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Exploring our stormy past

Story by Richard Thomas + Illustration by Carly Schultz

One of the things that attracts people to Hilton Head is the weather. Generally, sunny days, mild winters and gentle breezes coming off the waters are appealing attributes bringing residents and visitors to our shores. Yet these are not the weather qualities that have most significantly affected the evolution of life on this side of paradise. When you talk about Hilton Head weather, you have to talk about hurricanes.

Official weather records began in 1851, but much of the weather history of the Southeast coast and the Hilton Head area can be discerned from other records prior to that time. Since the beginning of the 16th century, the ship logs of early explorers recorded weather abnormalities when they sailed into local waters. It legitimately can be said that every significant event of the 1500s along the southeast coast of North America was somehow affected by a significant weather occurrence. The 1515 scouting voyage of Pedro de Salazar in Port Royal Sound was disrupted by a raging storm. The 1526 colonizing expedition of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon lost its flagship on shoals near Port Royal Sound and sailed south to a point near Sapelo Sound, where the colony of San Miguel de Gualdape was established. San Miguel was abandoned about four months later due to Ayllon’s death, diseases that claimed nearly half of the 600 colonists and a severe cold snap that froze the water in buckets. The remaining 150 survivors evacuated the colony, and during the return voyage to Santo Domingo, over 40 survivors froze to death on the ships. The fate of the expedition served to quell Spanish interest in North American settlement for the next decade.

In 1565 when French and Spanish colonization attempts clashed in Florida, a series of hurricanes over a two-month period ravaged the fleets and interfered with attacks on their garrisons along the Florida coast. The Spanish expulsion of the French in November that year resulted in the establishment of three military outposts on the Florida coast, including St. Augustine, and of Santa Elena in the spring of 1566 on Port Royal Sound. An attempt by British Sea Dog, Sir John Hawkins, to capture Santa Elena was diverted by a hurricane off Cape Fear the following year. Sir Francis Drake’s fleet, on its way to destroy Santa Elena after ravaging Spanish cities in the Caribbean and burning St. Augustine nearly to the ground in 1586, was dispersed by a hurricane rounding the shoals off Tybee Island. In the dark and rain of the storm, Drake’s ships missed the entrance to Port Royal Sound and, with a strong wind out of the south, were forced to take safe harbor further to the north.

Unable to return to attack Santa Elena the next day due to the winds, he sailed to pick up 85 disgruntled survivors at Roanoke Island and return them to England. After Santa Elena was consolidated into the outpost at St. Augustine in 1587, the English and Spanish contested local lands for nearly 80 years, until Charles Towne Landing was settled in 1670. The area south of Charleston remained a buffer zone between English land and Spanish claims anchored in St. Augustine until a colony of Scots Covenanters, named Stuart Town, was established on Port Royal Island in 1684. Two years later a Spanish attack razed the town, and a Spanish occupation of the area was likely prevented by the arrival of a hurricane, which also kept the Spanish fleet from its planned attack on Charles Town. That storm was known as the Storm of the Spanish Repulse.


A history of hurricanes

Two hurricanes in the 1720s served to further delay the economic recovery from the Yemassee Wars, and two Great Hurricanes of 1752 and 1783 severely reduced local crop yields at economically sensitive times, the latter following the end of the Revolutionary War. Other than the Great Carolina Hurricane of September 1854, few hurricanes affected Hilton Head until the 1890s, a decade in which six storms had a strong impact. The Great Sea Island Hurricane in August 1893 devastated the coast from Savannah to Charleston and hit Hilton Head with a storm surge of over 16 feet of water. An estimated 2,000 deaths in Beaufort County resulted, and severe damage from the storm virtually ended the booming phosphate mining industry that had developed in the area.

Clara Barton, who had worked on Hilton Head during the Civil War, brought the American Red Cross to the Port Royal area in the second disaster relief effort in its history. A physician named John MacDonald supervised relief efforts on Hilton Head for nearly eight months, during which time over 35 miles of trenches had to be dug to let the standing saltwater drain from the fields into the marshes. Another hurricane in October 1893, storms in 1894, 1896 and two in 1898 continued the damage of that terrible decade.

Other than hurricanes in 1911 and 1940, Hilton Head Island escaped heavy storm damage until Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. That is another story for a future campfire. 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.