Beaufort County, South Carolina

Year Established

County Seat

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Population (2020)



Henry Somerset,
2nd Duke of Beaufort


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Scots Highlanders
Stuart's Town (Abandoned)

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A History of Beaufort County

The native Indians were living here seasonally as early as 4,000 BC. Evidence of early settlement remains today in the form of a 3,400 year old "Indian shell ring" in Hilton Head Island's Sea Pines Forest Preserve.

Written history began 500 years ago with the discovery of the area by Spanish Captain Diego de Salazar in 1514. Thus, Beaufort County was the site of the second landing on the North American continent by Europeans, in 1514. The first landing - Ponce de Leon at St. Augustine - was only a year earlier.

The seaport of Beaufort is located at the head of one of the largest natural harbors on the Atlantic coast, which explains the early interest of the Spanish and French explorers that followed. When they sailed up the sound in the 1520s, they found a land inhabited by many small tribes of Native Americans, the largest of which were the Cherokees and the Catawbas.

French explorers visited this area long before the English arrived. In 1562, Captain Jean Ribaut and his Frenchmen entered the sound which he named Port Royal. They settled near the present town of Port Royal. As they were Huguenots, this was the first Protestant settlement in the United States.

When Jean Ribaut returned to France for reinforcements the soldiers who were left behind revolted, built themselves a ship, and sailed for France the next year. This was the first ship built in America to cross the Atlantic Ocean.

After the French fled, Spaniards from Florida under Pedro Menendez de Aviles built Fort San Felipe on Parris Island in 1566 and made the new settlement there, known as Santa Elena, the capital of La Florida Province. In 1576, under attack from Native Americans, Santa Elena was abandoned, but the fort was rebuilt the next year. Archeologists have positively determined the location to be on the Parris Island golf course.

In 1587, England's Elizabeth I sent Sir Francis Drake to drive the Spanish from "La Florida." The Spanish decided to concentrate their forces in St. Augustine, and withdrew from Santa Elena.

Hilton Head Island is named for the English sea captain William Hilton, Jr. who was hired by a syndicate of Barbadian planters. He sighted the high bluffs of the island in August of 1663, while exploring the Port Royal Sound, and named it for himself, "Hilton Head," referring to the headlands visible as they sailed the uncharted waters. Within a few years, the English had established the first permanent European settlement of South Carolina at Albemarle Point, near present-day Charleston, on the Ashley River in 1670. The Lords Proprietors' first settlers included many Barbadians, and South Carolina came to resemble more closely the plantation economy of the West Indies than did the other mainland colonies.

The Scots arrived in the area in 1684 and they created Stuart's Town. The first trade was with the Indians for deer skins, a valuable commodity back in England, but indigo became the first cash crop. The climate and soil on the Sea Islands were favorable for its growth, and England was a great market for indigo. The town was burned by the Spanish in 1686 and abandoned soon thereafter.

Indian attacks, also sponsored by the Spanish, continued to harass the settlers in the area. The Yamassee Indians were particularly fierce. Settlement of Savannah and the colony of Georgia was encouraged so as to set up a buffer from the Indians - in particular the area around Beaufort where indigo was thriving. Indians last significantly threatened the colony's existence in the Yamassee War of 1715-1716.

Settlers from the British Isles, France, and other parts of Europe built plantations throughout the coastal lowcountry. Beaufort, the second oldest town in South Carolina, was founded in 1711. Both Beaufort County and its county seat of Beaufort were named for Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort (1684-1714), one of the later Lords Proprietors of Carolina.

African slaves were brought into the colony in large numbers to provide labor for the plantations, and by 1720 they formed the majority of the population. The ports of Georgetown, Charleston, and Beaufort became important centers of commerce and culture. In the years before the American Civil War, rice, indigo, and sea island cotton plantations brought great wealth to the entire lowcountry region.

Parris Island, (Santa Elena) was bought in 1715 by Alexander Parris, Public Treasurer of South Carolina.

In 1717, for acts of bravery in quelling the rioting Yamassee Indians, Colonel John Barnwell was granted a thousand acres on the northwest corner of Hilton Head Island by the Lord Proprietors. He became the first white settler. By 1766, approximately twenty-five families lived on Hilton Head Island.

Along with six other districts, the overarching Beaufort District was formed in 1769 and included the parishes of Prince William's, St. Luke's, St. Helena's, and St. Peter's.

