5-minute history: Alcohol in Hilton Head’s past

Story by Richard Thomas

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. 

Isaac Baldwin sold his popular Savannah tavern after his son died of alcoholism around 1790. He used the proceeds to purchase Cherry Hill Plantation on Hilton Head Island.

In many ways, alcohol seemed to figure materially in the course of Hilton Head’s earlier days. The sugar cane grown upriver and cane syrup brought from the West Indies made their way into rum produced locally, which was a popular trade or barter good. Regular shipments from England brought the finer distilled spirits to the frontier settlers in the area through the ports of Beaufort and later Savannah. Pirates swarmed local waterways, raiding the towns and deepwater settler homesteads, seeking rum among other spoils. And rum was later illegally introduced into the Indian Trade by unscrupulous traders as a strategy to lower the natives’ resistance in negotiations.

But one of the most interesting stories involving alcohol occurred in the years following the Revolutionary War. Isaac Baldwin, an ironworker from New Jersey, had immigrated to Hilton Head around 1770 to work in E. Laurence’s (Laurens) shipyard, one of several on the island at the time. After British raids in 1779 destroyed the shipbuilding businesses along Broad Creek, Baldwin joined the HHI Patriot militia. He served as a private in the Bloody Legion and rose to the rank of lieutenant in the Beaufort District Militia by the war’s end. 

Along with the Leaycraft and the Davant brothers, Baldwin was surrendered by General Lincoln at the Fall of Charleston in 1780, imprisoned and later paroled, but returned to duty in HHI’s militia unit. He had married Mary Wolcott from Spring Island soon after his arrival on Hilton Head, but she died in childbirth, leaving him two infant sons. He then grew indigo on a small landlocked plantation and later married Martha Parmenter, who bore him two daughters and two sons. He purchased 535 acres from Peter Bayley in 1783. 

See Isaac Baldwin’s headstone at Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery on Hilton Head Island. The cemetery contains the graves and memorials for four Revolutionary War Patriots: Baldwin, James Davant, John Stoney and Charles Davant.

When the indigo market crashed after the signing of the Treaty of Paris, he sold some land and opened a tavern in the booming city of Savannah, but, despite its great success, he closed and sold it soon after his son, David, who had helped manage the tavern for him, died of alcoholism around 1790. Baldwin returned to Hilton Head with the proceeds of the sale of the tavern to add 290 acres of Cherry Hill Plantation, and 21 enslaved people, to his holdings. He was subsequently elected to the SC House of Representatives for a two-year term but retired after one to devote full attention to plantation life.

By 1798, Baldwin owned 585 acres and had 39 enslaved people harvesting and selling Sea Island cotton, and he cared for Thomas Henry Barksdale, son of his friend George Barksdale, by paying his tuition after George died in debt. Thomas Barksdale went on to achieve great financial success and at one time accumulated 2,600 acres along Skull Creek by purchasing small parcels from their Revolutionary War-era owners. By 1810 Baldwin also owned Baldwin Plantation, part of the later Sand Hill Plantation, roughly 400 acres in size, and had 47 enslaved people in total. He died in 1826 and was buried in the Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery.

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