Faces of history

The Lowcountry has been shaped by individuals from diverse backgrounds, each leaving their unique imprints on the region. However, there are those whose impact stands out above the rest, leaving an enduring legacy. 

There is a luxury very few people can enjoy, and that’s knowing exactly what kind of mark they will have made on history. Most of us will pass in and out of this world without a mention in the textbooks. A select few will plant a garden whose shade they will never rest under. But every once in a while, someone gets to watch their legacy unfold in their own lifetime.

The history of the Lowcountry is the result of all these legacies unfolding at once in one of the most uniquely beautiful places on Earth. Some are legacies worth celebrating; some legacies serve as cautionary reminders of our history’s darker moments. Few of us ever know which one we’ll leave.  

Whether drawing our name on the map, plunging the South into war, finding heroism amid our nation’s darkest hour or simply introducing the world to the Lowcountry, these four left an indelible mark on our beloved Lowcountry. Local historian Rich Thomas guides us through their remarkable lives.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

This Spanish conquistador literally put the Lowcountry on the map. 

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) was a Spanish soldier, sailor and captain who played a crucial role in the early history of the United States. © Georgetown University Library Art Collection

By the time Pedro Menéndez de Avilés was born in 1519, the rough edges of the New World were still coming into focus decades after Columbus arrived. The seventh of 19 children in a family that enjoyed nominal standing among the Spanish aristocracy, he came of age during the golden age of exploration. And like so many back then, he came of age quickly, boarding a ship at the age of 10 that would take him up and down the Bay of Biscay. 

“Eventually he enlists in the Navy and becomes one of the youngest captains in the Mediterranean fleet,” said Thomas. “During one battle off the coast of Galicia, he captured five times as many ships as the other more senior captains combined.”

In fact during his meteoric rise to being named Captain General of the Ocean Sea, he was defeated in exactly one battle. The victor in that conflict, a naval skirmish near La Rochelle? Another towering figure in Lowcountry lore, Jean Ribaut.

De Avilés eventually would get his revenge, but not before his prowess at sea caught the eye of King Philip, who wanted to establish a permanent Spanish settlement in Port Royal. 

“They had recognized the value of this port and its position for a number of reasons,” said Thomas. “You have the Gulf Stream, proximity to the Savannah River, prevailing westerlies. … They used to say if you were a ship in anchor in Port Royal Sound and raised your sail, you’d have a trailing breeze all the way back to Spain.”

As luck would have it, the best place for this new Spanish port was near the spot de Avilés’ old enemy Ribaut had abandoned — the old French settlement of Fort Charles on Parris Island. Sweeping into Port Royal Sound, de Avilés found an area ripe for the taking. He christened it Santa Elena and quickly turned it into one of the most strategically vital settlements in the New World.

“If you look at the contemporary maps, whether they’re Spanish, Portuguese or French, it doesn’t matter. There is no town, no port, no city, mentioned anywhere along the coast, other than Santa Elena,” said Thomas. “For 21 years Santa Elena was the spot. And it’s because of the interest in Santa Elena and Port Royal Sound that other European powers start to vie for control of this area. Had it not been for Pedro Menendez de Avilés, I don’t think Hilton Head’s role in that early history of western expansion of European powers would have been as prominent as it was.”

He would spend his remaining years expanding Spain’s interest and eventually putting his old rival Ribaut to the sword. “He got his revenge,” said Thomas. While later men would claim to have put the Lowcountry on the map, Pedro Menendez de Avilés is the person for which that is the literal truth.

Ten remarkable achievements

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519-1574) achieved numerous accomplishments throughout his life, including:

1. Founding the city of St. Augustine: In 1565 Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States.

2. Defeating the French: In 1565 Menéndez de Avilés defeated and massacred a French expedition led by Jean Ribault, who had attempted to establish a French colony in what is now Florida.

3. Establishing Spanish dominance in Florida: Through his efforts to establish Spanish settlements in Florida and repel foreign rivals, Menéndez de Avilés helped establish Spanish dominance in the region, which continued for centuries.

4. Building the Castillo de San Marcos: Menéndez de Avilés oversaw the construction of the Castillo de San Marcos, a fortress that still stands in St. Augustine and is now a national monument.

5. Founding the first Jesuit mission in the United States: In 1566 Menéndez de Avilés established the first Jesuit mission in what is now the state of Georgia.

