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More Than Just a Beautiful Beach | The Historically Rich Hilton Head Island Story

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By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Photo Credit: A replica of a typical Gullah Bateau at Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park

Known for its balmy breezes, beautiful beaches and the Spanish Moss that drips from the trees, Hilton Head Island is more than just a coastal destination. Rich in history and a Gullah community that remained untouched by outside influences for several generations, Hilton Head has a uniqueness that begs to be explored.

To explore more about the uniqueness that makes Hilton Head Island such a special place, read Hilton Head | People and Places

Photo Credit: Linda Peterson

Before you even get to the island, you know that you have found a unique place. As you drive over the bridge, one cannot help but be struck by the sense of calm and beauty that surrounds the island’s waterways. Hilton Head Island has a quiet strength that is made up from its roots in Gullah culture and southern hospitality. The island has been essentially untouched in its natural state. Even though the island is developed and boasts a population of around 40,000 people, it still maintains a lush treescape. Hilton Head might be small in size, but it’s culturally vibrant. With a large city styled event calendar, there’s always an event or activity to satisfy every taste. Live music and performances is available daily from incredible local talent to the world-class that frequents the island, Hilton Head has it all, including it being the home to its own renowned symphony orchestra.

What’s great about Hilton Head Island, is that it’s so much more than a vacation destination. It is one of American History’s most treasured assets, yet it’s also one of it’s best kept secrets. The island is one of the Civil War’s most important strategic locations responsible for the Union Army’s successes, as it was where the Army established the Headquarters of the South. In addition to being their base of operations, the island is also the home of Historic Mitchelville, the first freedman’s town in the United States. The island also has one of the most continuously active Gullah communities on the coastal sea islands.

With such a rich and storied past, of course Hilton Head houses incredible generational stories; not to mention all of the historic and cultural assets that the island contains. If you haven’t heard about the island’s awesome history, then here’s your chance to watch the Heritage Library Foundation’s series, Our Storied Island, a journey through the generations through the eyes of the descendants of some of the enslaved, as well as the people that the island’s history that is apart of what makes Hilton Head such an American treasure.

Our Storied Island

Check out the following snippets from each of the incredible story’s that were captured from Hilton Head’s rich and unique history in the video series, Our Storied Island:

Many Voices Come Together on Hilton Head Island

While it may be viewed on the outside as a fairly monolithic culture built around recreation and island living, Hilton Head is a patchwork of different views and perspectives. To borrow from the Gullah language of its native islanders, it is an island of “binyahs” and “comyahs,” meaning those who were born here and those who made it their home. But despite their varied backgrounds, they have come together here as one island.

Hilton Head Island is a place where the melting pot of American culture can be seen in all its glory. Here you’ll find representation of every language, ethnicity and history coming together in shared exultation for the singularly beautiful place they call home. Along with transplants from all points of the globe, whether it’s the rugged climates of the northeast or the sunny vastness of South America, you’ll find a native heritage unlike anywhere else in the world. These native island Gullah have called Hilton Head home for centuries, continuing to make their voices heard and their culture in indelible part of our island’s history. Part of this island’s magic can be found in the way all of these viewpoints and backgrounds come together as one island, united by respect for the land and its history.

To learn more about each individual story, click on the corresponding image.

A Living Legend of Hilton Head Island’s Fascinating History

History is so much more than words on a page. Particularly on Hilton Head Island, where that history crests like a wave, washing up into the present. Louise Cohen is the perfect example of history’s persistent tide. As the direct descendant of the first people to seek their freedom on Hilton Head Island, and as director of the Gullah Museum, she binds together past and present to help history’s stories survive.

The acrid smoke of war had just begun to drive over Beaufort County when Caesar Jones first heard the news that would change his life: The Union Army had come to Hilton Head Island, bringing with them a chance at freedom. Summoning his courage, he flew Rose Hill Plantation with his wife Mariah and their three children. There is the story of true bravery, braving the lethal waves of the island’s waterways in a small bateau with only the slightest hope of freedom as their reward. Today, as director of the Gullah Museum, Caesar’s great great granddaughter Louise Cohen shares not just his story, but the story of all the free Gullah who have come to call this island home.

A Voice for Those Who Came Before

Hilton Head Island’s history lives in the stories of its native island community. And you’ll find few better examples of this history than you will in Alex Brown. As a direct descendant of Prince Brown, a freed slave who fought for his freedom and for the future of his family, Brown knows the sacrifices made by those who came before him. As a member of Hilton Head Island’s town council, he serves as powerful voice for his community.

The great wave of emancipation, which saw once-enslaved people freed from the tyranny of bondage, began as a mere ripple here on Hilton Head Island. As the Union army made its first bold advances into rebel territory, it found its first foothold on Hilton Head Island. And it was here they helped liberate the enslaved people of the island’s plantations, a people whose former masters had fled in the face of the advancing army. One of those people was Prince Brown, a true American success story who turned his own freedom into freedom for successive generations to come by buying the land he’d once worked as a slave. Today, his great-great grandson Alex Brown carries the torch of freedom, serving his native island community as a member of town council and giving voice to those like him who owe everything to freed people like Prince Brown.

History Hits Home

Luana M. Graves Sellars didn’t come to Hilton Head Island to discover her own story. Moving here from Florida, she initially intended to just help others tell their stories by documenting the lives and histories of the island’s native Gullah. It wasn’t until she discovered her great great grandfather’s name staring back at her from a historic document of colored troops on Hilton Head Island did she realize the stories she was telling were her own, as well.

History doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and as a story it is never truly finished. Luana M. Graves Sellars found this out firsthand. After moving to Hilton Head Island, she delved into the wealth of historical research available here as part of the island’s out sized role in American history. What she found was a deeper connection to this place and its people than she ever imagined. In a stack of papers listing Union soldiers who had served on Hilton Head Island, she saw her own great grandfather, Caesar Ravenel. What had started as a journey to learn about her new home had turned into a personal story of her own deep connection to Hilton Head Island, and a reminder of history’s continued echoes in the present.

First Time Visiting Hilton Head Island?

Come and visit Hilton Head Island and while you’re here, experience our incredibly rich Gullah culture, learn about our awesome history and if you have some time left over, check out our beautiful beaches too.

Looking for a place to stay? Here’s a link to help you find the right place to stay.

Want some great Gullah cultural options to explore and experience while your here?

Experience Gullah culture and the language first hand by taking the Gullah Heritage Tour or visit the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park, Gullah Museum and the Coastal Discovery Museum.

Interested in searching your family tree? Not sure where to start? Or just want to dig deeper into island history? Then visit one of my favorite places to do research, the Heritage Library Foundation, the one of the top research library’s in the country, where you can get started.

  • Gullah Heritage Tours
  • Gullah Museum

For entertainment options and specific event information or daily cultural activities, check out the Town of Hilton Head Island’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

© Lowcountry Gullah LLC and www.lowcountrygullah.com, 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Lowcountry Gullah and www.lowcountrygullah.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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