The Sea Islands are constantly changing, as are their inhabitants.
Story by Richard Thomas + illustration by Megan Goheen
Sea Islands consist of two types: inland Sea Islands, which are protected on the seaward side by barrier Sea Islands, and barrier Sea Islands, which border the ocean and lie roughly parallel to the landward coast, separated from it by a shallow body of water. Unlike the more stable inland Sea Islands, the terrain of barrier Sea Islands is constantly changing. The largest inland Sea Island in South Carolina is Johns Island near Charleston, and the largest barrier Sea Island is Hilton Head.
In the Pleistocene Epoch, roughly 1.8 million years ago, the sea level was nearly 275 feet higher than it is today, and the South Carolina coastline ran irregularly, southwest to northeast, from Aiken, through Columbia and Camden, past a point near modern Cheraw. As the earth cooled and glaciers formed, the sea level fell and receded in stages to a point nearly 100 miles east of where it sits today. During each of the stages, the eddy current of today’s Gulf Stream, which flows southward along the coast, developed sea bottom ridges of sand running at roughly a 30-degree angle to the shoreline in much the same way as the sand ridges of the sea bottom are formed today.
With warming and glacial melt, the sea level began to rise again and gradually covered the lower ridges until it reached a point within about 15-20 feet of present levels. Hilton Head and the other Sea Islands of South Carolina are the tops of sand ridges left exposed to a high elevation of 7.85 meters above sea level – an elevation reached only on Hilton Head among the barrier Sea Islands. The game that had roamed the coastal plain converged on higher ground and populated the forming Sea Islands. The abundance of land and sea life on the islands attracted bands of Native Americans from the interior, initially during the harsher weather of winter months. Gradually, these nomadic groups began to stay, and coastal tribes were formed.
The presence of native villages was a desirable factor in choosing a location for the first colonial explorers to establish settlements, and the Sea Islands of South Carolina were an early target due to such villages. At the time of the first contact with Europeans, between 12 and 19 tribes had their villages along the shores of Port Royal Sound and the nearby waterways. The tribe residing on Hilton Head at the time were the Escamacu. As European settlements began to spread along the coast, the outposts and small towns of the Sea Islands became attractive targets for rogue Native American groups as well as the pirates and privateers who sailed the Southeast coast and its inland water passages on their way to and from New England and the Caribbean.
With the cessation of native hostility and the decline of piracy in the 1730s, the Sea Islands began to be purchased for agricultural purposes. Since rice could not be profitably grown on the Sea Islands, the advent of the crops of indigo and Sea Island cotton, which both grew extremely well in the salty, sandy soils, drew more settlers to what had previously been considered Indian territory. The commercial success of these crops also drove the accumulation of phenomenal wealth for the Sea Island planters, and some of the richest families in America were the farmers of the Sea Islands.
During the Civil War the Sea Islands from Charleston to Jacksonville became the occupied property of the Union Army and Navy and were used to stage expeditionary operations into the interior up the rivers flowing to the coast. Largely forgotten after the war, the Sea Islands became the home of the Gullah people until wealthy Northerners began to build stately mansions among the coastal islands from Charleston to Jacksonville. Many mansions were abandoned following the crash of the stock market in 1929.
The rediscovery of the Sea Islands as enclaves of wealthy people from the north and west occurred with the development of the Sea Pines Plantation property on Hilton Head in the 1960s, and this pioneering retirement/resort community transformed the once remote and quiet remnants of a gilded age.