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From Civil War Forts to Sea Island Life, Museums Reveal History and Heritage of Hilton Head Island

Marie McAden Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.
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While it wasn't always a world-renowned vacation destination, Hilton Head Island has been welcoming visitors to its sandy shores for more than 4,000 years. From the farming communities first established by Native Americans to its modern development as an environmentally sensitive resort, the island has a long and colorful history rooted in its natural riches.

The Butterfly Habitat at the Coastal Discovery Museum offers visitors a close-up look at these beautiful insects with educational displays about the four stages of their life cycle. Photo courtesy of Coastal Discovery Museum.

At the Coastal Discovery Museum, visitors can learn the back story of the island, discover its cultural heritage and explore the dynamic ecosystem that has sustained its residents over the ages.

Located on 60 acres of land once part of Honey Horn Plantation, the museum features unique gardens, including a butterfly habitat and carnivorous plants bog, walking trails, three boardwalks overlooking Jarvis Creek and historic buildings dating back to 1859. The largest of the structures, the Discovery House, is where you'll find the museum's permanent exhibits and interactive stations offering insight into the island's history and environment.

Get to know this popular crustacean on the Blue Crab Discovery Tour, one of a dozen interactive programs offered at the Coastal Discovery Museum on Hilton Head Island. Photo courtesy of Coastal Discovery Museum.

But it's the museum's educational tours and programs that make this learning center such a stand-out. The extensive schedule of "walks" and "talks" cover everything from how to make a sweetgrass basket to throwing a cast net. One of the most popular on-site programs is the Lowcountry Critters Meet and Greet, a fun introduction to alligators, snakes and other island wildlife.

Off-site tours offer visitors the opportunity to explore the island's historic forts, cemeteries and beaches, go birding at the Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge and take an evening sea turtle beach walk. On-the-water excursions include a dolphin research cruise, shrimp trawling, a kayak tour of Jarvis Creek and a May River marine science expedition.

Part of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head, “The Little House” was built in 1930 and stands on land once owned by a former slave. Photo courtesy of the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head.

One of Hilton Head's most fascinating legacies involves the Gullah, descendants of West African slaves left on the island to survive in isolation, farming the land and fishing its creeks. Some 200 years later, the culture lives on in the music, art, crafts and cuisine of the native islanders.

The Gullah Museum was founded in 2003 to preserve the Gullah customs and traditions. It includes the restored "Little House," built in 1930 by a descendant of former slave William Simmons. Everyday objects once used by Gullah families are displayed inside, offering visitors a glimpse at life before the bridge to Hilton Head Island was built in 1956.

You can learn more about the sea island culture on a Gullah Heritage Trail Tour. Native islander guides will take you through a half-dozen Gullah villages dating back to the end of the Civil War, including historic Mitchelville, the first town in the United States developed for freed slaves.

One of just eight antebellum homes in Old Town Bluffton to survive the Civil War, the Heyward House is the only one open to the public for tours.

The Heyward House in the heart of Bluffton's Nationally Registered Historic District offers a different perspective on Lowcountry life before and after the Civil War. Built circa 1841 as a summer home for a local plantation owner, the simple timber-framed house is one of just eight antebellum homes remaining in the tidewater town and the only one open to the public. For a nominal fee, you can take a guided tour of the house and grounds.

Climb to the top of the Harbour Town Lighthouse to learn the history of the island and enjoy a fantastic view of the marina and Calibogue Sound.

The Harbour Town Lighthouse and Museum is another must-see museum. This lighthouse was not actually built to serve as a true lighthouse at all. It was built as a tourist visitor attraction when Hilton Head was first developed as a vacation destination. Each step up the 90-foot tower takes you along a historical timeline. You'll learn about the island's namesake, Captain William Hilton, an English explorer sent to prospect the new world; the island's role in the Revolutionary and Civil wars; and Charles Fraser's visionary master plan for Sea Pines Plantation. And when you get to the top, you will get a beautiful view of the marina and surrounding island.

The shrimp trawler is one of several Lowcountry-themed exhibits at the Sandbox Children’s Museum.

Got kids? Don't miss The Sandbox, an interactive children's museum filled with entertaining and educational play areas. Kids can "shop" at the International Bazaar, fly the friendly skies in a plane complete with pilot, co-pilot and passenger seats, and man the bridge of a shrimp trawler.

Marie McAden
A former staffer with The Miami Herald, Marie moved to SC in 1992. She is passionate about the outdoors, and enjoys exploring the state’s many natural treasures from the Lowcountry to the Upstate.