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First Families of Hilton Head

Gullah Stories of Strength, Character, Perseverance, Community and Determination

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Hilton Head Island has the unique distinction of being the home of Mitchelville, the first black self-governing town in the United States. Stories of what happened in Mitchelville and the continued impact that it had on the Gullah community, the outcome of the Civil War, race relations and even compulsory education today are still unfolding. But little is known about the individuals and families, who after being thrust into servitude in a new land, chose to not only embrace their new surroundings, but to love, nourish and cultivate this island as their home.

My series, First Families of Hilton Head Island brings attention to the families that made Hilton Head what it is today: a breathtakingly beautiful space that invites relaxation and civility. The effects of Hilton Head can influence you before you even step foot on its soil. From the foot of the bridge to the island, you are graced with a sudden calming visual image of the expanse of the Pinckney Island marshlands. As you cross the bridge, Hilton Head begins to change you. Residents and visitors alike see it as a special place, which is by no means an accident; over time, like many places around the world, the island could easily have been neglected and destroyed, pillaged and abused, and left to be just another place. Gratefully, that is not the case.

Hilton Head’s natural beauty remains intact almost as it was in the early 1700s. Of course, it has been altered. Time, technology and development have taken care of that. However, somewhere along the way, someone had to have understood the necessity of protecting this island. The Gullah community has done just that. Because they lived on an island that for years did not have a bridge to the mainland, the Gullah were essentially separated from the rest of the Lowcountry, working with what they had, creating lives for themselves that were made up of hard work as farmers and fisherman, yet full of love and support for each other as a community. The old saying that “it takes a village” was obvious here. Hilton Head was a village where neighbors helped neighbors, where responsibility for each other’s welfare was just “how it was done.”

The Hilton Head First Family series of articles are not just stories about individual families. They are stories about a strong culture and its traditions. The families have varied origins, yet, they all contain common threads that bind them together. Each incredible story is a fascinating cultural legacy rooted by a demonstration of courage, endurance, service and a strong sense of community. The Gullah community structure is as a village, where everything was shared and where it was believed that one would give of one’s self, regardless of what it was; from food to skills. Every family story, although different, share traditional and cultural commonalities as well as highlight their similarities in strength and determination.   

A Peek Behind the Island’s Historic Curtain | Browns | Jones | Burkes | Cramers | Youngs | Lawyers | Orages

It’s not very often when you can pull back the curtain of time and get a clear picture of how life was in the past. Some of the Gullah families, left incredibly detailed records of how their life was and their experiences. Research into the families revealed civil war service in the US Colored Troops for several of the Gullah families, including the Brown’s, Jones, Young’s and Burkes. In addition to their participation in the military, there are a lot of records from the Hilton Head Hospital and military dispositions. The dispositions were often very detailed accounts, that were used to demonstrate military service, so that they could rightfully receive their pension, which were often delayed or even denied to a lot of families.

From the civil war to the value of property to hurricanes, there were several families who left incredible documentation and details about their lives on the island. The Brown’s story has a wealth of information found in a Civil War disposition that spoke about life on the island. In addition to great details about their property, it also included information about the year that the island was wiped out for a growing season by a hurricane.

Before the Bridge | Browns – An incredible peek behind the curtain of time | Lawyers – Lived off of the land and sea | Cohens – A professional boxing family and owns marsh tacky horses  | Stewarts – Commercial Fishermen | Orages – Skilled Net Makers

Looking around Hilton Head today, it’s not hard to realize that the island has been loved and protected for generations. The Gullah, who have always respected the natural gifts that the island provides, primarily lived off of the land and sea. Most families hunted in the woods or farmed their land for a variety of fruits, vegetables and pecans. The island has incredibly fertile soil and is surrounded by bountiful oyster beds as well as a great variety of fish; as farmers and fishermen, the Gullah were able to not only take care of their families, they also cared for each other. If one had, everyone had. That’s just how life was.