6. Sailing across the Atlantic multiple times: Menéndez de Avilés was an experienced sailor who crossed the Atlantic Ocean multiple times, including to serve as the commander of the Spanish Armada in the 1570s.

7. Serving as governor of La Florida: Menéndez de Avilés served as governor of La Florida from 1565 until his death in 1574, overseeing the development of Spanish settlements in the region.

8. Being a skilled military strategist: Menéndez de Avilés was a skilled military strategist who used his knowledge of the land and the local Indigenous tribes to successfully defend Spanish settlements and defeat rival European powers.

9. Establishing trade routes: Menéndez de Avilés played a key role in establishing trade routes between the Americas and Spain, helping to fuel the growth of the Spanish empire.

10. Leaving a lasting legacy: Menéndez de Avilés’ efforts to establish Spanish settlements in Florida and repel foreign rivals helped lay the groundwork for centuries of Spanish influence in the region, and his legacy is still felt today in St. Augustine and beyond.

Robert Barnwell Rhett

 This legendary fire-eater was the father of secession.

Robert Barnwell Rhett
Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876) was an American politician who served as a deputy from South Carolina to the Provisional Confederate States Congress from 1861 to 1862, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina from 1837 to 1849 and U.S. Senator from South Carolina from 1850 to 1852. ©Timothy H. O’Sullivan

Some men do great things, with the word “great” signifying the righteousness of their actions. Some men do great things, but the word “great” in their case simply means their actions had profound consequences. Right or wrong, what they did was great simply because of its impact. Robert Barnwell Rhett, legendary “fire-eater” of the U.S. Congress, definitely belongs in the latter category.

“He believed very, very strongly in what he was advocating, as far as the need to have state sovereignty,” said Thomas, putting it lightly.

Born Robert Barnwell Smith in 1800 to a modestly successful farming family (he would legally assume the name Rhett later in life), he was one of three boys and two girls who lived in Beaufort during a transformative era. “Beaufort at the time was enjoying a resurrection from the somewhat lawless days of the Revolutionary War,” said Thomas. “It became kind of a paragon of virtue, a center of intellectual endeavor and activity.” 

With the opening of a university in town, Rhett was able to receive an education and pursue the law with his cousin in Walterboro. His growing client list of wealthy planters and well-connected political contacts allowed the young Rhett a front-row seat to the South’s nascent good-old-boys network. Riding this wave of political clout to the Statehouse, he established himself as a rabble-rouser when the federal government rolled out what’s called the “Tariff of Abominations.”

At risk of oversimplifying, the Federal Government voted to levy massive tariffs on goods coming up from the South, favoring the wealthy industrialist in the North. Rhett wasn’t having it and rallied the state legislature to nullify the tariff.

“The South Carolina legislature voted basically not to obey the tariff,” said Thomas. The Federal Government deepened the crisis by enacting the Force Bill, saying essentially that South Carolina would pay the tariff or be forced to through military means. “The ‘Nullification Crisis,’ as it’s known becomes the spear for the states’ rights movement,” said Thomas. “It’s also the first time that he actually uses the term ‘secession.’”

It would not be the last. Buoyed by his ally from Alabama, Albert Yancey, Rhett (as he is now called) becomes the face of a group known as the “Bluffton Boys.” When this group met beneath an oak tree in 1844 to hear Rhett deliver another of his fiery diatribes against government overreach, states’ rights underwent a name change. From that moment on, Rhett’s movement to secede from the Union would then be called “The Bluffton Movement.”

It would come to a head just a few miles up the coast, when South Carolina cannons would fire on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. 

“His history is fascinating because he becomes the only person in our nation’s history to actually foment revolution to the point of disunion,” said Thomas. “It’s not a noble accomplishment… but it had a massive impact on the course of history.”

Ten notable and infamous achievements 

Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876) was a prominent figure in 19th-century American politics and is remembered for his strong advocacy for states’ rights and secession. Some of his most impactful moments include:

1. Being a founding member of the Confederacy: Rhett was a strong proponent of states’ rights and secession and played a key role in the formation of the Confederate States of America.

2. Advocating for slavery: Rhett was a staunch defender of slavery and believed that it was a crucial component of the Southern way of life. He argued that the abolition of slavery would lead to economic ruin and the destruction of Southern culture.

3. Serving in Congress: Rhett served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina from 1837 to 1849, and then as a senator from 1850 to 1852.

