By Luana M. Graves Sellars

What makes Hilton Head special is that it’s an island rooted in a deep and significant culture. The island may have been named after Captain William Hilton, who came to the island back in 1663, but it’s the individual characteristics of its historic neighborhoods and extraordinary culture that makes the island so special. Each neighborhood is steeped in Gullah traditions and rich history. It’s not often that we’re given the chance to unravel various elements of Hilton Head’s story, which is an incredible opportunity to not only pull back the curtain of time, but to experience the foundations of the island’s Gullah culture. 

Hilton Head consists of only a few historic neighborhoods that represent the Gullah families that called them home for seven or more generations. Even though the majority of the communities are sprinkled around the northern tip of the island, culturally, boundaries didn’t exist when it came to the overall sense of community that was typical for the Gullah. 

Recently, the town identified each historic area with signage identifying each Gullah community. Sign by sign, most of them are named after former plantation families that owned the property. However, in some cases, the neighborhoods represent the Gullah people and the traditions that make Hilton Head such an incredible place. 

Sports were always a key part of island life and locals like William Debarr, who was instrumental in molding Gullah children into athletes of character. That sense of caring and togetherness was just an extension of how raising children was done. As a result, several communities are home to professional athletes.

Neighborhoods not only identify locations, they offer unique sights and flavored characteristics. The historic Gullah neighborhoods which were mostly comprised of family compounds are no different. Of course, on the island and culturally, commonalities of living off of the land and sea exist, but each area also has its own individualities which makes them special. 

Baygall Historic Gullah Neighborhood

The community of Baygall is home to one of the most historic streets on the island. From end to end, Beach City Road’s history is rooted in Civil War and Gullah history. Currently, Baygall is most notably known as the home of Mitchelville Freedom Park, the location of the first self-governing town of formerly enslaved people in the US an the first three Historic Gullah churches, which are the foundation of the island’s religious traditions that were established in Mitchelville. 

Lining the historic street are: Historic First African Baptist Church (1862), Queen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church (1865) and Saint James Baptist Church (1886), in addition to Ft. Howell, an earthworks fort built in 1864 by the Union Army’s 32nd US Colored Troop and the 144th to protect Mitchelville from Confederate invasion.

The park, Barkers Field, is also in Baygall, which was where you could have found  the former Blue Jays baseball team for an evening game, as well as where Baseball Hall of Famer and Cincinnati Reds player, Dan Driesson, and other powerful players, got their start. 

Drayton Cemetery, one of the Gullah cemeteries, is in Baygall. Since the community is bordered by water and a lush landscape, the area was also known for hunting and fishing. 

Big Hill Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Considered one of the smallest of the historic Gullah neighborhoods, and primarily a farming community, Big Hill residents produced several crops of island staples, including butter beans and watermelons, just to name a few.

Big Stoney Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Located at the gateway to the island, Big Stoney was once an active commercial center and considered to be Hilton Head’s downtown. Because of its central location, the walkable Big Stoney was a significantly vibrant island destination that had a variety of stores and businesses, the post office and an elementary school.  

With deep water access on two sides, Big Stoney was also where several fishing families, including the Stewart and Driessen families operated their fishing businesses. The Hudson’s family and the Hilton Head Fishing Co-Operative also based it’s operations and seafood processing in Big Stoney, making the community a major economic driver for the island. 

One of the first Gullah landowners was a USCT soldier, Mathew Jones. Stoney is also home to Braves, Royals and Cardinals baseball player, Gerald Perry.

Chaplin Historic Gullah Neighborhood

As the most southern Gullah neighborhood on the island, Chaplin runs shore to shore between the Broad Creek and the ocean where Burke’s, Singleton, and Collier beaches are today.

Primarily a farming community owned by the Gullah families of the Burkes, Brown’s, Ferguson’s, Singleton’s, and Collier’s, Chaplin was not only a key commercial area in the center of the island, it also became quite a sought after destination in the 1900’s. As a result of segregation, the Chaplin area was a popular place for Blacks from communities as far as Savannah to come to enjoy the beach. In addition to several pavilions and ocean side juke joints, in addition to local Gullah families who were skilled in cast net making and basketweavers, Chaplin was a second home for Black doctors from Savannah. 

The blended community was the perfect place to unwind and enjoy the beauty of the island. Fish frys and the latest dances at Burke’s Hideaway could be found, in addition to an occasional visit from Chitterling Circuit performers like Tina and Ike Turner.  

A praise house was also located in Chaplin, and around 1887, it’s estimated that the historic Gullah Central Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church was formed. The community includes the Joe Pope Cemetery as well as the former site of a one-room Chaplin Elementary School.

The bateau at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park
Photo Courtesy of Mitchelville Preservation Project

Gardner Historic Gullah Neighborhood 

One of only three historic Gullah neighborhoods that was named after Gullah land owners, is what makes the Gardner community distinctive. Gardner is the surname of one of the island’s largest Gullah families, not a plantation.

The historic Gardner neighborhood was named after March Gardner, who as a freedman, worked for a Union soldier. Through hard work and perseverance, Gardner purchased several large tracts of land, making him the largest landowner in Fish Haul and Mitchelville, while it was established. Several of his descendants, including the Aiken family, continue to live on the land that he passed down today.  

The Pinefield Otter Hole Cemetery, which was originally owned by the Stoney family, is one of nine Gullah cemeteries on the island, and is located in Gardner.

