Story by Richard Thomas + Photos by Arno Dimmling
One of the most common responses to the greeting, “How’re you doing?” on Hilton Head is “Living the dream!” Most residents here would readily agree that Hilton Head is a dream location in which to live. In fact, Hilton Head Island has been the focus of many diverse versions of “living the dream” throughout its history.
The earliest Native American inhabitants of the area likely came here from the mountains during the winters for more temperate surroundings. Their “dream” was a more abundant food supply and a climate less harsh in which to survive.
Later many of the early European expeditions pursued four or more “dreams.” Paramount was a direct water route to the shores of Asia and its riches, the fabled “Northwest Passage.” Second was freedom from religious persecution or the opportunity to bring more people into the Christian faith. Third was the promise of untold riches in the lands to the West, providing badly needed resources for the depleted royal treasuries of the European monarchies. And last was the opportunity for people from lower-class backgrounds to better their lot in life by risking the dangers of colonizing an unknown land. All of these drove people to this area. The British Empire sought to expand to North America’s Atlantic coast because of its bountiful crops and goods as well as a place to establish colonies to create an agrarian paradise. But the convergence of contrasting “dreams” between indigenous and European cultures destroyed the “dream” of Native American peoples who were the first residents of the coastal plain. Then Huguenots from France, Pilgrims from England and Covenanters from Scotland came to the New World, dreaming of freedom of religious expression and freedom from persecution for those religious beliefs.
A dreamland divided
But “The Dream” for Protestant English settlers of America also meant infringing on the dream of Catholic Spanish settlers who had come before. A century of warfare between the two countries ensued, ending in a sharply divided “dreamland” along the Southeast Atlantic and Gulf coasts. British land grants to noblemen led to new settlements in the local area in the early 1700s. And once Yamasee tribes were driven into Spanish territory in the 1720s, Europeans began sailing from the British Isles and establishing farms along the Carolina coast. Rice among the inland and upriver landholders and indigo and cotton among the sea island planters became avenues to wealth and prosperity that fulfilled dreams for many.
However, the labor required to build the crops-based economy of the Carolinas and Georgia came from Africans who were taken away from their homelands and forced into slavery on the plantations of the English dreamers.
Later a growing awareness among whites of the moral contradiction the existence of slavery presented to Christian beliefs, especially after 1820, brought pressure for legislative reform to grant freedom for enslaved people in the Northern states. But because the agrarian economies of Southern states were so heavily dependent on enslaved labor, Southern states staunchly resisted the cry to end slavery in the South.
The Civil War ended “The Dream” for Southern planters, but answered it for thousands of men, women and children who had been enslaved. The Port Royal Experiment heralded the days when Emancipation and Reconstruction structured the rights of formerly enslaved African-Americans in pursuit of their dreams. Beaufort County became a model of black self-government during Reconstruction through land ownership, entrepreneurial endeavors and government opportunities.
So “living the dream” is not in any way a recent phenomenon for Hilton Head residents. In fact, the pursuit of a variety of dreams is woven through Hilton Head’s history. Without a doubt, there will be many more dreams to pursue in the years to come. LL
Richard Thomas is an owner and guide for Hilton Head History Tours and is the author of Backwater Frontier: Beaufort Country, SC at the Forefront of American History.