All of American history actually began in South Carolina.
Wait, what? Not Boston? Um, no. Beaufort just might be the most significant American city that you’ve never heard of.
On a recent visit to Beaufort, South Carolina, I sat in the cozy courtyard of the old Beaufort Inn, and while I dined on local Frogmore Stew, I listened to historian Lawrence (Larry) S. Rowland tell stories about Beaufort that had me mesmerized. I considered myself to be fairly well-acquainted with American history, but what I heard about Beaufort and the Sea Islands (St. Helena, Port Royal, and Parris Island) amazed me. Here is a brief but fascinating summary of what I learned that night.
When America was discovered, one of the first places that the Spanish explorers landed in was in Port Royal Sound. What’s so special about Port Royal Sound? It’s the deepest natural harbor between New York and Key West.
The Spanish sailors of the 16th-century weren’t just the greatest sailors of the world of the time, they were the greatest sailors in the history of the world because of the impact they had. They can be credited with discovering a new world and tripling the size of Western civilization. Contrary to popular belief, it was not Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan who circumnavigated the globe. Magellan died during the expedition, but the first circumnavigation was finished by a Spaniard named Juan Sebastian Elcano.
Those early Spanish sailors had a plethora of knowledge about sailing in the water and the weather. They could read a wave the way we read a book. They knew exactly what was happening on the water.
So as they sailed up the coast of the continent in 1514, they had no trouble discovering the deepest natural harbor on the southern coast. They first sailed into Port Royal Sound in 1514. Interestingly enough, one of the financiers was the son of Christopher Columbus.
This was long before Plymouth Rock; long before Jamestown. They were in Beaufort in 1514, 1521, and 1525.
During the Spanish voyage of 1525, they named the harbor and the region Santa Elena. Santa Elena was the first colonial capital of Spanish Florida on Parris Island in Port Royal Sound in present-day South Carolina. It’s one of the oldest European destination names in North America. Again, this is at least 100 years older than Plymouth Rock. It’s now called St. Helena Island, the anglicized version of the ancient Spanish name Santa Elena.
The following year, the Spanish exposition came up from Santo Domingo on the island of Hispaniola. Santo Domingo is the oldest continuous European settlement in North America, founded by Christopher Columbus himself. The group came up from Santo Domingo to settle the southeast coast in 1526. They had six ships and brought with them Catholic priests, horses, pigs, and cattle.
And African slaves.
The very first documented occurrence of black slavery in North America happened near Beaufort, according to Dr. Rowland – not 1519 in Jamestown. In 1526, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, a wealthy sugar planter from Hispaniola, landed on this coast and established a city called San Miguel de Gualdape, the first settlement on what would become the continental United States.
The colony of 600 settlers fell prey to disease, hunger, and Native American attacks, and lasted less than four months. The African American slaves that had come with them revolted against their Spanish overlords, marking the first slave revolt in American history. Only 150 Spaniards survived all the turmoil that they’d encountered since landing and journeyed back to Santo Domingo. The enslaved people did not go back with them – they stayed in America, hence becoming the first African Americans.
What became of them is not known for sure. The theory is that they merged with the Native American nation and still exist in the DNA of the Seminole Indians of Florida.
Dr. Rowland’s account began to convince me that all of American history began in Beaufort, South Carolina because a whole lot of it really did! But I digress…
Because the early Spanish settlements failed, the Spanish went west to Cuba and settled in Havana (which really is the greatest harbor in the western hemisphere) and also continued west to Mexico where they discovered silver and Peru where they discovered gold. It took another two generations before they came back to the U.S.
Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, but prior to that, the first Protestant colony in the new world was not planted at Jamestown, Virginia nor at Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts – it was on Parris Island, South Carolina in 1562. But they were not Spanish – they were French Huguenots, Protestants looking to start a new religion in a new world. French naval officer Jean Ribault established a settlement called “Charlesfort” on Parris Island for which there is now a great obelisk honoring the founding.
The French did not stay, either. They only lasted a year and a half. There are remarkable recorded stories of their adventures in the Atlantic world. Some made it back to Europe in a ship that they made on Parris Island.
