Story by Richard Thomas
Latin roots on Hilton Head and in the area are deeper than one might first suspect. After Native Americans, people from Spain appear to have been the first to show real interest in the sea islands and mainland of the Carolina and Georgia coastline, and Spanish explorers were more than likely the first Europeans to come ashore on Hilton Head as early as 1515.
Diego, or Pedro, Salazar cruised into Port Royal Sound only two years after La Florida was discovered and claimed for Spain by Ponce de Leon. Local lore has it that Francisco Gordillo landed on a large island at latitude 32 degrees 30 minutes north (Hilton Head’s coordinates) in 1521 to obtain fresh water for his ships. On a scouting voyage four years later, Pedro de Quexo recorded a name for Hilton Head, La Punta de Santa Elena, as the Spanish name for the promontory at the entrance of the Port Royal Sound, the name which was recorded on a royal map a year later. In 1526 Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon intended to establish a colony at La Punta de Santa Elena with 600 settlers and soldiers, but he settled further south at Sapelo Sound when he found that the Indians Quexo reported living at Santa Elena a year earlier had vacated the area.
Hilton Head’s coast along the Calibogue Sound earned the name Spanish Wells from the barrel wells built by the Spaniards at the fresh-water spring outlets along its low-tide shoreline. Port Royal Sound was targeted as the location for the first English colony in southern Carolina in 1666, and Hilton Head was named as the site, but concern for its proximity to the Spanish in St Augustine ultimately caused the Lords Proprietors to set it at Charles Towne Landing 70 miles to the north.
After the Treaty of Madrid established a lasting American peace in 1795, Spain continued to rule several island provinces in the West Indies for decades, but in Cuba the revolutionary spirit from the American struggle for independence took hold. Cuban exiles and revolutionaries emigrated to the United States in the early 1800s, setting up organizations to overthrow Spanish rule in Cuba. One of these self-imposed exiles was European-educated Ambrosio Jose Gonzales, who partnered with former American army generals to organize and lead two military expeditions to Cuba to aid the insurrectionists there. Both attempts failed due to lack of local support, and Gonzales returned and was tried unsuccessfully in New Orleans for violating the U.S. laws of neutrality. He settled in Beaufort in the early 1850s and soon married Hilton Head heiress Harriett Rutledge Elliott, becoming owner of Myrtle Bank Plantation on Hilton Head, where he frequently lived with his wife and family until the outbreak of war. Gonzales was appointed an artillery officer on the staff of Confederate General Beauregard and became chief of artillery for the Confederate southern command.
Several prominent Cuban-Americans, with whom Gonzales had worked in the revolutionary movement in New York, may have followed him south, and after the outbreak of war at least four families thought to be of Cuban origin are believed to have owned Hilton Head land after its confiscation, during the Union occupation of the Island. In 1864 Ramon Rivas bought 1,000 acres of Honey Horn land from Freedman Dodd for $10,000, nearly five times what Dodd had paid only two years earlier. Rivas then sold 500 acres to countrymen Rafael Alvarez and Thomas Quintera a month later for his purchase price. A Spaniard who had left Cuba for Spain returned briefly to New York and migrated to Hilton Head’s growing Cuban community, Robustrand Hergues, then bought out the others in late 1865, paying a total of $27,600 for 750 acres, nearly four times what his countrymen had paid less than two years earlier.
With the departure of the last Union troops from the Island in 1868, the resurgence of the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain in 1870, and a renewed prospect for the U.S. annexation of Cuba, former revolutionaries and exiles began to gather in Key West in anticipation of what seemed an imminent opportunity to reclaim their homeland. It appears that Hilton Head’s first full resident Latin population left the Island around this time, as Hergues sold his land in 1870, and no further records of land transactions or deeds with Hispanic surnames in the following years have been found to date.