"This headland is bluff and seems steep, as if the trees hang over the water."
Those are the words recorded by English Capt. William Hilton 350 years ago when he sighted the island that now bears his name. The passage, read Wednesday by a descendant, resonated with a room of about 200 people at the Country Club of Hilton Head.
The talk came as part of a weeklong festival marking Hilton's sighting and the 30th anniversary of the town's incorporation.
Setting out on an expedition from New England to Barbados and back, Hilton meant to discover a great new land. And he knew one when he saw it, said Jerrold Hilton, a descendant of the mariner's family.
However, the captain's seafaring roots go back much further than 1663. They extend to the days of English barons, fish mongers and castles overlooking the River Wear, Jerrold Hilton said.
His ancestors were nobles -- at least for a time.
The first known Hilton lived before William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066. Soon after the Norman conquest, his descendants raised a wooden castle, which was later rebuilt with stone. For the next six centuries, the family passed down the castle and the title of baron of the Bishop of Durham.
With a gesture to his slide show of travel photos, Hilton noted an incomplete effigy of one in a long line of men named William Hilton.
"For some reason, someone cut his legs off," he said. "It was a sign of disrespect by someone. We don't know who, but it is rather interesting, indeed."
In the 18th century, the family fell out of favor with the bishop and lost the baron title.
"There were a lot of wars around that time, and the Hiltons were not always on the right side," Hilton said. "One sort of lost his head."
The castle remained in the family until the 1800s, when an heir sold it to pay off debts, he said. But its influence had a deep effect on the Hiltons who traveled to America as pilgrims, especially given the castle's proximity to the River Wear, where shipyards had been sprouting up since the 1300s.
One Hilton joined the Worshipful Company of Fishmongers, one of England's oldest guilds, then used his expertise to establish fishing stations in New Hampshire and Maine. Capt. William Hilton, the mariner, traveled on.
Wednesday's talk enlightened Rick Sauers, who also made his way to Hilton Head Island from up North. The 64-year-old, who moved from Pennsylvania two years ago, said he appreciated the seafaring history lesson.
"I'd also like to know more about what ships have wrecked around the island," he joked. "But now that we're full-time residents, it's good to know the roots."
Highlights of the Town of Hilton Head Island's 350/30 Celebration are as follows:Friday: Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and 2012 Republican presidential candidate, will address the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head at 10 a.m. at First Presbyterian Church. Cost is $15 for guests and $50 for a luncheon. Phone: 843-384-6758.
Also, Jerrold Hilton will give a presentation on the family history of Capt. William Hilton from 10:30 a.m. to noon and 2 to 3 p.m. at the Heritage Library, 852 William Hilton Parkway, suite 2A.
Saturday: Community party at Coligny Beach from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
For a complete schedule with specific dates, times, locations and more information, go to celebrationhhi.org.
Follow reporter Rebecca Lurye at twitter.com/IPBG_Rebecca.