5-Minute History: From Altamaha Island to Salty Dog

Tracing Hilton Head’s changing iconic symbolism through history.

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.

If you ask Hilton Head Island locals, “What is the most iconic representation of Hilton Head?” they will probably say “the Harbour Town Lighthouse” or maybe “the Salty Dog.” Both are recognized far and wide as landmarks on Hilton Head and therefore representative of it. Most of us have seen various forms of the lighthouse on vehicles in all 50 states, and I know I have seen Salty Dog T-shirts on commercial flights or in airports in several foreign countries. To be sure, these icons apply for the last 50 years of Hilton Head Island’s history. But if you go back further, the answer to the opening question would have been different.  

For the first 30 years after Capt. William Hilton gave his name to the island in 1663, this was the heart of Native American territory for the residents of the Charles Towne colony and the few intrepid traders and a handful of Scottish immigrants who had a short-lived colony on Port Royal Island. In fact, when the powerful Yemassee tribe moved into the area in 1685, the Lords Proprietors saw an opportunity to create a buffer settlement between Charles Towne and the Spanish enemy in St Augustine. They leased Hilton Head and Daufuskie islands to the Yemassee paramount chief Altamaha, and Hilton Head was known for a decade as Altamaha Island. What do you suppose might have been the icon then?

Then, when the Proprietors granted about 20,000 acres of Hilton Head as part of a 40,000-acre barony to John Bayley of Ireland, its name changed again. Bayley’s heirs appointed Beaufort resident Alexander Trench to begin the sale of their Hilton Head land in 1722, and Hilton Head became known as Trench’s Island. Little of the land was sold prior to 1740, and much of it was leased for the grazing of livestock, so would the icon have been a steer or a cattle pen in those days? Or in the time of the American Revolution, when Hilton Head was an enclave of staunch Patriots in a countryside deeply divided but generally sympathetic to the English Crown, would the appropriate Hilton Head icon have been the familiar shoe-shaped landmass emblazoned with a coiled rattlesnake and the slogan Don’t Tread on Me?

During the War of 1812, when the British Navy repeatedly raided and battered the waterfront homes and shipyards of the former Patriot stronghold as revenge for the stiff resistance the Hilton Head militia had provided during the Revolutionary War 30 years earlier, would a fitting icon have been a target with the island as the bull’s-eye?   

When the Union Army and Navy turned Hilton Head into the headquarters of the Federal Military Department of the South and the central supply and fuel depot for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron during the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, Hilton Head, the entire coastal area from the mouth of the Savannah River to the North Edisto River, became known as Port Royal. Intended as a psychological blow to the Confederacy, in addition to depriving the Confederate Treasury of the Sea Island Cotton harvest income in the fall of 1861, the invasion of Port Royal Sound forever altered the fundamental character of the area. What might have the representative icon of Hilton Head been at that time? A Union flag on a pole embedded in the island landmass in the center of the Confederate battle flag?  

Or in the years after the war and before the Sea Pines Company, when Hilton Head was a remote, forested land for hunting, timbering and turpentine mining, reachable only by boat, and its residents were nearly exclusively the descendants of former slaves and freedmen, what might it have been then? Very clearly it is impossible for us to say because we would have to try to view Hilton Head in the context of those times through the eyes of those who knew it then, and divorce ourselves from the ingrained bias of our knowledge of the Hilton Head in the modern era. 

Thus the icons we know and recognize as such become and remain iconic only in the times in which they evolve as icons. Viewed long after the fact, their significance is far less clear.

The Atlantic Blockading Squadron was a unit of the United States Navy created in the early days of the American Civil War to enforce the Union blockade of the ports of the Confederate States. It was formed in 1861 and split up the same year for the creation of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron and the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron.

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