An interesting thing happened during the time the French occupied the southeast coast. The Spanish, now in Cuba and Mexico (New Spain) became alarmed about the intrusion in the world that they thought they controlled. The (future) United States was the northern bastion of the Spanish Main. So in 1566, the Spanish came back, and when they found the French in Florida, they slaughtered them and founded St. Augustine, which was an accident of history. King Phillip II of Spain’s orders had actually said “You must go to Santa Elena (Beaufort) to form a window on the Atlantic.
What they knew at that time was that Port Royal Sound (named by Frenchman Jean Ribault) was the greatest harbor on the Atlantic shore. Their plan was to settle a fortress here and build a road from Santa Elena/Port Royal Sound all the way to Mexico City. They landed in 1566 and established a city on Parris Island that lasted for 21 years.
So Parris Island was the site of the first official Spanish settlement, not St. Augustine.
They never got the road to Mexico built, but they got all the way into Tennessee, and they established forts all across the south. All before the Roanoke colony. Indeed, there was a whole century of history here before the English arrived.
There are all sorts of mysteries that occurred in the first century of American history. The Spanish empire, the richest empire in the world, went broke four times in the 16th-century. They abandoned Santa Elena in 1587 and concentrated on St. Augustine. So St. Augustine has the distinction of being the oldest continually-inhabited European city in North America.
It took a century before the English arrived here in 1670. When they arrived, they found all sorts of remnants of the Spanish presence. So much that they called the moss that hung from the trees “Spanish Moss.” Bet you didn’t know that!
The English came from Barbados. Most of the coast of the Carolinas was connected in those early years to the West Indies due to the direction of the trade winds. They settled Charleston in 1670 which is still one of the great gems of history surrounding that great harbor.
Dr. Henry Woodward was the first British colonist of colonial South Carolina. He established relationships with many Native American and traded English products for deerskin products, which was a luxury product in England. Soft, pliable leather fetched a high price in England. Dr. Woodward was an ancestor of numerous colonial figures, politicians, and businesspeople in South Carolina. A significant part of the Charleston planter and merchant elite was descended from him.
Prosperity, Slavery, and the Revolutionary War
By 1721, the population majority was African Americans, brought in slavery. They built the most significant agricultural culture in American history – the rice plantation. It has been said that it took more labor to produce the rice fields, the dikes, the dams, and the complicated system than it did to build the great pyramids of Egypt. The rice seed that came to Beaufort was an African seed, the knowledge was African knowledge, and the people who worked it were African people.
Rice produced the richest white men in America. By the time of the American Revolution, nine of the ten richest people in America lived in Charleston, South Carolina (just north of Beaufort). Not Boston, not New York City, not Philadelphia. Charleston was the richest colonial city in America. All that wealth was produced by African slaves, with African knowledge.
Indigo was introduced in the 1740s and brought the plantation culture and African enslavement to the South Carolina Sea Islands. The indigo plantations were smaller than rice plantations. The British wanted indigo for the textiles that helped fuel the Industrial Revolution. There were no chemical dyes in those days…they made red dye from cochineal bugs in Mexico and blue from indigo plants in South Carolina.
By the time of the American Revolution, South Carolina was the richest colony not just in America, but in the worldwide British Empire, because of indigo in the Sea Islands, and rice on the mainland. It was the introduction to the first industrial farming in North America.
South Carolinians were among the leaders of the American Revolution. South Carolina lost more in the war than any other American colony. Perhaps this was because they loaned more to the government of the new republic than any other colony. Yes, more than Virginia or Massachusetts. They had more money, so they lost more money. They also lost 25,000 of their enslaved workers who abandoned the plantations to join the British Army.
Cotton Plantations and Gullah CultureAfter the war, they were no longer able to sell indigo to the British, so they needed a new product to farm. They imported a black seed from Anguilla that produced cotton fiber and became known as Sea Island cotton. This was the beginning of the cotton revolution. King Cotton, as it was called. Cotton, to this day, was the single most important export that the U.S. has ever produced. Cotton transformed the south, again.
But cotton required labor.The enslaved came into Charleston harbor. In fact, 60% of all African Americans can trace their lineage back to Charleston, South Carolina. These new imports came from the African country of Angola, spelled N’gullah. The slave population grew ten times what it had been in the Sea Islands. They brought their culture, their food, their language, their music. We’re still studying the fantastic and important Gullah culture to this day.
