster the obvious leading candidate for the true indigenous food of the Island, the less conspicuous shrimp may well have an equally strong claim.

Among the shellfish remains commonly found in the millennially old shell rings of the Southeast is the shrimp mandible, a relatively distinct and durable part of its crustacean exoskeleton, giving substance to the conclusion that shrimp was a part of the indigenous people’s diet thousands of years ago. Native Americans on the southwest coast of Florida appear to have had shrimp as a staple food, as the telltale mandible is found abundantly in the shell mounds of their maricultural society as well. Perhaps, at the time the Egyptians were building the pyramids, North American indigenous people were harvesting shrimp and other crustaceans by using weirs and seines made of branches and Spanish moss or nets woven with a fiber made from the stalks of beaten plants. By the time of European contact, the powerful Calusa people of southwestern Florida were observed to be using pens made of reeded walls to strain the ebb tidal flow to harvest fish and crustaceans from the pools between their mounds of shell.

“Many visitors cited Hilton Head’s shrimp, and not its oysters, as a food-related reason they return.”

Ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about shrimp in their diets as early as the third century AD, and in 1280 Marco Polo cited Chinese references from 600 AD with regard to shrimp netting in the Pearl River Delta. Native Americans among the Muskogeanspeaking tribes of the southeast and Gulf coasts would prepare a dish for special occasions that featured shrimp cooked with hominy, a delicacy foreshadowing today’s shrimp and grits. French seine nets were brought by the Breton and Norman mariners who came to the Port Royal area in the 16th century, but the knowledge for harvesting shrimp was little known among them at the time. With the establishment of French territory on the Gulf Coast, seine netting of white shrimp began, and the popularity of shrimp in Gulf Coast Colonial diets spread. Yet it was the arrival of the Chinese in the Gold Rush Era, with their centuries-old shrimp industry, that firmly anchored the shrimp as an American dietary standard on the often-visited shores of San Francisco Bay.

On Hilton Head and other coastal lands in Carolina, shrimp had been a subsistence fishery, learned by enslaved people and European settlers from the Native Americans. It was the advent of industrial canning that caused the local commercial fishery to develop. In the 1920s no fewer than five canning operations were on Hilton Head’s shores to process the local area catch made possible by the advent of the so-called “otter trawl,” a cone-shaped net that increased the yield dramatically from most shrimping trawlers. The ready market for shrimp for canning drove the Native Islanders to explore shrimping’s commercial viability, and many of them became regular suppliers of the local canneries. The availability of commercial ice and refrigeration in the 1940s enabled the catch to be sold further afield, and an individually oriented fishing industry continued for decades. In 1966 due to the development of the Island and the increased demand for fish and shrimp, the Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative formed. Economies of scale helped create the financial viability for more fishermen to own their own boats, and the industry thrived until a combination of factors, notably competition from overseas, weakened the profitability of locally harvested fish and shrimp.

By the time the Hilton Head Fishing Cooperative disbanded, the Gullah people had made shrimp a staple of the local diet for centuries. Forced together by slavery from different tribes, countries, cultural backgrounds and languages, they lived a rural and relatively isolated existence. They hunted deer and raised hogs, chickens and vegetables and incorporated oysters, turtles and shrimp into their diets, with rice the basis for their cuisine. However, at present over 200 varieties of shrimp are indigenous to West African waters, so it was not an unknown food when it was harvested locally. Along the way the Gullah also incorporated corn grits, given to them on occasion by their masters while enslaved. Grits was ground locally with a rough mill stone, giving it a coarser grainy texture than in some areas, and whenever rice was not available, the Gullah replaced it with hominy, in the process creating the first versions of delicious Gullah shrimp and grits.

Today the sweetness of locally harvested shrimp is well known, and it is available in multiple versions on the menus of Hilton Head’s many restaurants. And in an informal survey conducted recently, many visitors to the Island cited Hilton Head’s shrimp, and not its oysters, as a food-related reason they return year after year. Had it not been for the Island’s Gullah fishermen, and a strong demand for canned shrimp 100 years ago, the bounty of HHI’s local shrimp fishery might have gone underutilized and under appreciated a few years longer. LL

Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.

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