Festival to celebrate 350th anniversary of Hilton Head Island's sighting, 30th year as a town

bheffernan@islandpacket.comApril 27, 2013 

Hilton Head Island, it seems, has always been worth writing home about.

It was nearly 350 years ago when Capt. William Hilton, sailing from Port Royal Sound toward the sea, spotted something to his starboard he thought was worth jotting down -- a bluff near the heel of a barrier island that would serve as a guide for future sailing expeditions.

After Hilton's writings were sent back to his native England, cartographers began adding a new feature to maps of the Carolina coastline: "Hilton's Head."

Nearly 320 years later, a town was incorporated on that island bearing that landmark's name.

This fall, Hilton Head organizations are collaborating to host a weeklong festival to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Hilton's sighting and the 30th birthday of the Town of Hilton Head Island. Among the organizers are the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce, the Coastal Discovery Museum, the Heritage Library Foundation and the town.

The event will be Sept. 30 to Oct. 5 and gets rolling with a bike ride along all 57 miles of the town's paths. Bikers will pass a flag bearing the 350/30 logo "like the Olympic torch," said event organizer Leslie Richardson. The relay ride finishes at Town Hall, which will then hold an open house for the public.

Other events throughout the week include historical and cultural tours throughout the island; a showcase of island clubs and organizations in Pineland Station; a 5K race and "tot walk" on the beach near the Coligny area.

The week concludes with a party on Coligny Beach with live music, shag dancing, a sandcastle-building contest and a group photo of all residents who have lived on Hilton Head for at least 30 years.

The event is a celebration of the island -- not only its history, but also people who are here today, said Linda Piekut, executive director of the Heritage Library Foundation.


Capt. Hilton couldn't have envisioned what would become of his beachhead, which later became the site of Fort Walker, built by Confederate troops in 1861 and located inside present-day Port Royal Plantation.

Hilton did, however, think the areas near Port Royal Sound were promising.

"The air is clear and sweet, the country very pleasant and delightful," wrote Hilton -- perhaps the area's first real estate salesman -- in his 1664 book, "A Relation of a Discovery Lately Made on the Coast of Florida."

He was sent to the area on a boat called Adventure in search of new land to farm for food to sustain England's sugarcane plantations in Barbados.

When he returned to the Caribbean island, he recommended the lands he explored, but the plantation owners chose to develop a farming port farther north along the South Carolina coast -- they called it Charles Towne, after their king, Charles II.

That was likely a safer choice, according to Bill Altstaetter, retired founder and president of the Heritage Library on Hilton Head.

"This was the frontier of the English colonies," he said. "Both England and Spain claimed the land between Charleston and St. Augustine, and they fought over it for the better part of 200 years. Anyone who came down here was taking their lives in their hands."

As it turns out, the Spanish not only spotted Hilton Head Island first, they walked ashore -- something Capt. Hilton never did -- to gather fresh water from the springs near Spanish Wells, said Altstaetter.

The Spanish had founded Santa Elena, a settlement on present-day Parris Island, in the early 1500s, long before the English explored the area along Port Royal Sound.


Three hundred and twenty years later, Hilton Head was in many ways still a frontier. The island was divided into plantation neighborhoods. There still was land to claim and develop.

On May 18, 1983, the Town of Hilton Head Island was formed -- largely to help control the land grab and manage the remaining undeveloped acreage. The island's population was about 15,000 -- less than half of what it is today.

There was no Town Hall then. No council chambers.

The first Town Council meeting was in the home of the town's first mayor, Ben Racusin. Two meetings later, Racusin and the council met in a small building on the southeast corner of William Hilton Parkway and Folly Field Road. Town Hall later moved to its present location near Wexford Plantation in the early 1990s.

"It was an interesting time for sure," says current Mayor Drew Laughlin.

Laughlin, who lived on the island then, said he remembers many people who were opposed to incorporation and "a lot of growing pains -- a lot of trying to gather disparate ideas and trying to blend them together."

But now, Laughlin said, "I think most people today would accept the idea that town government is useful and necessary and positive. ... If we had not incorporated, it would be a dramatically different place than it is today."

Follow reporter Brian Heffernan at twitter.com/IPBG_Brian.

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