Thomas Hayward, Jr., a local rice plantation owner, signed the Declaration of Independence.

As talk of Revolution escalated in the colonies, Hilton Head Island sided with the colonists. Daufuskie Island, just one mile south, was occupied by the Loyalists and was a British stronghold. During the American Revolution, the British frequently raided Hilton Head Island and burned plantations and captured slaves who were later sold in the West Indies. The raids continued even after Lord Cornwallis surrendered in 1781 at Yorktown.

South Carolina lost more men, and gave more money to the Revolutionary cause than any other colony. More Revolutionary War battles and skirmishes were fought in South Carolina than any other colony.

England had provided the market for indigo, this vanished after the Revolution. The settlers turned to cotton. In 1790, Hilton Head Island was the first island to grow cotton. Sea Island cotton became the finest cotton available in the world.

Many of the sea island plantation owners built their summer homes on the banks of the Beaufort River to catch the cool prevailing breezes. Beaufort was referred to as the "Newport of the South." The majority of the houses on the outlying plantations, though large, were not pillared mansions.

During the War of 1812, the British again invaded Hilton Head Island and burned most of the houses located near navigable waters.

Verdier House - Beaufort, SC

John Mark Verdier was a French Huguenot, who settled in Beaufort to build a plantation-based fortune. The local merchant and subsequent plantation owner was tremendously successful in his endeavors, and made a mint in the highly profitable Indigo trade of the latter 18th and early 19th centuries. By the second half of the 1700s, Verdier had traded enough indigo to acquire more than 1,000 acres of Sea Island cotton fields and plantations, and as a result, his personal fortunes soared.

Shortly thereafter, he built a home to represent his rise in society - a Federal style mansion in the historic downtown district, close to the water, that cemented his ascent from the well-to-do merchant class to a wealthy member of Beaufort's elite. John Mark Verdier was also the first U.S. Postmaster for the town of Beaufort in 1795.

The exceedingly grand home with two levels of white pillared columns supporting two levels of front porches was a legendary local landmark from the beginning, and was even selected as a preferred home base by occupying Union soldiers during the American Civil War. John Mark Verdier himself died in 1827, just 20 years or so after the home was complete, but his son James Robert Verdier would rise to regional fame as well as one of the first successful pioneers in the battle against the deadly, and prevalent-at-the-time, Yellow Fever.

Both Beaufort County and its county seat of Beaufort were named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort (1684-1714), one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. The district was formed in 1769 and included the parishes of Prince William's, St. Luke's, St. Helena's, and St. Peter's. It remained relatively unchanged in size until 1878, when a large portion was removed to form Hampton County.

French explorers visited this area long before the English arrived. They established a fort in 1562, as did the Spanish in 1566; neither of these settlements survived, however. Beaufort, the second oldest town in South Carolina, was founded in 1711. In the years before the American Civil War, rice and sea island cotton plantations brought great wealth to the region. Federal troops occupied Beaufort in December of 1861, and the first school in the South for freed slaves was established during the Civil War at what is now Penn Center on St. Helena Island.

The United States Marine Corps began training recruits at Parris Island in 1915, and later in the twentieth century Hilton Head Island and neighboring sea islands have become popular resort and retirement destinations. Some famous residents of Beaufort County are naturalists Alexander Garden (ca. 1730-1791) and Stephen Elliott (1771-1830); Robert Smalls (1839-1915), a former slave who became a United States Congressman; boxer Joe Frazier; and writer Pat Conroy.

In the South Carolina lowcountry, Beaufort District was formed in 1769 as one of seven original "overarching Districts." In 1785, Beaufort District was divided into four counties: Granville, Hilton, Lincoln, and Shrewsbury. These counties never became fully functional, and in 1798 these counties were abolished. Taking virtually its present boundaries, Beaufort District (county) was established in 1800. In 1868, Beaufort District was designated Beaufort County. Its county seat, the town of Beaufort, is on U.S. Highway 21, about forty miles northwest of Savannah, GA and 110 miles south of Columbia. After the American Civil War, the Marines have used Beaufort County's Parris Island as a training base. Beaufort County is bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the South Carolina counties of Jasper and Colleton, and the Georgia county of Chatham.
Beaufort County was organized in 1800, has an area of 702 square miles, and a population of 22,269 in 1920, estimated at 22,431 in 1925. The railroad mileage of the county is 52 and it has one accredited high school.

The growing season numbers 290 clays. The southernmost county of the state, the winter climate is mild and fresh sea breezes moderate the summer's heat.

