Story by Richard Thomas
The label “Made on HHI” is hardly a phrase you would think would apply to anything other than some food products that came into existence about 1985, but manufacturing is perhaps the oldest “industry” in the Island’s long history.
Archaeologists believe that the Native Americans of the Southeast Atlantic coast are probably the earliest people to have harnessed the use of pottery to advance their civilization and that the first pots were made in this area nearly 4,000 years ago. The confluence of the three main Late Archaic pottery styles occurs only in the area between the mouth of the Savannah River and Edisto Island along the coast and sea islands. This is attributed to the access the Savannah River provided to people from the deep interior and that this enabled the acceleration of coastal pottery technology development due to frequent and varied knowledge exchange.
Local Native Americans also wove baskets and made dugout canoes long before the Gullah people first brought their skills to the Island in the early 1700s, and until fairly recently, sweet-grass basket weaving was practiced by the Gullah as tool-making rather than as a highly valued craft. The Gullah also made nets for fishing and tools for farming before commercially made products were available here, so the concept of “locally made” did apply to HHI crafted goods prior to the modern era.
The first “heavy industry” in the area was shipbuilding, which began in late 1562 or early 1563 when French settlers at Charlesfort across Port Royal Sound on today’s Parris Island, thinking they had been abandoned, built two small ships and sailed for France. The ships were made of live oak and pine, sealed with pine pitch and caulked with a mixture of pine tar and Spanish moss; they transported the survivors to rescue by an English ship at the entrance to the English Channel. But it was only when the English came to our shores 150 years later that shipbuilding became an industry.
The sea islands of Port Royal Sound had long been recognized by the provincial government of Carolina as a strategic asset due to the abundance of live oak and pine forests from which many varieties of naval stores could be sourced. Shipbuilding began in the local area in the 1730s, mainly in Beaufort, but by the 1740s it had spread to Hilton Head, Daufuskie and other islands, with eight builders listed in the ships’ registries at the time. On Hilton Head alone there were three shipyards and one on Daufuskie near Bloody Point. By 1750 the shipyards of the Port Royal Sound area produced more ships than either of the other two centers of production, Charlestown and Georgetown, and the three yards on Hilton Head were among the area’s most prolific. On land owned or leased by the Laurens, Watts and Emrie families out of Beaufort, Hilton Head’s shipyards were along the south shore of Broad Creek in the modern Point Comfort, Wexford/Long Cove and Yacht Cove areas. The largest ship built in South Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War, a 400-ton schooner, was launched in 1774 from the Laurens ship yard on Hilton Head. Hilton Head’s shipyards were destroyed by the Royal Navy during the Revolutionary War. Two reopened in the 1790s, but they were again destroyed by British warships during the War of 1812.
The advent of man-made materials for ship frame construction in the 1820s signaled the decline of the local shipbuilding industry, and by 1840 only a small boat building industry continued in the local area. But wooden shipbuilders in the Northeast and Europe still sought natural materials, and South Carolina live oak was a preferred source, so an industry called “Live Oaking” developed locally in the 1820s. Timber cut on the Island was fabricated into finished lumber for the keels and ribs for large wooden ships, and the pre-fabricated pieces were shipped to remote destinations. Hilton Head land near deep water docks or landings was leased to cut stands of nearby live oak, and the timber was shipped to mills in the area for finishing. By 1840 an estimated 440,000 board feet of live oak had been shipped from the Port Royal Sound area to yards in New England and Europe.
Other than an oyster and shrimp canning industry that developed on HHI in the 1920s, which was ended by the stock market crash of 1929 and the resulting Great Depression, the label “Made on HHI” was not in use again until the last decades of the 1900s.
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.