The cotton plantations ushered in immense prosperity. Once again, the richest people in America were on the coast of South Carolina, including Nathaniel Cumby who has the deleterious distinction of becoming the largest slave owner in the south.
Succession and the Civil War
The antebellum area from the late 18th century until the start of the American Civil War in 1861 was a time burgeoning with wealth and opportunity for the few people that owned slaves Beaufort. When petitions reached congress in 1833 asking for the end of slavery, the southern plantation owners in the Beaufort district rebelled before anybody else in America and started the Succession Movement which in turn started the Civil War started in Bluffton, South Carolina (just south of Beaufort).The Father of Succession, Robert Barnwell Rhett, was born and raised in Beaufort, just 2 blocks from where Robert Smalls (see below) was born and raised. That’s why the monument honoring reconstruction is in Beaufort, because of the dichotomy of American history that only occurs in this town.
Rhett held succession planning meetings in his house, which is now referred to as “the Succession House” on Beaufort historic walking tours.
The succession movement which began in Beaufort lead to the Civil War. The Union Navy steamed into Port Royal in 1861 with the largest naval flotilla organized in the 19th century. It was a duel of the great guns. Confederate forts vs. Union Navy ships. It was a bit of a mismatch because the Union Navy was much bigger. The sound of that battle was a clash of the largest artillery in the world at that time. The sound of that battle could be heard from the outskirts of Savannah to the outskirts of Charleston, and all the way inland.
The people who lived in Beaufort knew the significance of that day and wrote songs about it. The slaves who built Fort Walker on nearby Hilton Head Island had a song, “No More Mistress Call For Me, No More, No More.” When the Union Fleet conquered the Sea Islands, it was a jubilee.
Post-War BeaufortThe greatest debate of the United States Constitutional Convention was what would happen to the institution of slavery. The southerners said they were not going to join the republic unless they preserved the institution of slavery. So a compromise was struck that they would preserve slavery where it existed but end the slave trade. At the convention, Washington said, “I’m going to pick the largest slave owner at the convention and let him decide when the slave trade to America would end.” The largest captor of enslaved people was Charles Pinckney of Pinckney Island in, you guessed it, Beaufort County, South Carolina. Pinckney said to end the slave trade 20 years after the signing of the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, in 1808.
ReconstructionNovember 7, 1861, was the beginning of the reconstruction of the American South. A lot had to happen. The enslaved weren’t technically free until the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Lincoln in September of 1862, to be promulgated on January 1, 1863. When it became law, it was read on the grounds of the Naval Hospital in Port Royal. 10,000 people listened to the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation there. The largest number of people actually freed by the Proclamation in America was on the Sea Islands of South Carolina. The consequence of the emancipation is that African American men who had been slaves toiling on cotton plantations signed up to be soldiers in the United States Army. One of the first African American units in the U.S. army history was the First South Carolina Regiment organized in the Sea Islands prior to reconstruction. They were profoundly heroic during the war. The movie Glory, about the attack of Fort Wagner on Folly Beach, an African American Sargent, Prince Rivers from South Carolina, was one of the heroes of the battle. African Americans fought for their own freedom. The enslaved people on the Sea Islands were the first freed people as a consequence of the Civil War. Missionaries came down and opened schools for the freed people. One of the oldest in America is Penn School on St. Helena Island near Beaufort. When the war ended, this place was already liberated; it had been liberated on November 7, 1861.
As everyone knows, it was a terrible war. Go to St. Helena Church in historic downtown Beaufort and look on the south wall; there’s a plaque dedicated to all the young men from the Confederate Army lost to that Parish in the Civil War. It’s a Who’s Who of every major family in Beaufort. That plaque is inscribed with not only who they were, but where they were killed in the war. 32% of all the white men of military age from the state of South Carolina were killed during the Civil War. This is not wounded; this is dead, gone forever, no descendants. It crushed the state of South Carolina.
So South Carolina was crushed. But, “Hell, they started the war, they got what they deserved,” the northern Yankees were so fond of pointing out. After the war, Beaufort was the place where the experiments leading to reconstruction occurred, and that’s why they were chosen to host the national monument.
