Before Hilton Head Island became known as a place of luxurious hotels, perfect golf courses, lush gardens and hundreds of shops and restaurants; it was an island with a rich history and culture. Seek out and explore that culture next time you come to visit.
Coastal Discovery Museum
A great first stop in exploring Hilton Head Island's rich history is the Coastal Discovery Museum. The museum, housed in a former plantation house, is located on 68 beautifully preserved acres of forest, field and marsh. The museum offers permanent and rotating exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the island, from Native Americans before the settlement of Europeans, through the resort boom of the 1960s and 1970s. But perhaps even more impressive than the exhibits are the classes and tours the museum offers. You can learn how to weave traditional sweetgrass baskets perfected by the Gullah people of the island, or how to cast a net in the traditional Gullah style of fishing practiced here. You also can tour historic forts and learn the history of the Revolutionary War on the island. Set aside some time to explore not just the museum but to take advantage of the incredible programming.
Zion Chapel of Ease and Cemetery
All that is left of the chapel, once part of the Episcopal Church, is its still and haunting graveyard. In that graveyard, you'll find the Baynard Mausoleum, the oldest structure on the island.
Gullah Heritage Trail Tours
Take a tour and you'll learn more about the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands, including Hilton Head. The Gullah people are descended from enslaved West Africans who cultivated and harvested the famed Sea Islands Cotton. Because the Sea Islands were so isolated both before the Civil War and for the 100 years after freedom, accessible only by boat, the descendants of the enslaved people developed their own rich culture that preserves much of their African heritage; including literature and folklore, cuisine and dialect. Before the 1960s, the vast majority of people who lived in Hilton Head Island were descendants of slaves. The Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, led by people of Gullah descent who were born and reared on the island, include some of the most important sites on the island; giving visitors a sense of Gullah life on the island before the bridges and resorts massively changed both the landscape and the lifestyle.
Before its beaches were speckled with resorts and vacation homes, Hilton Head Island was speckled with forts. Its location and size made it strategically important for defending the South Carolina mainland. The Sea Islands make a chain across the coast. Control the narrow waterways between the islands, and you control who gets in and out by sea. Four forts were built on Hilton Head during the Civil War. The remains of Fort Mitchel, a Civil War fort made of earthen embankments (and only rediscovered when a local restaurant was being built) and Fort Howell, another Civil War earthen fort, will fascinate Civil War buffs. Fort Walker, best seen with a tour from the Coastal Discovery Museum, was one of the targets of the largest naval battle ever in U.S. waters, the Battle of Port Royal.
When Union forces took Hilton Head on November 7, 1861, in the Battle of Port Royal, more than 1,000 Hilton Head Islanders became some of the first freed slaves of the Civil War. They founded the town of Mitchelville, the first freedmen's town in America. You can visit Mitchelville on one of the Gullah history tours on the island or take a drive down Beach City Road, past the churches, homes and school building still standing there today. Stop at Mitchelville Freedom Park on your way for the natural beauty, view of the site of the Battle of Port Royal and historical markers explaining much of the history of the area.
Harbor Town Lighthouse and Museum
The iconic lighthouse in Harbour Town was actually not built as a lighthouse at all. It was built as a tourist attraction when Hilton Head was first developed as a resort destination. But that in and of itself is an important part of the history of Hilton Head Island. Along with a beautiful view from the top, you'll have the chance to see historic photos and read the fascinating history of the island on placards lining the stairs to the top.