4. Founding a newspaper: Rhett founded a newspaper called the Charleston Mercury, which became a leading voice of the secessionist movement in the South.

5. Arguing for nullification: Rhett was a leading advocate for the doctrine of nullification, which held that individual states had the right to nullify Federal laws that they believed were unconstitutional.

6. Influencing the secession movement: Rhett’s fiery speeches and writings played a key role in influencing the secessionist movement in the South, and he was a major figure in the lead-up to the Civil War.

7. Leaving a lasting impact on Southern politics: Rhett’s ideas and beliefs continue to influence Southern politics to this day, and his advocacy for states’ rights and secession has been cited by some as a precursor to modern-day movements such as the Tea Party.

8. Being remembered as a controversial figure: While Rhett is admired by some for his unwavering defense of Southern values and states’ rights, he is also remembered by many as a divisive and controversial figure whose views on slavery and secession were fundamentally at odds with the principles of the United States.

9. Contributing to the shaping of American history: Rhett’s ideas and actions played a significant role in shaping the course of American history, and his legacy continues to be debated and studied by historians today.

10. Being part of a complex legacy: Rhett’s life and legacy are complex and multifaceted, and his contributions to American history must be viewed in the context of the complex political and social forces of his time.

Robert Smalls

 This formerly enslaved local man risked his life to liberate his family and became a legend in the process. 

Robert Smalls
Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was an American politician, publisher, businessman and maritime pilot. ©Library of congress

Few people can claim to have had the kind of outsized impact on our nation’s history that Robert Smalls had, yet few historic figures are as widely ignored or forgotten as he has been. 

“I think he’s a footnote everywhere other than Beaufort County because to know the story of Robert Smalls, you need to live here for a while, and you need to see his name all over the place,” said Thomas. But with the Reconstruction Era becoming a larger part of our country’s historical conversation, and the achievements of African Americans receiving a larger piece of the spotlight, the world is close to catching on. 

Just in case you haven’t been here long enough to gain an appreciation for one of our truly legendary historical figures, Robert Smalls was born into slavery in 1839 in Beaufort. By the time his extraordinary life ended in 1915, he had performed one of the most daring exploits of the Civil War, played a crucial role in allowing freed African Americans to serve in the armed forces, won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, established South Carolina’s public schools and the state Republic party and purchased the home where he had once been enslaved. As a reflection of his benevolence, he allowed his former enslaver to move in and stay there during the last years of her life.

In short, his was a life that far more people need to know about.

His early years spent in servitude to the McKee family saw the young Smalls working in the house, affording him opportunities to learn and grow beyond tending the house. Hired out as a laborer when he was just 12 years old, he took on several jobs, including a long stretch working on the water as a helmsman around Charleston Harbor. 

“It’s that base of knowledge that puts him in a position to do something that probably nobody else would have been in a position to do,” said Thomas. What he did was slip his wife, children, seven crew members and their families aboard the ship CSS Planter, evade Confederate detection and flee to freedom. 

And he was just getting started. After word got out about the courage of his escape, he was asked to come aboard the USS Wabash, flagship of Union officer Samuel Francis du Pont, to meet with du Pont and General Rufus Saxton, assistant commissioner of the Freedman’s Bureau.

“The two of them interview Robert Smalls for about 25 minutes. And after 25 minutes both of them come away saying that this man is so articulate, so powerful and so persuasive that they’re going to send him to Washington to lobby the Lincoln administration.”

In between advocating for the formation of Black troops, Smalls also served the Union with distinction aboard the former Confederate ship, the Planter, using both his intimate knowledge of our waterways and his seemingly limitless bravery to become a legendary figure.

“At that point the country really needed it,” said Thomas. “He became kind of a symbol that maybe all this strife was going to be worth it, because look at what this individual can contribute.”

Ten remarkable achievements 

Robert Smalls (1839-1915) was a remarkable individual who achieved many significant accomplishments throughout his life, including:

1. Stealing a Confederate ship: In 1862 Smalls, who was enslaved at the time, stole a Confederate ship called the CSS Planter and sailed it to freedom, along with 15 other enslaved people.

2. Serving in the Union Army: Smalls went on to serve as captain of The Planter for the Union Army during the Civil War, and he played a key role in several important naval engagements.

3. Becoming a member of Congress: After the Civil War Smalls became involved in politics and was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served five terms.

