Traveling Through Time on a Hilton Head History Tour

Written in partnership with Hilton Head History Tours

It was as if I was hearing of Hilton Head Island for the very first time.  We have come to Green’s Shell Park to see a “Shell Ring” built over 3,000 years ago by Nomadic Indigenous people who traveled here in search of shellfish. But there is more history here than just the ring. There, on the observation deck overlooking Skull Creek, the 12-mile-long island that we know—or thought we knew—suddenly becomes a pirate’s hideaway right before our very eyes. 

View of Skull Creek from Green’s Shell Park

“Crews would use Skull Creek for careening their ships in order to clean the hulls, which was essential in making sure that the vessel’s speed wasn’t impaired.” This is Todd, the guide responsible for reintroducing our beloved island to all of us during today’s Hilton Head History Tour.  Passionate about the region’s past, Todd tells of Hilton Head’s involvement during the Golden Age of Piracy. A perfect place for hiding and repairing their ships, crews could also navigate the intracoastal waterway between the key ports of Savannah and Charleston.

Pottery fragments found in Green’s Shell Park

“A journal entry from the time describes up to 8 pirate ships out there careening their hulls”. He motions to the waterway behind us, making the group turn to take in the current scene of a single sailboat gliding through the calm creek framed by spartina grass.  It’s hard to understand, but this won’t be the only time we’re tasked with imagining how the island would have looked hundreds of years ago during the tour.

Tales of Blackbeard follow, and the curtain of Hollywood’s take on piracy falls. Our eyes grow wide when Todd suggests the idea of Blackbeard’s treasure being buried somewhere at the south end of the island, or in Bath, NC, but probably lost forever with the changing sea levels.

Coastal Discovery Museum

As the tour moves on, we jump back and forth in time with every new significant location we explore. We make a brief journey through the Antebellum Period as we circle the main house of Honey Horn Plantation, what is now the home of the Coastal Discovery Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate. Todd assures us that a return trip back to the museum on our own time is worth it, even if it’s just to walk through the beautiful butterfly enclosure.

We cross into the devastating stretch of time immediately after a deadly hurricane in 1893 wreaks havoc on Hilton Head and leaves most of the island essentially uninhabitable for over a year.  We’re standing in front of one of four surviving buildings at Honey Horn, and after our bus travels toward the middle of the island, we find the second building looming over us in Zion Cemetery—the Baynard Mausoleum.

Baynard Mausoleum in Zion Cemetery

I’ve heard about this tomb before, specifically a ghost story that the locals like to tell. It’s easy to see why this structure survived a massive hurricane when so many other buildings were flattened. This structure is unlike anything in our area. The roof stone is made of Pennsylvania blue slate and the walls are stone cut in Maryland. The stone cutters who carved it from the mountain traveled with it here on a series of barges and after its final leg up the Broad Creek, it was assembled where it still sits today.

We’re leaving Zion Cemetery with the mystery of the vanishing Chapel of Ease on our hands and stories of the local patriots in the Bloody Legion’s guerrilla attacks during the Revolutionary War swirling through our heads. Our group is absorbing the information and stories as fast as we can, and no, we don’t seem to have many questions since Todd is so thorough with his explanations. Although, he compels us to pepper him with questions throughout the tour. It’s as if we’re gradually putting together the pieces of Hilton Head’s history in some sort of puzzle, and the last pieces are lying in Mitchelville—at least for our tour’s sake.

A street lined with colorful beach bungalows gives way to the entrance of Mitchelville, the first town built by and for formerly enslaved people. Metaphorically called the Port Royal Experiment at the time, the group of escaped slaves that had become contraband of war before Emancipation ultimately proved their ability to self-govern. Mitchelville was a success, and by the war’s end had almost twice as many inhabitants as Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the time.

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park

Its importance rediscovered relatively recently, Mitchelville and other island landmarks show us that there is so much still to learn about our island. A theme reoccurring during the entirety of the tour, more of Hilton Head’s history is still being discovered. This is reason enough to argue that only taking a Hilton Head History Tour once isn’t enough. With so much information packed into three hours, each tour taken is already bound to be considerably different, and who knows what historians will discover by the time you return to Hilton Head for your next vacation.

