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Faces of history

The Lowcountry’s history is more than just a catalogue of those who have called it home – it’s a reflection of the American experience, and the unique role our area played in shaping it. 

Story by Barry Kaufman and Photography by Lisa Staff

You’ll see them here and there, telltale signs of a greater story being told across centuries. A shell ring set back in a maritime forest. A signpost marking the site of a fierce battle centuries prior. An earthen berm where a mighty fort once stood.

The Lowcountry’s history is written in these signs, a saga that stretches back centuries. It was here that British nobility established their dynasties in the new world. It was here that people born into chains tasted their God-given freedom for the first time. And it was here that a small coalition of historians spent decades preserving these stories.

Richard Thomas is president and CEO of Legacy Leadership of the Lowcountry, a firm specializing in the design and delivery of experiential leadership and team development programs using historic events as a framework for learning. He is the owner and a guide for Hilton Head History Tours.

Richard Thomas

Connecting history and business through learning technology

As a 23-year resident of Hilton Head Island, and someone who has made history his life’s work, Richard Thomas is truly in his element. 

“There’s a growing awareness that what we have here is a unique proposition. If you think about Beaufort County as a whole, there is 500 years of recorded history that applies to this single location,” he said. “I challenge anyone to find another spot in North America that has that same unique history. There isn’t.”

He would know better than most. For nearly 30 years, Thomas has made some of the most historic sites in the world his classroom, and the lessons learned there his curriculum. His first business, established in 2002 but drawing on work he’d pursued for years prior, was called Battlefield Leadership. Built around the famous battlegrounds from Gettysburg to Normandy, these professional development retreats sought to apply lessons learned from past military campaigns to the business world. 

“What we did was develop a kind of technology, a learning framework, that takes key people at pivotal times in a significant historical event, then looks at their actions and decisions under pressure and the results they created,” he explained. “Then we develop case studies around these people and go out to the actual sites where the events took place, then we move that conversation from the battlefield dynamics to what happens in the workplace.”

Military history in particular spoke to Thomas, whose family has served for generations. His great-grandfather was one of two cavalry commanders assigned to Lincoln’s mobile bodyguard and was waiting outside Ford’s Theater to escort the President home after the performance. Another distant relative signed up for two different tours of duty in two different states during the Revolution. 

But it’s the history of Hilton Head Island that calls him now, spurred on by his mother, who served the local historical society back in the 1970s.

“People are interested in finding out about a place they thought they already knew,” he said. Through Legacy Leadership of the Lowcountry, he applies that same technology from his old company to the lessons that the island’s history can teach us. 

“I took the founding of Mitchelville, the Battle of Port Royal Sound, the Battle of Honey Hill and the founding of Santa Elena, four area events that have significance beyond local boundaries and offer wonderful case studies,” he said. He has also established a program on leading innovation, based on the brilliance that led to the founding of Sea Pines. “It’s not every historical event that ends up changing the pattern the world had previously applied to something. (Charles Fraser’s) approach to resort development was unlike anything that had ever been seen before.”

“It’s really very engaging for people,” he said of the lessons learned from local history. “People tend to say that looking at it from this different perspective is really life changing. It’s probably one of the most powerful learning mediums.”

Beyond providing leadership and team-building experiences for groups and corporate retreats, Thomas is thrilled to start sharing the island’s history on public and private group tours. Just before the pandemic hit, he’d secured a 25-seat bus with a plan to guide locals and visitors alike through centuries of Hilton Head and Lowcountry history.

Historic read

Backwater Frontier: Beaufort County, South Carolina at the Forefront of American History

By Richard E. Thomas

A compilation of stories about significant events that took place in Beaufort County and were firsts of their kind in the U.S.

LOCAL SINCE 1952 – Larry Rowland is a distinguished professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina Beaufort. He is a past president of the South Carolina Historical Society and has co-authored several historical books.

Larry Rowland

Championing Beaufort’s role in our nation’s story

There are moments in American history that need no introduction – the Boston Tea Party. The establishment of Jamestown as the first American colony. Plymouth Rock. These are the fundamental building blocks of every American kid’s historical education. But if you ask Larry Rowland, author and professor emeritus of history at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, they don’t tell half the story. 

As he is noted for saying, “All of American history actually began in Beaufort, South Carolina.”

Well, sort of noted for saying.

“That’s a schtick that I use. I’d say it’s an exaggeration,” he said with a laugh. “But if you look at the history written of the United States in the 17th-18th centuries, it was all written by New Englanders and Harvard historians. What did they know? There is an Anglo bias in American history. We’re taught that American history began when the English settled at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. They forgot French history and ignored Spanish. That’s had to be rediscovered.”

As a counterbalance to the learned Yankees who penned history’s first draft, Rowland has made it his mission to champion Beaufort County’s role in our nation’s story. Take the establishment of La Florida by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in the 16th century. You may have heard that St. Augustine was his first capital, and you would be wrong. 