The town of Beaufort, with 2,831 inhabitants, is the county seat, and other towns with their populations are Bluffton, 480; Hardeeville, 413; Port Royal, 333; and Yemassee, 323.

Before the American Civil War, Beaufort County, named for Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort, one of the Lords Proprietors, was the summer home of the planters who cultivated rice and cotton on the nearby plantations. It was proud that it had not a single white person of proper age who could not read and write. They were skillful farmers and raised "Carolina rice," the finest rice raised anywhere and "sea-island cotton" of wonderfully long and silky staple. So fine was the staple of this cotton that it was always packed by hand in bags, never baled or compressed, and the French silk mills bought most of it before the crop was planted.

But all that is changed now. For years following 1865 the lands remained idle and many was the fine plantation that sold for $1.00 an acre. Pioneer planters of vegetables or truck began planting for sale in the local market; later shipments were made to distant markets and now the development has been so great that special arrangements are made each year by the railroads to handle the heavy shipments to northern markets. "Beaufort Lettuce" has an established reputation and often sells in the same market at a higher price than the California shipments. Potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, cabbages, peas, and other vegetables come, in season, away from the rich fields of Beaufort by the carload - at times by trainloads.

Following the Civil War, it was discovered that the fossil bones and other fossil remains, known as phosphate rock, were valuable as fertilizers. And Beaufort County flourished. But the exhaustion of the deposits, combined with the discovery of more accessible supplies in Algiers and Florida, made the industry unprofitable. The day when the phosphate dredges, washers, and tugs dashed up and down St. Helena and Port Royal harbors is past; but the fertile lands supply a new industry and the mountains of barrels and crates are now as much a cause for remark as were the great phosphate "works" and the foreign ships.

Beaufort County early caught the idea of good roads. The old "shell road" from Beaufort to Port Royal was one of the first hard surface roads in the state, and the gravel-clay road from Yemassee into Beaufort is now one of the state's best roads. Winding through old rice fields and under live oak groves and through palmetto lanes, this road is picturesque as well as practicable.

The sightseeing visitor may see the historic houses of Beaufort - many of them built before the Revolutionary War - and old St. Helena Church, spared in both the Revolution and the Civil War, which was not the good fortune of Sheldon Church, burned in both wars. Good roads leach to the fertile truck farms on the Broad River, and in late winter one may drive for miles through continuous vegetable gardens. There are famous groves of live oaks festooned with grey moss, such as Tomalty and Old Fort. The last is the site of the old "Spanish Fort," which is not an old Spanish fort at all but was built in colonial days as a protection against the Spaniards. The Spanish raids from St. Augustine were not pleasant experiences for the early Beaufort settlers.

On several points on Beaufort Island there have been excavated buildings of some prehistoric race who lived on the Carolina coast before the race of Indians whom the first Europeans found, and there are still mounds to be excavated.

On Parris Island the United States has a large and important camp for the Marine Corps. A large part of the island has been acquired by the government and if the casual visitor to the adjoining island hears what he thinks is thunder on a clear day he has only to remember that thousands of marines sometimes indulge in target practice.

Of new territory to explore there is an abundance. The county is now completing a long and costly bridge from Beaufort to Ladies' Island and access is thus gained to St. Helena Island as well - the island that protested it wished no turbulent characters when it believed Napoleon was to be sent there, and the island of which the poet Grayson wrote so gracefully.

Across the Combahee River there has been completed a fine steel bridge at the famous old Combahee Ferry. On the eastern side the road is an old causeway and the bridge is too high to enable travellers to drink the waters of the Combahee - one of the purest rivers of the world - as the planters in former days would do when crossing in the great flat boat, and drink a toast (with or without) to "God's country." On this road, the trip by motor to Charleston takes but two hours. And as the new bridge to Savannah has long been open to travel, visitors from that interesting city may visit Beaufort and remember the days when Oglethorpe was beginning the Savannah settlement and the well-established Beaufort town sent a welcoming gift of "rum and rice."

Halfway between Beaufort and Savannah was fought the battle of Honey Hill. The Federal fleet sent an army by boats to cut the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. The Confederates stopped them at Honey Hill after a bloody battle.

Immediately above, published in "South Carolina: A Handbook," prepared by The Department of Agriculture, Commerce, and Industries and Clemson College, Columbia, South Carolina, 1927. In the Public Domain. [with minor edits]


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