Hilton Head’s untold history: Grave robbers once roamed Hilton Head

Story by Richard Thomas

Grave robbers once roamed Hilton Head

Baynard Mausoleum, built in 1846 by William Baynard, is the oldest existing structure on Hilton Head Island. It was constructed of brownstone and bluestone, shipped here from the North, and was unlike anything the Lowcountry had seen before. ©Arno Dimmling

There are 14 Native Islander cemeteries on the Island today, most of them still in use and owned and or tended to by the descendants of Freemen families. There are two other cemeteries on the Island, Six Oaks Cemetery still in use in Sea Pines, and a closed one at the site of the former Zion Chapel of Ease. 

In 1846, William Edings Baynard, owner of several plantations on Hilton Head and in Bluffton, built a magnificent mausoleum in the Zion Chapel of Ease Cemetery as a final resting place for his family. Unlike anything ever seen before in these parts, it was constructed of brownstone and bluestone, quarried in the North and shipped here by barge to be assembled on the bank of Broad Creek where it stands today. Baynard became the first interment in the mausoleum in 1849, and his wife and mother of their seven children, Catherine Scott Baynard, joined him there five years later. The cemetery and chapel were in use from 1788 until the Union army invaded Hilton Head in 1861. During those years, there were believed to be five more interments in the 20-crypt chambers designated for the Baynard family.

In 1869, the grandson of one of the donors who built the chapel, the Rev. John Jenkins Stoney, retuned to resume services at the chapel but found it and all its contents gone. The cemetery was not noted to have been vandalized at the time, so it is likely it and the mausoleum were intact and remained untouched for the 30 years after Federal forces left the Island. However, an article from a 1901 issue of The State newspaper in Columbia reported that a physician from Beaufort, riding on horseback to the Hilton Head hunting land kept by the Beaufort Gun Club (in the area of today’s Leamington Plantation), passed by the cemetery on the dirt track that is now Route 278 and noticed that the “doors of the mausoleum were broken and hanging from their hinges.” Riding off the road to take a closer look, he saw that seven coffins were “strewn about the grounds and even into the marsh.” He said that five were wooden and two were of iron, known as Fisk Burial Caskets, available only to the very wealthy at the time.

©Arno Dimmling

The doctor noted that one of the iron coffins was cracked open and revealed the skin of the person inside. Curious, and being a physician, he rode to the casket and looking down from his horse through a glass faceplate saw the “long blond hair of a woman who must have been a beauty in life.” Dismounting, he reached through the crack to feel her skin and found it “as supple as though she had been buried the day before.” That was 46 years after Catherine Baynard had been interred in the mausoleum. The wooden coffins had all been broken open and contained what the doctor called “a most gruesome dust.”

At the time, Hilton Head’s Port Royal Sound shore was the site of one of nine Zalinski Pneumatic Dynamite Cannons on the East Coast, placed at strategic locations during the Spanish-American War. It was manned by crews from Fort Fremont on St. Helena Island, which were ferried across the Sound by boat every few days. Given the likely timing of the break-in at the mausoleum and the gun emplacement site at nearby Coggins Point, it is probable that crewmembers broke into the mausoleum in search of jewelry or other valuables. Due to their respect for the dead and superstitions, it is highly unlikely that Native Islanders would have violated the sacred grounds of the cemetery.

The mausoleum and cemetery remained untended and subject to vandalism until 1989, when the mausoleum entrance was sealed and locked. No remains are currently in the mausoleum, but excavations of the interior in 2014 found jewelry and other artifacts, as well as human bones. DNA testing found they belong to two different people, one of them being Catherine Baynard.


Read more Hilton Head Island history here

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