5-minute history: The evolution of Hilton Head ‘natives’

Story by Richard Thomas

When it comes to Hilton Head, the term “native” might well be defined as a function of the point in time referenced, because the meaning of “native” on HHI has changed dramatically over the years.

Our first true “natives” were nomadic paleo-Indians who migrated from the interior seeking new fishing and hunting grounds. As annual travel to their ancestral homelands became less necessary, they formed more sedentary, extended-family groupings. These grew over time into small tribes, and communication with nearby villages slowly formed common language groups. These Hilton Head “natives” originally derived from Native American stock of the Oconee province and spoke a Muskogean language. Semi-nomadic when Europeans began to arrive, tribes in the Port Royal Sound area numbered from 12-19 at any given point. On Hilton Head they were mainly of the Escamacu tribal group. As the first European settlement intruded into the area, some tribes moved northward and westward, leaving a loose confederation of coastal tribes who were referred to as Cusabo by the English. 

Because the Escamacu had migrated to the interior, Hilton Head was vacant and became part of a buffer zone between the English in Charles Towne and the Spanish in St Augustine. At that time the Yemassee, who had migrated north along the coast to avoid the Christianization attempts of the Spaniards, became the new “natives” of the Island. The Lords Proprietors of Carolina actually leased Hilton Head to Altamaha, the paramount chief of the Yemassee, and it was temporarily known as Altamaha Island until the Yemassee migrated to the Ashepoo River basin for a ten-year period around 1700. Then, during the Yemassee War and the following 10-year raiding period, Hilton Head’s only “natives” were the mortal enemies of the Yemassee, Tuscarora warriors employed by the Council of Safety as lookouts and scouts against Yemassee and Spanish raids from the south.

European settlement of Hilton Head began at the end of the Indian wars about 1728, as early French, Scot and English settlers cleared land for grazing cattle and cash crops, including indigo. Their children became the first European “natives.” And, since the westward migration of Native Americans in the mid-1730s ended the period of enslaved Indian people, a sudden scarcity of field labor led to the first great importation of enslaved African people into South Carolina. The first Africans, mainly from the western coast of Africa, likely arrived on Hilton Head in the 1740s, and it was these people who became the next “native” population of Hilton Head prior to the Revolutionary War.

An arrowhead found locally might be more than 10,000 years old, which is exciting to ponder. A less happy thought is what happened to the descendants of those people.

With the end of the Revolution, following five years of lawless chaos in the sea islands south of Charleston, a new wave of enslaved Africans arrived on Hilton Head. Mostly from the Sene-Gambia region, these Gullah people brought agricultural knowledge and skills to rebuild the shattered economy of the nascent State of South Carolina. Much of the land that had remained unsold prior to the war was purchased by planters from Charleston and the Edisto area on which to grow the newly introduced cash crop of Sea Island cotton. These new European residents, who tended to maintain primary residences in the larger cities, invested in the land, developed high-volume plantations, and the Island began to prosper once again from the yield of enslaved African labor.

The coming of the Civil War saw landowning slaveholders evacuate the Island with their families, and after an eight-year occupation of the area by Federal forces, the Island land was left to the former slaves and their families. These resourceful Native Islanders and their descendants built a subsistence economy that provided a comfortable life through farming and fishing from nearby waters. Separation from the mainland and the resulting isolation allowed them to maintain their Gullah culture in a pure state, virtually uncontaminated by contact with the outside world for over 80 years. Other than a few whites who stayed on the Island after the war, and several Cuban revolutionaries who sought refuge here in the last two decades of the 19th century, the Gullah were the only “natives” of the Island at the time. 

The seclusion and peace Native Islanders enjoyed lasted into the early 1900s and was then disturbed only occasionally by efforts to mine the forests for timber or turpentine, or by the intermittent presence of U.S. military camps, or white-owned hunting clubs, or by a short-lived oyster canning industry until the 1940s. The post-WW II period witnessed the arrival of a few early beach house builders and, in 1950, the arrival of the lumbering Hilton Head Company. Hilton Head’s connection to the mainland by a bridge opened in 1956 activated the newest influx of “natives” coming to its shores. 

A Union soldier stands with African Americans in 1862 on the plantation of Thomas F. Drayton on Hilton Head Island. Photo by Henry P. Moore.

Since then, vacationers to the Island have returned year after year, many eventually becoming residents later in their lives. As the service industries expanded in support of the growing retirement communities, a younger population came to the Island and gradually birthed a new wave of Hilton Head “natives.” This generation of Islanders grew up here, were educated in local schools, found lasting employment in local businesses and began to raise their children who were fully Hilton Head “natives.” 

Today it is not at all uncommon to find fourth- and even fifth-generation Hilton Head families among the white population who can truly be considered Native Islanders in much the same way that families of black Native Islanders have been for centuries. But it is only the Gullah families who can trace their roots to ancestors enslaved here in the early Colonial period by our early European residents who are, without a doubt, the most “native” of all Island residents who can claim that status.

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