The history of ‘how-to’ survive on Hilton Head

Story by Richard Thomas +. Illustration by Carly Schultz

Nowadays, you can find instructions how to do almost anything on the internet, and you can find them in a matter of seconds. Imagine the need for instruction experienced by our earliest residents, who in most cases were people coming to Hilton Head for freedom from domination or oppression of some kind, or who simply sought new opportunities in a new land.

In the case of nomadic bands of Native Americans who visited the sea islands during harsh winters in the interior, they initially would have needed to know how and where best to hunt for the kinds of game or marine life they found here. Or they would have needed to know how to construct temporary dwellings out of the different natural materials and soils of the coastal plain. Some of the skills and knowledge they brought from the uplands would have transferred, but much would have needed to be developed by trial and error over the years, since there would have been no ready source of the new skills or knowledge they required.

Land ho!

When the first Europeans arrived on local shores, they brought along expertise in areas they knew would help create the settlements that became the first colonies. Apothecaries, blacksmiths, cabinet makers, carpenters, chandlers (candle makers), cobblers, coopers (barrel makers), gunsmiths and sawyers (loggers and millers) were members of nearly every early colonial expedition. Further specialized knowledge and skill had to be imported from the mother country when needed, and the transportation of the skilled labor or transmission of written knowledge would take months, even if the labor or knowledge was readily available in Europe.

If the need for knowledge or skill could be foreseen, planning ensured an efficient transfer of knowhow. But most of the significant developments in our local area of the coastal plain came about as a result of finding specialized knowledge and skill in an unanticipated source. The first landowners in what became South Carolina were a mix of professionals from Charleston and intrepid Indian traders, and the land they purchased or were given as grants was typically used initially for grazing cattle or experimenting with potential cash crops like silk. Most of the crops they tried failed, and it was Indian traders, many of whom later became Native American slave traders, who first accumulated the bulk of the wealth in early Beaufort District.

Sugar, spice and everything rice

That wealth, when the Native American slave trade all but ceased in the 1730s, funded the investment in rice and sugar cane plantations along the rivers inland. The sudden need for field labor, combined with the decline of the Indian slave trade, the scarcity of the indentured servant supply from England, and the rise of the indigo and cotton markets, drove a demand for enslaved Africans among local area landowners, many of whom were from former plantation-owning families on Barbados.

African imports were preferred over either indentured servants or slaves sourced from Brazil or the West Indies due to their resigned attitudes, lack of nearby related populations and relative absence of an inclination to escape. They also seemed to be resistant to the endemic diseases of the Lowcountry.

Cotton the middle

What the plantation owners importing enslaved people from West Africa did not realize at first is that these people brought with them the knowledge and skills needed for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of the crops of indigo and cotton, in addition to those for sugar cane and rice. The knowhow to take ripened crops of indigo and cotton and convert them into marketable commodities is what took Lowcountry landowners’ experiments in growing crops from seed to commercially viable yields of produce and the next source of wealth for area planters.

The knowledge and skill of enslaved Africans in South Carolina drove waves of prosperity for planters in the coming decades before and after the Revolutionary War. But it was the coming of new knowledge, in the form of advances in cotton-processing technology, that finally surpassed, and augmented, the skill set of the enslaved Africans in driving the economic boom in Southern states in the first six decades of the 1800s. Also, during the age of industrialization, technological advances in the dissemination of information (mass printing and telegraph) and transportation (steam power) meant that the transmission of knowledge and the supply of skills could occur in a fraction of the time it had taken previously. In this way, needed knowledge and skill could reach remote outposts in days or hours rather than months or weeks.

By the time the development of the Sea Pines Plantation brought contemporary infrastructure to Hilton Head, the indigenous Native Islander population had had access to modern knowhow, if and when needed, in a matter of hours since the end of the Civil War. Perhaps one of the most charming things about the Island is that it was rarely needed. 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.

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