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Hilton Head Island is the home and chosen vacation spot for thousands of beach bums, working families, retirees and native islanders.
The island has a complex history that includes cotton booms, crab fishing, the first freedman’s village and a now-famous alligator that took a stroll next to developer Charles Fraser on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.
But how much do we know about our home?
The island was named after Capt. William Hilton who first identified the island as an entrance to Port Royal Sound in 1663 and named it “Hilton’s Headland,” according to popular belief and the Town of Hilton Head Island.
Check out these seven fun facts about Hilton Head to test your knowledge on the island’s size, the people who live here and where we’ve come from:
1. We’re bigger than Manhattan. (Yes, that Manhattan)
Well, if you’re counting square miles.
Hilton Head measures 69.15 square miles, while the island of Manhattan is only 22.82 square miles.
But don’t get the idea that the two are comparable in other ways, Manhattan’s population is about 41 times the number of people living on Hilton Head.
2. Hilton Head is the second largest barrier island on the East Coast, sort of.
Hilton Head is commonly referred to as the second largest barrier island on the eastern seaboard, right behind Long Island, New York.
However, some say that Hilton Head is really composed of three separate islands: Jenkins Island, the half of the island north of Broad Creek— which is a sea island — and the part of the island south of Broad Creek — which is a barrier island.
The difference between a sea island and a barrier island?
Barrier islands directly border the ocean, while sea islands have something that stands between them and the open sea, according to the South Carolina Encyclopedia.
3. The Gullah-Geechee name is unique to our area.
Many native islanders on Hilton Head are Gullah-Geechee people, or descendants of slaves that were brought to the island from central and west Africa.
The name Gullah-Geechee is actually a combination specific to this area, native island community leader Luana M. Graves Sellars told The Island Packet.
“Gullah” was the name assigned to African slaves that were brought to the U.S. from the Congo-Angola region of the continent. That region was often pronounced “N’Gulla,” which led to the word “Gullah,” according to David McCoy’s “Short History of Hilton Head Island.”
Sellars said this term is used to refer to the descendants of slaves in South Carolina and northward.
“Geechee” was used to refer to slaves who were brought to Georgia and more specifically, the Ogeechee River, which flows from central Georgia south to Savannah.
Since Hilton Head sits between the two areas, native islanders were named Gullah-Geechee. Sellars said the name wasn’t chosen by native islanders, but assigned by an American linguist.
4. Those shell rings? We still don’t really know what they are.
You may know about the shell ring that was studied in Sea Pines in 2016,or other Native American shell rings that are near Squire Pope Road and are open to the public.
The shell rings are donut-shaped and made from a mix of crushed oyster shells, pottery shards and animal bones, according to McCoy.
South Carolina is home to 20 discovered shell rings, and we’re lucky enough to have two of them on Hilton Head.
But what was their purpose to Native Americans that lived on the island in the 1600s?
We don’t know! Some guess that they were used to mark central gathering places or just a fancy way to discard waste, according to McCoy.
Whatever their purpose, he wrote that they appear “carefully planned and systematically deposited structures.”
5. Several celebrities have called Hilton Head home (for at least a little while).
If you’re living on Hilton Head, you’re in good company.
Superstars like Michael Jordan have owned homes on the island.
Atlanta Falcons and Home Depot owner Arthur Blank as well as legendary tennis player Stan Smith also have their own mansions on the island.
6. Hilton Head was an experiment in freedman’s communities.
After the Port Royal area was taken over by Union troops during the Civil War, many planters abandoned their land and people they enslaved to move inland.
That left newly “freed” slaves on Hilton Head under the care of the U.S. Department of Treasury, which responded by herding people into barracks, according to McCoy.
When General Ormsby M. Mitchel took over the Department of the South in 1862, he issued a radical military order that set up a self-governing village for those freedmen.
His order included instructions for establishing a school district system, governing body and police regulations in the 165-acre village. After Mitchel’s death later in 1862, the village was named Mitchelville.
Nearly 1,500 freedmen were living in the Mitchelville by 1865, according to McCoy and other historical records. The community included freedmen who worked as laborers, military employees, plantation workers and dock hands on the island.
7. We were almost wiped off the map in 1893.
When “The Great Storm of 1893” hit the South Carolina coast, the eye of the hurricane was straight over Beaufort. Still one of the deadliest hurricanes ever in North America, the great storm killed upwards of 1,500 people.
One of the things that made the great storm so destructive was that Hilton Head residents didn’t have much warning before a wall of water engulfed the island.
On Aug. 27, the hurricane made landfall in early evening with winds of up to 130 mph, according to our archives.
After the storm, the recovery effort in South Carolina became one of the first major relief projects of the Red Cross, which was organized in 1881 by Clara Barton.
Barton’s knowledge of the coast and her relief effort are credited with helping the “predominantly African-American population recover and reestablish their agricultural economy,” according to the Red Cross.
Do you have a fun fact about Hilton Head Island? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org