26-year-old Robert Smalls, a slave in Charleston who had been raised in Beaufort played a significant part for Beaufort during and after the war. He’d been the helmsman aboard a Confederate steamer named the CSS Planter. He cooked up a scheme to commandeer the boat, get the crew and their families on board in the middle of the night, run past the Confederate guns at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor and deliver the ship to the Union blockading squadron offshore. It was very risky, but he pulled it off!
As Smalls said in his quote, “I will be free or die.” He piloted the ship to the Union-controlled Beaufort/Port Royal area, where it was transformed into a Union warship. His bravery and persuasion helped convince President Abraham Lincoln to accept African-American soldiers into the Union Army.
Smalls was a national hero due to his service during the war, do after the war he became a political leader of the Sea Islands. He was elected as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1868 where they shaped the politics of South Carolina. They wrote in “one man one vote.” Robert Smalls authored legislation providing for South Carolina to have the first free and compulsory public school system in the United States.
Robert Smalls went on to be elected to the South Carolina State legislature and then the United States House of Representatives. While he was in the U.S. Congress, he authored legislation to obtain money to buy Parris Island. He was behind everything that happened in Reconstruction on the South Carolina coast. In fact, the Charleston newspapers, who were Democrats, called Robert Smalls “the King of Beaufort County.” Smalls wasn’t the only African American politician, but he was the most successful and influential. The Sea Islands became a black republican district. All the politicians were African American Republicans because that’s the party of Lincoln.
The other thing that happened during reconstruction was that a lot of Yankee merchants and missionaries came to town. They built a railroad to Augusta, Georgia that brought lumber to the port and brought coal from Chattanooga, Tennessee down to the docks in Port Royal. The coal attracted the U.S. Navy and the great steamships of the post-war Navy to Port Royal Sound, which was the only place on the southern coast that could accommodate those big vessels.And now they had coal. So in 1877, they made Port Royal Sound an official U.S. Naval Station. They started buying land in a place called Parris Island. After the navy moved out, they left the island in the hands of a couple of platoons of Marines and the Marines have been there ever since. It’s been an immense boon to the economy of Beaufort County, a marine green town, with frequent graduations of new Marine recruits. This became a prosperous period because of the railroad. They also discovered phosphates during that time, and everybody had jobs. Cotton prices stayed high until the mid-1880s. Reconstruction was a very happy time in Beaufort, with lots of celebrations, lots of wealth, and lots of opportunity for the rising freedmen of the Sea Islands.
Then it all fell apart, and these are the lessons of history.
From Prosperity to Poverty
Cotton prices started to fall, impacting everyone who owned land. Land was redistributed in Beaufort County, which was very unusual. The land was taken away from the planters during the occupation because they failed to pay their federal taxes. It was not confiscated, it was foreclosed upon, then distributed in smaller parcels to the former slaves to farm. The Sea Islands of South Carolina had the largest percentage of African American property owners of any county in South Carolina because of the re-distribution. As long as the cotton prices were high, everybody could make a living on 10 acres of land. With one-mule-farming, one bale of cotton was all you had to produce to make a dollar, which was a whole year’s salary.
Then cotton prices started to decline, and subsequently, a hurricane hit hard in 1893, flooding the area, killing 2,000 people, and wrecking the phosphate business. The industrial jobs left, the cotton economy plummeted, and then the people started to leave. The Great Migration began to occur in the Sea Islands.
Between 1890 and 1940, 52% of the African American population in the Sea Islands had moved away. The population of Beaufort County declined 38% in 50 years. It went from rich to poor in just two generations. By the 1920s, it was desperately poor, and by the 1930s poorer still. Allegedly, two people actually starved to death in Beaufort County, the official cause of death: malnutrition. No one wanted to stick around for more of the same.
Marines to the Rescue
What brought Beaufort County out of it was World War II. Marines on Parris Island came and went during World War I until they almost disappeared by 1933. Then in 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In 1940 the population of Beaufort County was 24,000 people. In the four years of World War II, Parris Island trained 241,000 marines, ten times the population of the county. Everybody went to work on Parris Island. Beaufort became a war camp community, and it was the springboard of the prosperity the whole county enjoys today.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of American history. It all started here, in the history of Beaufort SC.
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Disclosure: The author was honored to be the guest of Visit Beaufort during her stay, but as always, the opinions, reviews, and experiences are her own.