The Orages, Stewarts and Lawyers family stories demonstrate different aspects of how it was like for the Gullah to have their livelihood based on the water. Being able to fish in the various currents that surrounded the island also called for maintaining traditional fishing customs.

The Orage family recognizes the importance of remembering the past and the need to share ancestral wisdom. For this family, sharing generational net making skills that has been handed down is a continuation of their African tradition and a way of honoring their ancestors. Because of the island’s proximity to different types of water, one of the main industries for the Gullah was fishing. Several of the families became commercial fishermen who provided not only food to their families, but fish to local families as well. At one point, there were so many families out on the water, that it made sense to establish a fishing co-op and pool their efforts and strengthen their ability to establish pricing. The Co-op’s work and accomplishments are an incredible story in itself. As the fishing industry developed on the island, the fishing families began to pool their resources, so that they could look out for each other on the water, as well as protect the waters from commercial development along the waterways, which would have destroyed the local marine populations.

The Stewart’s were commercial fishermen, who spent day after day fishing the waters that surround the island. Like a lot of families, they had enough fish for themselves and eventually grew their fishing business to include a few boats that became part of the Hilton Head Fishing Co-op. Even though the Gullah are surrounded by water, the culture then was traditional, in that the male children in the family were taught to swim, since they were out on the water to fish.

The Lawyers’ story is one of triumph, as well as the kind of tragedy that unfortunately comes with life on the water. Some families spent the morning on the water and the afternoon in the field. Island life included chores on the farm based on the season. Plowing or planting the fields was a day’s work and sometimes the family was fortunate enough to have a marsh tacky horse to help with the heavy lifting or provide transportation to church on Sundays when the pastor was on the island for service.

The Cohen family is one such family. They are the last Gullah family to own marsh tacky horses on the island. Family after family, their stories are simple tales of hard work and dedication. It has been said that they didn’t consider themselves anything but rich, because even though they were isolated, they had everything that they needed to take care of themselves, irregardless of the mainland’s standards of wealth or prosperity.

Community Service | Fergusons are a strong military family and served the community | Esquivels provide medical care and immigration services

For some people, it’s very easy to live your life and not get involved in the community. Then there are some individuals who believe that service to others is a primary element of their DNA. The Ferguson and Esquivel families come from a foundation anchored in service. The Ferguson’s are clearly a military family. Most of the generations served as members in each of the military branches, as well as in a number of the US wars. That kind of generational consistency to military service is uncommon, and also gives us an indication of the level of dedication and self-lessness that the family was raised with. Service to our country and a love for the island’s Gullah community is what drove the Ferguson’s. One family member in particular, Willie “Bill” Ferguson was a strong voice on Gullah issues and ultimately became the Town of Hilton Head’s first Gullah Ward 1 Councilman. Widely celebrated for standing up to the town, he was one of the longest serving councilman in the town’s history.

As the first Hispanic family to move to the island, the Esquivel’s demonstrated their love for the community by serving a community that has for the most part, been living in the shadows. While working as a local doctor, the patriarch, Dr. Esquivel also provided personalized medical care to those who could not otherwise afford it. Known for his care and dedication to his patients, even after his retirement, he continued to make house calls to his patients. All of Dr. Esquivel’s children followed in the footsteps of their father and have established their careers in various types of service within the Hispanic community. As the publishers of the local Hispanic publication, La Isla Magazine, co-founders of the Immigration Coalition and as an immigration attorney, the Esquivel family has been a significant part of serving Hilton Head’s blended community for years.

Determination | Bligens – Heirs Property | Aikens – Pride in their Citizenship| Orages – Passing on Tradition

One’s pride can be rooted in several areas, however, sometimes it takes just one thing in someone’s life to motivate and sustain their pride. As newly freedmen, the Gullah had a lot to be proud of. With a new life and freedom, also brought the opportunity to be counted as an American. The story of the Aiken family is one of those stories that demonstrates the desire to make sure that they were documented and counted in every way possible. From census counts to voter registrations to military service and more, the Aiken’s left behind a clear paperwork trail to show not only how fully they were participating in their new American dream, but also demonstrating their pride in doing so.