Grassland Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Large tracts of active farmland made Grassland one of the more significant farming communities on the island for several Gullah families, who harvested a variety of crops.   

Grassland was instrumental during the Civil War, as its location was close in proximity to a few of the island’s forts Walker, Howell, and Mitchel. As one of the island’s inland communities, the Union Army established a burial ground for close to 1,500 Union soldiers, including almost 100 US Colored Troop Soldiers who served on Hilton Head. Sometimes referred to as Government Cemetery, the area was utilized until the military gravesites were re-interred at the National Cemetery in Beaufort, SC. 

Gullah burial traditions include having a final resting place for ancestors to be near the shoreline. Even though the cemetery is inland, which is counter to Gullah tradition, the cemetery was eventually owned and renamed the White Family Cemetery, after a local Gullah family. Today it is maintained by St. James Baptist Church. 

Jarvis/Jonesville Historic Gullah Neighborhood(s)

The historic Gullah neighborhood of Jonesville is one of the few communities named after a formerly enslaved landowner, Caesar Jones. Able to purchase just under 200 acres, Jones wanted to provide for his family and future heirs; some of whom still live on the land today. 

Jonesville was known for being an area where skilled craftsmen could be found around the community. The neighborhood was known as the place on the island where one could find shoemakers, carpenters, and wheelwrights (someone who builds or repairs wooden wheels) among other types of businessmen and services.

Jarvis was named after a small stream that runs into the island. In the community, there was a store and church that served area residents.

Little Stoney Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Although Little Stoney is identified as a Gullah neighborhood, most Gullah who live there consider Big and Little Stoney as simply Stoney. Just like Big Stoney, Little Stoney was a thriving area because it’s proximity to the commercial center of the island. The Gullah families that lived there were mostly dependent on the water and were netmakers and fishermen.  

Marshland Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Marshland is one of the island’s smaller communities, however, because of its proximity to the deep waters of Broad Creek, it was where several of the island’s sailboat builders could be located. For an island that heavily relied on living off of the local waters for fishing, having talented boat makers was a critical part of how families were able to fish and transport their crops to the mainland, ensuring their sustainability.

In 1876 during a federal government tax sale of Marshland property, seven Gullah men from the Brown, Green, Murray, Ford and Robinson families combined funds to make the largest land purchase on the island. 

Mitchelville Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Considered a strong strategic position to defend the island because of its location  on the Port Royal Sound, Mitchelville has great historical significance. Prior to Emancipation, the neighborhood, also known as the Town of Mitchelville, was established in 1862 as the first settlement for freedmen in the United States. As a thriving town that was under Union Army protection and Fort Howell, Mitchelville was the proof that the formerly enslaved were capable of becoming self-sufficient.  

Several Gullah traditions and culture stemmed from this neighborhood, including the island’s oldest Gullah church, First African Baptist (1862), which eventually was divided into six historic Gullah churches. Several firsts came out of Mitchelville, including compulsory education in SC. Today, the Cherry Hill School, a room schoolhouse that was built in 1937, still stands down the street from the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.

The Gullah community’s oldest and most valued resident continues to live in Mitchelville. Born in 1918, Mother Ethel Rivers is a respected elder, and cultural treasure.   

Spanish Wells Historic Gullah Neighborhood

Named after the location where Spanish explorers were known to have come ashore on HIlton Head on dug freshwater wells, Spanish Wells is where Charlie Simmons, ‘Mr.Transportation’ housed his fish camp. The Simmons Fishing Camp was a place where people could rest before or after their journey from the mainland. 

Prior to the bridge, the island’s primarily economic lifeline was connected through Captain Charlie’s trips across the water three times a week that delivered people, produce, seafood or goods.

Spanish Wells was home to the island’s boxing gym, which spawned professional heavyweight boxers, Michael ‘The Hammer’’ Cohen, Samson ‘The Mighty Samson’ Cohen and Thomas Cohen, who built the gym. 

The Spanish Wells Cemetery is located near the Calibogue Sound.

Squire Pope Historic Gullah Neighborhood

As the largest Historic Gullah Neighborhood, Squire Pope runs along Skull Creek as well as inland. Its proximity to deep water access and the northern shore of the island, enabled the Gullah to launch shrimp boats, in addition to processing their catch of fish, shrimp or oysters. Since the local waterways were a tremendous economic driver for the island, the area was home to several Gullah boat captains and fishermen, who organized a fishing co-operative which operated out of what is called the Sailing and Rowing Center today.

Proof that the island has been occupied for almost a thousand years, is part of what makes Squire Pope unique. Remnants of a Native Indian Green Shell Enclosure, which dates back to 1335, lies close to the northern shore of the island. 

The location of the only two-room schoolhouse on the island, Squire Pope is also home to the fifth Gullah church to be established, Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist (1888).

Old House Creek

As one of the smallest and lesser known Gullah communities, Old House Creek is the tidal creek stretching eastward from Calibogue Sound along the northern edge of the Spanish Wells and Muddy Creek Plantations, dividing them from Honey Horn Plantation.  Locally, It is also referred to as Muddy Creek and Sandy Creek.

Most signs mark a place or person of significance. On Hilton Head, street names aren’t just randomly erected identifiers, they embody all of the people, culture, traditions and stories that makes our island exactly what it is. Historic.   

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