By Luana M. Graves Sellars
Photo Credit: Llyod Wainscott
Stories about the First Families of Hilton Head have many similarities. For example, most families came to the island as slaves and decided, upon emancipation, to make Hilton Head Island their ancestral home for the generations to come. In this regard, the Bligen family is no different. What makes them unique however, is that their ancestral line is richly populated with people who had the strength and the wherewithal to step out of the ‘norm,’ and face challenges that other people dare not consider.
Courage has many faces. Usually, courage is motivated by a steadfast desire to achieve an objective, or it is motivated by fear of failure. Regardless of the motivation, courage tends to emerge at just the right time; at the exact moment when an extraordinary response is needed. For the Bligen’s, time after time and situation after situation, the family faced difficult challenges, and it was their courage and strength that allowed them to survive and prevail.
The Heritage Library Foundation documents the long history of the Bligen family. Their history can be traced as far back as 1820 when the patriarch, Cyrus Bligen, and his wife Tina, purchased 50 acres of land, and settled in the Squire Pope area of Hilton Head. Cyrus and Tina lived on the island, and census records lists them as farmers. The assumption is that Cyrus, like most former slaves, had developed the skills and ability to work the land, and find creative ways to support his family.
For Cyrus, a former slave, who began with nothing but the clothes on his back, to be able to buy land, was a great accomplishment in itself. However, when I began to think about all of the research and information that I compiled with the help of the Heritage Library for the Bligen family, the three pieces of information, that sparked my “aha” moment, came when I came across Cyrus’ name in the following documents: 1868 South Carolina Voter Registration for the Bluffton Hilton Head Electoral Districts, St. Luke’s Parrish; the 1868 Agricultural Census, and the 1865-1872 US Freedman Bureau Labor Contracts, Indenture and Apprenticeship. Those records spoke volumes to me and brought Cyrus to life. For me, the voter registration role information was especially significant because of the courage it took for a former slave to choose to validate his manhood and his personhood by voting. Cyrus wanted to be counted as a newly recognized American citizen, one who could vote, and be listed as self- employed. For me, that epitomized the courage he had, and the and pride he felt in his newly-earned citizenship.
For me, Cyrus Bligen’s story represents an incredible life of bravery and determination which he passed on to his descendants.
Imagine, if you will, what it would be like for a recently freed slave who, after a lifetime of enslavement, submission, and debasement is willing to accept the challenge of full citizenship; of learning a new way of living and being. Most importantly, he had to develop a new way of thinking about himself in a country that had considered him less than human. For former slaves, freedom was a brand-new concept. It wasn’t something that could be defined for them in a manual or discussed openly among themselves; learning how to nurture and grow self-confidence, a sense of human dignity, pride, and self-worth, were extraordinary challenges. They had to re-define their relationship to each other and to the world outside of their community.
Cyrus’ story is continued through the lives of his two sons, Frank and Abram. They also chose to raise their families on Hilton Head Island. By the time that the Civil War broke out, Abram was still legally a slave, and old enough to fight. Records show that he enlisted in the Union Army on April 25, 1863 as a private in the US Colored Troops 21st Regiment, Company B. At the time, joining the Union Army, and making the choice to risk their lives to fight for the principle of freedom, was a selfless act bravery for slaves; they were choosing to risk death as a soldier rather than die as a slave.
After three years of service, the war ended and, Abram and his older brother Frank, wanted to continue serving and protecting their community, and in 1869 they decided to join the local militia.
Amazingly enough, Cyrus’ example of strength, determination and courage continued to be found in his descendants. Abram’s great-grandson, William Jr. is yet another example of determination and courage. Even though William lived in New York for several years, he was drawn to Hilton Head, and he returned to the island to build a home on the land that was passed down to him from his grandfather, William Sr. He wanted to have a central place for his family to gather and live as a community; this was very important to William Jr. Once he said that he cleared the land “so that his grandchildren would always have a place to go.” When his house was completed, he installed a plaque at the front door that reads:
“In the name of Jesus Christ I, William Bligen, dedicate this house in honor of my grandfather, William Bligen, Sr. 1874-1958, who sweated & died on this land for his children to come.”
The plaque stands as a daily reminder of the struggles and sacrifices that the family endured to hold on to the land that was so dear to them.
Today, several generations have passed, and the Bligen’s still live on the land that Cyrus worked so hard to acquire and maintain. William Jr. spent his life as a hardworking family man, but until he turned 69, he didn’t know how to read. After spending a lifetime enduring daily embarrassment because of his illiteracy, he chose to achieve his lifelong goal of learning how to read and write. Even more astonishing, William Jr. went on to become an author and community activist. His self-published book, Road Out of Darkness describes his lifelong struggle to overcome illiteracy, his work as a tunnel builder and experiences in the military.
Like most of the land on Hilton Head which is owned by native islanders, the Bligen land is considered to be heirs property, and as such, like many native island families, they have had to go to court to keep their land.
The Bligen’s have been engaged in a legal battle to keep the land in their family since 2005. Vivian Woods, a direct descendant of Cyrus Bligen is leading the fight to keep the family land. Like Cyrus, Vivien has exhibited tremendous strength and courage in challenging the legal obstacles that are putting her family land at risk. However, she is fearlessly navigating the legal system and is determined to keep the land in the family.
Vivian’s fight is a difficult one, but she is demonstrating the fortitude and determination of the long line of Bligen’s who came before her. Cyrus Bligen’s spirit continues to inspire and motivate his family.
The Bligen’s are still here and I believe they aren’t going anywhere.
For more information about heirs property, read What is Heirs Property? or here’s a video from the Showtime TV show VICE News called How Property Law is Used to Appropriate Black Land
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