5-Minute History: Treasured Island


Story by Richard Thomas + Illustrations by Carly Schultz

With the English settlement of South Carolina primarily confined to the Charles Town vicinity for the first 50 years of its existence, the Port Royal Sound and the surrounding area became relegated to the status of “Indian Territory” and later “buffer zone” between the Spanish in St. Augustine and the seat of the English government of Carolina in the port of Charles Town. Even before the founding of Charles Town in 1670, Hilton Head Island and the immediate area had been the focal point of international influence for over a century and a half.

Spain colonized islands in the West Indies beginning in 1493, and the flow of riches from South and Central America started in the 1520s, giving rise to regular voyages of Spanish treasure fleets through the Bahamas Channel. Flowing along the coast of North America, the Gulf Stream, which a Spanish pilot had discovered in 1519, sped ships laden with bullion to Europe. Even before that, at least one Spanish scout, looking for sources of indigenous people for slavery, had sailed into the Port Royal Sound, noting it as an area of bounty. Another scout, Pedro de Quexo, may have noted Hilton Head Island in his ship’s log in 1521 at 32 degrees 30 minutes North, without naming it.

Then Verrazano, hired by the French king to search the coast of North America in 1524, is believed to have cruised the southeast coast as far as the Savannah River and returned to report Port Royal Sound as a possible location of the fabled Northwest Passage, the water route to Asia through the North American continent. In 1525 Quexo returned to scout the Port Royal area as a potential site for a Spanish colony, and he recommended it on his return to Hispaniola. The following year Lucas de Ayllon and Quexo, as his chief pilot, came to the Port Royal Sound intending to settle there. Naming the area Santa Elena and naming Hilton Head Island as La Punta de Santa Elena, they explored the vast harbor looking for a site to settle. Not finding the large villages of Native Americans reported by Quexo the year before, Ayllon sailed south to what is believed to be the Sapelo Sound area to found the first European colonial settlement on the North American continent in 1526. Named San Miguel de Gualdape, it failed within four months.

Spanish interest in the area deepened with two unsuccessful expeditions sent to colonize Santa Elena in 1539 under De Soto and 1559 under De Luna. The realization that Port Royal Sound was a harbor that could shelter a large fleet and was located near the Spanish treasure lanes astride the course of the prevailing westerly winds had made this area a strategically valuable location for the powers of Europe. The French came first in 1562, establishing a small military outpost at Charlesfort across Port Royal Sound on modern Parris Island, but the settlement attempt was abandoned in 1563.

The Spanish colony of Santa Elena would be established on the shores of Port Royal Sound at the ruins of Charlesfort in 1566. It would become the capital of Spanish North America until evacuated due to an Indian uprising in 1576. The French returned later that year but wrecked at the entrance to the sound in a winter storm and were either killed or captured by hostile natives. The Spanish resettled Santa Elena in 1577, and English forays into the area continued until Roanoke Island was colonized in 1585. Its failure halted further English expansion southward along the Atlantic coast for nearly 80 years. Still, in a 1587 royal decree, issued in the face of increasing English aggression in the area, ordered Santa Elena dismantled and consolidated into the struggling colony at St. Augustine.

The first Carolina Charter of 1629 was left unexploited by its grantee, and the 1630s saw Dutch expeditions frequenting the area as they sailed to settle Brazil. The 1640s witnessed the French and the Spanish return to the site, but no colonizing attempts were made. William Hilton’s “discovery” of Hilton Head in 1663 re-asserted English intent to settle. Though the first colony south of Cape Fear was founded in the Charles Town area, the expedition had been headed for Port Royal Sound and the island recommended by Hilton seven years earlier. So, the Scottish Covenanters, who settled their Stuart Town colony on Port Royal Island in 1684, were the first settlers in the Port Royal Sound area since the Spanish in 1566.

Hilton Head began being occupied or settled in recorded history in 1685 when the Yemassee leased the land from the Lord’s Proprietors. An Irishman, John Barnwell, was granted 1,000 acres near Dolphin Head in 1717. After that, settlers of Scottish, Irish, French and English descent began purchasing land on Hilton Head Island and making it their home. They brought enslaved Africans from the Congo, Senegal, Gambia and Sierra Leone. German and Spanish settlers later added richness to the mix of nationalities on this perennially desirable piece of real estate. So, in that light, Hilton Head Island has had a solid international flavor for a long time! LL

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.

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