“The first official capital of Florida was Santa Elena on Parris Island in 1566, the year after the temporary founding of St. Augustine in 1565,” said Rowland. “St. Augustine eclipsed it mainly because it was closer to Cuba. They stayed there, and then when Spanish territories shrunk, they abandoned Santa Elena and kept St. Augustine.”

And that is just one of the ways our history began here. Talk to Rowland, or read any of the three volumes of his “The History of Beaufort County,” and you’ll find more. The first municipality in the New World. The first Catholic church. The first French Protestant colony. The birth of the secession movement, and the first strikes of Union retribution. The early Union occupation of the Sea Islands gave rise to social and educational experiments which became the beginning the Reconstruction Era of American history. Another first for Beaufort, now a National Park.

“In five centuries, there were a lot of firsts here,” he said. “That early history is probably the most surprising because most people don’t know it.”

Rowland’s love of Beaufort is one he’s cultivated over nearly 70 years, having moved here in 1952 from New York. He was brought here by his mom, whose family had called Beaufort home for decades at that point. “Her mother (Rowland’s grandmother) died in 1910, so she spent the next ten summers with her grandmother on Bay Street. No matter where we went, my mother never got it out of her head. It was like a dream land.”

Beaufort would become Rowland’s dream as well, and his favorite subject to teach. 

“If you’re teaching, you have to be a little bit of an entertainer, and you have to tell a story,” he said. “The only way to teach is to tell a story. Everyone remembers a story even if they don’t remember the dates. It’s been fun for me, and still is.”

Historic read

The History of Beaufort County, South Carolina, 1514-1861

By Lawrence S. Rowland, Alexander Moore and George C. Rogers Jr. 

Three distinguished historians recount more than three centuries of Spanish and French exploration, English and Huguenot agriculture and African slave labor as they trace the history of one of North America’s oldest European settlements.

LOCAL SINCE 2008 – Melanie Marks is the founder and principal researcher of CT House Histories. She is an ardent advocate for threatened and abandoned properties.

Melanie Marks

Digging deep to uncover Bluffton’s distant past

The village of Caesar’s Creek once occupied a spit of land in Ohio that, like much of Ohio, stretched among gently rolling hills and vales. Unlike much of Ohio, however, Caesar’s Creek no longer exists, having been abandoned by design and flooded to create a new reservoir.

Melanie Marks was one of the last people to set foot in Caesar’s Creek, brought there by her grandfather to poke around among the empty houses and discover their treasures before they were claimed by the water. She may not have found gold or jewels, but on that expedition she found an even greater treasure: a lifelong love of history.

“My grandfather probably should not have done what he did,” she said with a laugh. “I’m sure he knew people.”

That love of history would continue to burn as she moved to Connecticut and raised children, but it was rekindled when she moved into a circa-1740 saltbox home. “That triggered it,” she said. “I researched the history of that house because I was so curious.”

That led to further research, not only on her own home but on other homes in the area. She provided all of her research free of charge as she was still learning, but when her findings landed four different houses on the State Register of Historic Places, she knew she was onto something.

In 2008, she founded CT House Histories (“if I wanted to compete with other researchers I had to look formal,” she said), a firm that ran the gamut of historical research, from historic homes and properties to genealogy. Before long she was established as one of the preeminent researchers in the region, splitting her time between Connecticut and South Carolina. 

It should then come as no surprise that when she moved to Bluffton, a town where the history runs deeper than a king tide during a full moon, she dove in headfirst. One of her first projects was tracking down the history of the Garvin-Garvey House, the freedman’s cottage which sits atop the high bluff at Oyster Factory Park.

“My husband volunteered my services for the Garvin House. It just felt right,” she said. Her research not only fleshed out the scraps of stories tucked away among vaults and libraries across the state and brought Cyrus Garvin’s story to the forefront, it helped spark interest in restoring his historic former home. “The structure was in pretty bad shape. It’s been a joy to watch its evolution since the town did the renovation and formed an advisory group to outfit the house inside and out with interpretive signage.”

Her work not only gave the structure new life and helped the story of a freed man be told, it earned her a South Carolina Historic Preservation Award. “Which was just amazing,” she said. “It’s nice to know people are learning about Cyrus. You can renovate the building, but you really need to know the story of the person who lived in it.”

Her latest project saw her digging deeper into Bluffton’s history than perhaps anyone before her, working in tandem with Burnt Church Distillery to track down the origins of the road’s name. Telling this story meant everything from scouring vaults of old maps to poring over old letters written during Bluffton’s distant past. The results of her research will be published in the upcoming book, “Burnt Church Road: Unraveling the Story Behind the Name.” 

“I never know where work is going to take me,” she said. “You just have to know where to go and whom to ask.”

Historic read

Burnt Church Road: Unravelling the Story Behind the Name

By Genevieve Reilly Secchi with Melanie Beal Marks

Meet numerous Bluffton characters as they navigate through the Lowcountry’s deep and rich history surrounding Burnt Church Road. Pre-order by going to and clicking on the shop tab.

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