4. Advocating for civil rights: Smalls was a vocal advocate for civil rights and fought for the rights of African Americans both during and after his time in Congress.

5. Founding a school: Smalls was instrumental in founding the first public school for African American children in Beaufort.

6. Building a successful business: Smalls built a business empire that included a steamship company, a lumberyard and a general store.

7. Working to establish a national park: Smalls was a strong advocate for preserving the natural beauty of the Lowcountry region, and he worked to establish what would eventually become today’s Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort.

8. Being recognized for his bravery and service: Smalls received numerous awards and honors throughout his life, including the Medal of Honor and an appointment as Collector of Customs for the Port of Beaufort.

9. Inspiring future generations: Smalls’ incredible story of bravery, perseverance and leadership has inspired generations of Americans, and he is remembered today as a trailblazer and a hero in the fight for civil rights.

10. Leaving a lasting legacy: Robert Smalls’ life and legacy are celebrated today through numerous memorials, including a statue in Beaufort, and his story continues to inspire people around the world.

Charles Fraser

This visionary developer transformed an isolated island into a world-class resort. 

Charles Fraser
Charles Fraser (1929-2002) was an American real estate developer whose vision helped transform Hilton Head Island from a sparsely populated sea island into a world-class resort. ©The Sea Pines Resort

In describing most of these historical figures, Rich Thomas is at the distinct disadvantage of having been born well after they died. In the case of perhaps Hilton Head Island’s most important historical figure, however, Thomas is what historians call a “primary source.”

Not only did Thomas meet Fraser, but he also had multiple opportunities to see that famously fast-paced mind at work.

“I had the pleasure and the privilege of knowing Charles Fraser and being with him in several meetings years ago, and one thing about him is… once he had an idea that he believed was a value, you couldn’t get him to let go,” said Thomas. “He had an incredible imagination and was a very subtly forceful presence. Just an insatiable curiosity, and always wanting to know the implications of things ahead of time.”

In case you don’t know the story of Hilton Head Island’s founding father, Fraser was born into a logging family that taught him the concept of land stewardship and the importance of sustainability. The Frasers may have been in the business of cutting down trees, but they weren’t incapable of seeing the forest for them. 

Perhaps none of the Frasers embodied that as much as Charles, who first came to the island to survey it for its timbering potential but quickly saw a greater use for this spit of trees and sand at the edge of the world. Shaping his idea of a seaside resort, he studied the principles of land development while attending Yale Law. Buoyed by what he’d learned both in the lecture hall and regular trips to resorts up and down the coast, he presented his business plan for what would become Sea Pines to his father and the other owners of the island.

“They literally laughed him out of the room,” said Thomas. “Some of the words that they used were, ‘This is the work of a naive young dreamer; these are unproved ideas; they’ll sub-optimize the value of the real estate.’ Basically, all they wanted to do was finish cutting the timber and then sell the land to developers and be done.”

Fortunately, Charles was able to bring the company’s old guard around to his radical vision, and in 1957 he and his brother, Joe, launched the Sea Pines Company. Driven by a philosophy of building with nature, respecting the natural environment and minimizing the impact to the landscape, what they created on the island’s south end set the course for development all over the world. 

“The direction that he gave to the developers I found fascinating, because it was only his direction and the vision behind it that allowed it to evolve into what it is,” said Thomas. “And obviously his impact is still felt today. He basically changed the whole orientation of coastal-oriented resort retirement communities in the Western world.”

Five remarkable achievements

Charles Fraser (1929-2002) was a real estate developer who played a pivotal role in the development of Hilton Head Island and other coastal areas. Some of his achievements include:

1. Developing Sea Pines: In the 1950s Fraser founded Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head Island, which was one of the first planned resort communities in the United States.

2. Creating a model for eco-friendly development: Fraser was committed to preserving the natural beauty of the areas he developed. He pioneered a model for eco-friendly development that incorporated natural habitats and respected the environment.

3. Revitalizing Savannah’s historic district: In the 1960s Fraser played a key role in revitalizing the historic district of Savannah by leading efforts to restore historic buildings and create a vibrant cultural center.

4. Developing other coastal communities: In addition to Sea Pines, Fraser developed other coastal communities, including Amelia Island Plantation, River Hills Plantation and Kiawah Island Resort. 

5. Contributing to the growth of tourism in the Southeast: Fraser’s developments helped to establish the Southeast as a major tourist destination, and his innovations in resort development have been widely imitated.

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