In the Gullah culture, there are several reasons to be filled with pride. As a descendant of slaves who inherited land that was purchased as a result of the blood sweat and tears of an ancestor, is usually a common source of pride and a respect for such an accomplishment. To most people, land has a fixed value that can be appraised. For the Gullah, the land is priceless. There’s no amount of money that can replace the pride of ownership that comes from land that was purchased by someone who spent their life enslaved, became free and with literally only the clothes on their backs, worked hard enough to earn enough money to buy land. The land might have been bought for roughly $200 at the time, but the pride in providing their descendants something to inherit, is just that, priceless. The Bligen’s family story is a story heirs property and the blood, sweat and tears that went into the land that the family inherited and the fight that they have been experiencing trying to hold on to it.

Economic Prosperity | Singleton’s – The first island developers | Simmons – Created an economic lifeline to the mainland |  Stewarts – Commercial fishermen and part of the Hilton Head Fishing Co-op

Most people think that Hilton Head was first developed into planned communities by Charles Frazier. Actually, Hilton Head’s original planned community was Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for freedmen. The land that ultimately became the town of Mitchelville, was a very organized plotted area with one quarter acre lots that were distributed to the residents, called ‘contraband’ so that they could build a house and farm their own land. Mitchelville didn’t last for long, for as time went on and storms made living close to the coastline difficult, the Gullah moved to inland areas of the island. Eventually, when the Civil War was over, the economic support that the military gave caused them to find alternative ways to sustain their way of life.

The story of the Singleton’s tells how the family became one of the largest landowners on the island and established opportunities for other native islanders to start their own businesses, which in turn benefited other families. The businesses served the local community, as well as created an opportunity for island products, produce or seafood to be sold on the mainland as well.

Reaching the mainland was not always a simple excursion like it is today. Traveling to Savannah, Beaufort or St. Helena sometimes took days. Charlie Simmons, also known as ‘Mr. Transportation,’ owned a boat which became the vital lifeline for the community to reach the mainland. Access to the mainland was life changing for the Gullah. It brought not only economic freedom to the population, but more educational options and eventually jobs to the island. Charlie Simmons’ boat brought Charles Frazier to the island. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once the bridge was built, it ushered in a new era for the island. Even though the Gullah had established lives, based on their culture and traditions, the development of the island brought jobs and new opportunities. After the bridge was built, the Cramer’s were one of the first white families to move to the Folly Field area of the island. They came to the island in search of opportunity and established one of the longest running electrical companies on the island, which is responsible for wiring close to 1,000’s of Hilton Head homes.

The First Families Series

To find out more about each of the incredible First Families stories, click on the links below.

The Singletons – April 2016                                The Cohens – October 2016   

The Cramers – May 2016                                    The Stewarts – November 2016

The Lawyers – June 2016                                    The Fergusons – December 2016

The Simmons – July 2016                      The Jones – January 2017

The Browns – August 2016                                The Youngs – February 2017

The Esquivel’s – September 2016                            The Burkes – March 2017

The Bligens – May 2017 The Aikens – July 2017

The Orages – September 2017

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  1. Barbara Smith

    Very interesting.I had the pleasure of visiting Mitchevill. MY recommended are Stewart’s. MY sister married a Stewart .Love reading stories about the Gullah people. I know quite a few families from the Island in fact many of them consider me family. Lol

    1. LMGS

      Thank you for your comment. I did write an article on the Stewarts. I will post it next. Keep reading and follow us on Facebook!!

  2. Kenneth Brown

    Thanks for the commentary…
    I’m of the BROWNS descent.. Lived in Savannah most my life. But we are of Haitian descent from what I gather.

    1. LMGS

      Thank you for your comment. The Brown’s article is coming soon. Keep reading and follow us on Facebook so that you will be in the know.

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