Hilton Head Myths & Misconceptions: Derivation of the name ‘Skull Creek’

Story by Richard Thomas

Derivation of the name ‘Skull Creek’

Skull Creek, today a section of the Intracoastal Waterway, has been used for centuries as a much-used water passage between the Savannah River and the Charleston Harbor, offering protection from the storms and high seas of the ocean to the east. During the early Colonial days, it was part of what was known as the “Scottish Route” between the two cities and was a haven for the early explorers and pirates of several nations for many years before that. Where Skull Creek got its name has always been a subject of much conjecture and debate on the island, with the answer usually defaulting to the one that sounds the most intriguing to the audience being told.

One of the most popular versions is attributed to the long-standing and penetrating Native American history of the area. A reputed reference from an early English log book to Indians “skulking along the banks of the river” is a source of that interpretation. It gains further credence from the bountiful fish and game resources that French and Spanish explorers cited as the reason for the presence of hundreds of Indian villages along the shores of area waterways. “Skulk” Creek is awkward to say, so maybe the default to “Skull” makes sense.

Another explanation is from centuries of the “brethren of the sea” making the inland waterways in our area a favorite haunt for hiding, resting, repairing and regularly reprovisioning their ships. Several of the internal barrier islands’ ends were often used as careening points to clean the hulls of their ships, a necessity if a pirate vessel was to be able to be fast enough to escape a pursuing patrol boat or warship. The ports of Beaufort and Savannah in the 1700s were typically lawless centers of commerce in which pirate crews were welcome visitors in the taverns and brothels that catered to the riches they brought from their raids at sea. This version holds that the name Skull Creek is taken from the number of pirate flags bearing the skull and crossbones that graced the waterways during the Golden Age of Piracy. More plausible perhaps, but many pirate flags did not use the skull as a symbol, so the derivation is suspect.

This preliminary chart of Calibogue Sound and Skull Creek was created by the United States Coast Survey in 1862. ©LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

My vote goes to the one based on the 1727 map of John Gascoigne, the sea captain who surveyed the waters of Port Royal Sound in 1725. The map is a French language version that shows the locations of many features of Hilton Head and other area lands. On a small island near where Skull Creek enters Port Royal Sound is a notation saying “Ile de Skull ou Golgotha,” or Island of the Skull or Golgotha. Golgotha is the Aramaic word for “skull,” and biblically it references the hill in Jerusalem on which Jesus was crucified due to its general skull shape and the presence of some skull-shaped, weathered rock formations on its slopes. As a number of Native American shell rings on a nearby uninhabited island have shown evidence of Indian burials, it is likely that early European visitors might have found a skull or skulls in a Native American burial site there. In that context, Gascoigne’s reference makes sense, and given that the Island of the Skull or Golgotha is located where ships entering the creek from Port Royal Sound have to pass, the name Skull Creek makes the most sense in that context.


Read more Hilton Head Island history here

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