Story + Photography by Michele Roldán-Shaw
Secret is a relative term: most seasoned locals know about Historic Mitchelville and the quiet stretch of Fish Haul Beach. But it’s not and never will be a Coligny, Sea Pines or Tybee with their T-shirt shops and tourist hordes — there’s only so much beating the Fish Haul track can take. A shallow shoreline on Port Royal Sound that is as much mud flat as white sand, it’s not too good for swimming. There’s a parking lot, bathroom block and outdoor shower, but nowhere to buy drinks. Folks tend to come for the tranquility and wildlife observation — fishing egrets, fiddler crabs, deer tracks in the sand — not to flaunt their beach bodies.
A friend tells me he remembers playing baseball at the diamond here (Barker Field) and riding four-wheelers on the beach. He had his first kiss at Fish Haul, proposed to his wife, and brewed coffee over a little fire to sit and drink with her each morning in two chairs looking out across the Sound. Fish Haul used to be the coolest place, in his estimation, before they ruined it. Granted, I never saw it back then; but as far as what you can find on Hilton Head that’s to my taste, I still think it’s pretty cool. I like the trees coming right up to the beach, the tea-colored stain of the water running down in a tidal channel to the sea. I like how nothing is well marked. You can park at the Fish Haul access, walk a little ways along the beach, then follow a sandy track tamped in the marsh grass and glasswort to reenter the forest via an intriguing trail-tunnel. Suddenly you are in a jungly pocket of Hilton Head the way it once was: palmettos, twisted live oaks, walls of vegetation matted together by wild grapevines, and an exotic subtropical feel that is miles from the strip malls, sports bars and cafes.
Follow these short but enchanting trails to marsh lookouts, secret trees, and eventually the Mitchelville Freedom Park, an important monument to local Black and American history. Here is the site of the first self-governed Freedman’s town in America, founded toward the end of the Civil War during the Union occupation of Hilton Head. White planters and their families had already fled to the mainland, so enslaved Blacks who remained behind were considered “contraband of war”— not yet freed, but no one was telling them to go back to their masters either. The progressively minded Major General Ormsby Mitchel set up a respectable town for them, as opposed to just a squalid camp, with orderly streets and decent dwellings. When he died of yellow fever shortly thereafter, the town was named in his honor. Citizens of Mitchelville elected their own officials, built churches and stores, and not only started a school but made it compulsory for children to attend — the first such law in the South. Mitchelville was heralded as a model for the way forward, and many Northern dignitaries and abolitionists came to see it, including Harriet Tubman.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, the population swelled to 3,000 residents; but when the Union Army left the area in 1868, it took a lot of jobs with it, and the people of Mitchelville began to trickle out into surrounding land to pursue a life of subsistence farming. Archeological evidence concludes that Mitchelville was mostly abandoned by the turn of the century, yet its legacy remains relevant as ever. Local Black islanders, many of whom are descended from Mitchelville’s original inhabitants, are rightfully proud of their heritage as freedom pioneers, and they’ve worked hard to preserve this site. I’m grateful that I — we, all people — can come and enjoy the beach here, unlike at some of the neighboring private communities. It’s a gift I don’t enjoy without considering history and where we stand today. Thank you to our Gullah, Gullah-descended and Black-American brothers and sisters for enriching the Lowcountry with your lives!
How to get there
Location: North End of Hilton Head Island
Mode of transport: Foot
If you go: Be sure to check out the exhibits about Historic Mitchelville, which include replicas of a Praise House, shotgun shack and a beautiful Gullah Bateaux constructed by Native Islander Frank Kidd.