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Road trips in our distant past

Think Saturday traffic is bad? Local Travelers faced much Greater challenges back in the day.

Story by Richard Thomas


The earliest roads in the Beaufort County area were made by 18th-century settlers following paths Native Americans had regularly used over hundreds of years. Due to the semi-nomadic nature of the early Indian tribes, very few paths were traveled enough that they could easily become roads for horse carts and carriages. For this reason, waterways were the main routes of transportation between principal towns for the first century of English settlement in Carolina, and nearly every well-established overland route included one or more ferry crossings over imposing bodies of water. By definition, road trips were water trips to a greater or lesser degree.

In the years following the Indian Wars and leading up to the American Revolution, settlement in Beaufort County south of the Broad River increased to the point that the Anglican Church of South Carolina decided to create a new parish out of the massive St. Helena Parish in 1767. St Luke’s Parish was its name, and it encompassed the lands between the Broad River and the Savannah River, including parts of what are today known as Jasper and Hampton counties.

A new church for the new parish, St Luke’s Anglican, was built on the Kings Highway running north-south near the intersection with the main road leading east to the inland waterway and the ferry crossing to HHI. Construction was completed before the Revolutionary War, and the church was regularly used until it burned in 1833. For residents of Hilton Head Island, going to church meant a road trip of over 30 miles round trip by boat and horse-drawn carriage and, in many cases, an overnight stay at the house of a fellow parishioner in the Okatie area. Two St Luke’s parishoners who lived on Hilton Head petitioned the parish in 1781 to allow them to build a chapel of ease there for the convenience of Island residents. Their petition was approved, but construction of the Zion Chapel of Ease was delayed until 1786 due to the continuation of hostilities between partisan forces in the area.

Chapels of ease were a convention in the early churches to allow ease of
worship for parishioners who lived far from the main church and for whom travel to it was impractical. The Zion Chapel was completed in 1788, and two other chapels of ease were built in St Luke’s Parish in the next few years, so the long road trips to church for HHI residents were significantly reduced in the coming decades. At first, Zion Chapel would be visited in alternate weeks, but when the other two chapels of ease were completed, the itinerant vicar would come to the Island only once a month. The most pious families would still have to travel significant distances to the main church or other chapels of ease if they wanted church worship during Zion Chapel’s off weeks, so during those years, many Island resident families would often opt to “read services” out of the Common Book of Prayer at their homes when Zion Chapel was vicarless.

When the Reverend Phillip Mathews arrived on Hilton Head as its first resident minister in 1821, the long road trips to church finally ended for Islanders, up until the Civil War.

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.