Hilton Head’s untold history: An island by many other names

Story by Richard Thomas

An island by many other names

Vasquez de Ayllon

In recent history, Hilton Head Island has become very well known. It has not always been such a prominent, internationally known name, despite its storied past that has been in the forefront of American history. It hasn’t always been known as Hilton Head Island either, and its former names tell a story of their own.

The Island’s first name was undoubtedly Native American, likely from a precursor of the Muskogean language base, but nothing is known of a name from that time. The first name attributed to Hilton Head comes from a reported log entry by a 16th-Century Spanish explorer who referred to a large island the natives called the Island of the Bears, translated into Spanish as La Isla de Los Orsos. About 10 years later, in 1526, another Spaniard named Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, who was searching for a location for attempted colonization, named the same point of land La Punta de Santa Elena, or the Point of Santa Elena, Santa Elena being what they named the Port Royal Sound area earlier in the voyage. Later that year, Hilton Head would be shown on Spanish royal maps as La Cabo de Santa Elena, the Cape of Santa Elena. Forty years later, French explorer Jean Ribault cruised into Port Royal Sound and gave it its present name, Port Royale, naming Hilton Head as Le Grande Ile at the same time. It remained the Grand or Great Island on French maps, and the Sound remained as Port Royal on English maps through the 1730s.

One hundred years after the French arrived, William Hilton, a Quaker English sea captain from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, entered Port Royal Sound in 1663 from the north via the Port Royal River (Beaufort River of today). He was searching on behalf of Barbadian planters for a location for agricultural fields and a colony of Barbados. He gave the bluffs across the Sound his name, Hilton’s Headland, later shortened to Hilton Head. After Charles Towne Landing became an English and Barbadian colony in 1670, the Yemassee Indians began migrating into the Port Royal Sound area at the invitation of the Lords Proprietors in 1683. The Yemassee became allies and trading partners of the Carolina government, providing lookout and scouting services and creating a buffer between the English and the Spanish in St. Augustine. By 1685, Hilton Head and Daufuskie Islands were fully occupied by the Yemassee, and the Lords Proprietors leased Hilton Head to the Yemassee’s paramount chief, Altamaha, with the Island then being known as Altamaha Island.


By 1695, the Yemassee began migrating north and west to the Ashepoo River area, and the Lords Proprietors sought to stimulate further settlement of the southern lands of the province and granted lands to many. Lord John Bailey of Ireland was given about 18,000 acres of Hilton Head Island in 1698, which then became known as Bailey’s Barony. Bailey never came to live on the Island, and his sons hired Alexander Trench of Beaufort in 1722 as an agent to sell Bailey’s Barony land. Over the next 20 years, Hilton Head became known as Trench’s Island, and that name was reflected on dozens of maps created during that time. Sometime after the growth of the indigo market, the Island again became known as Hilton Head and would remain known by that name for more than 100 years.

In the Civil War, Hilton Head Island was targeted by the Union forces as the headquarters for the Military Department of the South and as the Naval Depot for the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. When a post office at the main federal encampment on Hilton Head was completed, it was given the Postal Service designation “Port Royal” and had a postmark as such. From 1862-1872, the Island would be known as Port Royal, as would the entire military installation on the shores of Port Royal Sound. With the removal of the last vestiges of the Union occupation, the Island reverted to its former identity as Hilton Head Island, and it would remain that way until about 1960. That was the time of the development and promotion of the Sea Pines Plantation, and as Sea Pines gained acclaim as a resort-retirement destination, the terms Hilton Head and Sea Pines began to be used interchangeably. So it would be valid to say that Sea Pines also was a name for Hilton Head during the late 1960s and 1970s.

When the citizens of Hilton Head decided to incorporate to gain control of the zoning regulations of the Island as separate and distinct from those under the aegis of Beaufort County, the Island became the Town of Hilton Head Island in 1983, its official name today.


Read more Hilton Head Island history here

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