Make your reservation, lace up your sneakers, and get ready to learn the real story behind Hilton Head Island.


If you’d like to receive more information and potential discounts on Hilton Head History Tours and other activities on the island, fill out the form below:

Discover Daufuskie Island

The southernmost sea island off of South Carolina’s coast that’s home to just over 400 people, Daufuskie Island remains a mystery to many. Perhaps the secretive nature of the island is part of the allure. That, and the raw, natural beauty that feels untamed and completely forgotten in time.

Daufuskie Island can only be reached by boat, barge, or ferry. Without a bridge connecting it to the “real world,” it’s a perfect sea island escape from reality. And yet, just beyond the Calibogue Sound, Hilton Head Island can still be seen–the Harbour Town Lighthouse’s red and white stands out against the greenery, while the amount of beachgoers at South Beach will make you savor the isolated quiet of Daufuskie’s pristine waterline.

Hardly crowded during the Lowcountry’s peak summer season, Daufuskie makes an ideal day trip any time of the year. You might even prefer taking the trip in cooler temperatures as most activities primarily take place outdoors–the closest thing you’ll get to air conditioning when you’re out and about is the breeze you’ll catch on your golf cart or boat ride.

For those who want to explore the island at their own pace, renting a golf cart is highly recommended. Truly the best way to explore the island, you can easily reserve a rental cart ahead of time from Tour Daufuskie, and find it waiting for you as soon as you arrive at the dock. As fun as navigating the island on your own golf cart can be, first-time visitors might end up missing must-see locations partly because of the island’s layout, as well as not having the full understanding and story behind key landmarks.

The Daufuskie experience becomes very different when you’re shown around by the island experts. Tour Daufuskie offers tours that cover all interests from history, culture, local artisans, or wildlife in the area. You’ll get the most out of your visit without worrying if you’ll be back at the dock in time to catch your ferry or water taxi back to Hilton Head.

Whatever you do, please don’t be fooled by the small-town atmosphere–the island isn’t exactly walkable. The amount of unpaved roads and the distance between landmarks will leave your group exhausted and your shoes full of sand.

Depending on how much time you have to see the island, your day on Daufuskie can be as laid back or as action packed as you’d like it to be. Most people want to stop at some of the better-known landmarks, like the First Union African Baptist Church. Built in 1884, this historic church is also the only active church on the island. Just up the road, you’ll be able to find the Mary Fields School, the very same school house that legendary author, Pat Conroy, taught at and included in his first best-selling book, The Water is Wide. Make sure to walk behind the school for a delicious cup of coffee, chai latte, or frozen lemonade from School Grounds Coffee, now operating out of the old cafeteria.

From there, you’ll have some decisions to make. If you’ve brought along a beach towel and have some time to spare, head over to Turtle Beach for the most secluded beach time during your entire trip to the Lowcountry.

History buffs will want to continue on to the Lighthouse Museum or the Billie Burn Historic Museum to learn more about the Gullah culture and influence on the island.

Those wanting to take home a piece of Daufuskie made by local artisans will definitely want to visit Iron Fish. You’ll also want to make time to tour the distillery for a tasting of the island’s finest rum, bourbon, or vodka. Families will love a trip to the community farm, Melrose Rookery, or a horseback ride on the beach.

Once lunch time comes around, you’ll have an even harder decision to make–where to eat!

From hot chicken to fresh seafood, there are a handful of restaurants that offer al fresco dining under beautiful live oaks or overlooking the water.

At the end of the visit, comfortable boat seats and exciting accounts of the day from fellow visitors await you on the return trip. Consider taking a water taxi or a private charter from Hilton Head Boat Charters for a more personal experience. Their knowledgable captains will give you recommendations of what to do in the area, and will point out interesting sites and wildlife along the way–and yes, that includes dolphins!


For more information and discounts for any activities on and around Hilton Head Island, fill out the short form below: