A Brief History of Beaufort

When Port Royal Sound was named, William Shakespeare had not been born; the Spanish Armada had not sailed against England; and “Santa Elena” had not yet become “St. Helena.”
The following “history” will give the visitor a backward glance of Old World contact and New World conflict out of which has come this sundrenched, pleasant place.

The Spaniards

In 1520, less than thirty years after Columbus discovered America, Captain Francisco Gordillo, exploring from Hispaniola, stopped near Port Royal Sound long enough to name the region Santa Elena, one of the oldest European place names in America.

In 1559, to prevent the intrusion of the French, and to protect the galleon route from Havana to Cadiz, Philip II of Spain ordered a colony planted at Santa Elena. Angel Villafane explored the Sea Island but failed to establish a permanent colony.

The French

In 1562 Admiral Coligny of France sent Captain Jean Ribaut to found a colony of French Protestants in the New World. Ribaut explored the coast from Florida to South Carolina and decided upon the sea islands of Santa Elena. He described the areas as a place teeming with edible wild life and with a harbor where “all the shippes of the world” could anchor in comfort. He named the harbor Port Royal, a name which has been in continuous use for over four hundred years.

Ribaut left thirty Protestants on modern Parris Island at his settlement of Charlesfort (named for the infant king of France) and returned to France for supplies. Religious wars detained him, and his thirty colonists, plagued by troubles with the Indians and among themselves, abandoned Charlesfort, built a boat on Parris Island, and sailed for France. After hunger and thirst had reduced them to cannibalism the survivors were rescued and returned to France.

In 1564, Ribaut, undeterred, returned to the southern coasts, this time to the St. Johns River in Florida, where he established Fort Caroline.

The Spaniards Again

The alarmed Spaniards quickly sent Pedro Menendez de Aviles to counter the French. Menendez founded St. Augustine and from this base ruthlessly eliminated the French colony, killing Ribaut and the entire garrison. Menendez then established a string of posts along the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The northernmost of these was placed on the site of Ribaut’s Charlesfort on Parris Island.

In 1566 the Spaniards built the fort, San Phillipe and the Mission of Santa Elena at port Royal. In 1577 a larger fort, San Marcos, replaced San Phillipe, destroyed following an Indian massacre. For twenty years, until 1586, the Spaniards fought off Indian uprisings and French buccaneers, and reaching inland as far as Tennessee. By 1580 the settlement was one of the largest Spanish towns north of Mexico. But more troubles lay ahead.

In 1586 the English privateer, Sir Francis Drake, attacked and burned St. Augustine, forcing withdrawal of outlying Spanish forced and the final abandonment of the settlement at Port Royal. But for another hundred years Port Royal was Spanish lands and waters, and intruders ventured in at their peril.

The English

In the 1600’s the English began to appear among the Sea Islands, looking for a site for a colony. William Hilton came in 1663, followed by Robert Sanford in 1666. Sanford left behind South Carolina’s first settler, Dr. Henry Woodward, to minister to the Indians. Woodward was with the original colonists in 1670. When ships carrying the first settlers for South Carolina arrived at Port Royal, Woodward and the Indians warned the immigrants that the Spanish claim and threat were too strong for contest. The settlers moved north and settles the banks of the Ashley River in 1670.

By the 1700’s English planters and traders had established a foothold at Port Royal. The two most prominent men were Thomas Nairn on St. Helena Island and John Barnwell on Port Royal Island. These men were mainly responsible for founding the town of Beaufort in 1711.

The Scots

In 1685 Henry Erskine, Lord Cardross, settled a small band of Scots Covenanters on Spanish Point. They called their settlement Stuart Town. They made the retaliation mistake of encouraging the Yemassee Indians to raid and plunder the Spanish villages in Florida. In the Spaniards, in 1686, scattered the settlement and burned Stuart Town.

The Yemassee

On Easter Sunday, 1715, the fierce Yemassee tribe, aided by the Creeks from Georgia and Alabama, attacked and burned the young town of Beaufort, torturing and killing many settlers. Others escaped to a ship anchored in the bay. John Barnwell rallied the Port Royal Militia and helped Governor Craven drive the Yemassee into Florida from where they continued to raid the Sea Islands until 1728.

The Swiss

In 1733 a group of Swiss immigrants, led by Jean Pierre Purry, settled the town of Purrysburg on the Savannah River. This settlement, along with the founding of Georgia, gave considerable security to the Beaufort area.

The Crops

The fresh water swamps of the mainland produced the most profitable South Carolina crop, rice. In the 1740’s Eliza Lucas and Andre De Veaux developed the second most important export crop, indigo, from which blue dye was derived. Indigo was perfectly suited for the Sea Islands and was the primary cash crop in the two decades prior to the Revolution.

The Government

The Parish system was the political basis for colonial South Carolina. The Beaufort area had four parished which sent representatives to the Commons House of Assembly: St. Helena, among the Sea Islands (1712); Prince William, on the mainland (1745); St. Peter, along the Savannah (1747); and St. Luke, south of the Broad River (1767). The Parish Vestry was the only effective body of local government.

Prosperity and Politics

The production and export of indigo and a large shipbuilding industry in the Sea Islands brought prosperity to Port Royal, and the occupation of St. Augustine by the British made the area more attractive to settlers. The population had increased to approximately 4,000 on the eve of the Revolution.

The four parishes of the area began to vie with the Charlston parishes for political influence. An attempt by the royal governor, Lord Charles Greville Montague, to move the capitol to Port Royal (the Beaufort Assembly of 1772) was listed by Thomas Jefferson as one of the grievances in the Declaration of Independence. Opinion in Beaufort was sharply divided over Revolution. Thomas Heyward, Jr. of St. Luke’s Parish was the most prominent Patriot, while the powerful De Veaux family led the substantial Loyalist support for the king.


Beaufort played no major role in the early years of the Revolution, but as British hopes for success faded in New York and Pennsylvania they looked southward, and in December, 1778, captured and occupied Savannah. Early in the New Year General Prevost sent H. M. S. Vigilant with two hundred and fifty troops aboard to capture Beaufort. They landed at Laurel Bay and marched toward Beaufort but were intercepted and repulsed near the present Marine Air Station by General William Moultrie with three hundred militia. The British returned to their ship but the Americans were forced to abandon the defense of Port Royal Island because the small garrison at Fort Lyttleton, guarding Beaufort, had spiked the guns and blown up the forst on the approach of the seventy-four gun ship-of-the-line, Vigilant.

The next month, Prevost attempted, with near success, to capture Charleston but was forced to retreat down the coast, finally occupying Beaufort in July, 1779. In October the siege of Savannah by American troops and the French West indies fleet forced the British to evacuate Beaufort. Charleston fell to the British in 1780. During its occupation (1780-82) the King’s Highway to Savannah was guarded by the British Fort Balfour at Coosawhatchie.

In the Beaufort area, bitter rivalries led to scattered fighting between Tories and Patriots. Colonel John Laurens, son of Henry Laurens and close friend of Alexander Hamilton, was killed near the Combahee River in one of the last skirmishes of the Revolutionary War.


The Beaufort District was ruined by the war and recovery was slow. But in the early 1790’s a new crop was introduced from the Bahamas, via Georgia, which was to form the basis of the greatest era of prosperity and influence in the town’s long history. This was Sea Island Cotton, the finest and most expensive cotton grown in America. In the years between 1790 and 1860 cotton produced so many men of wealth and influence that one historian described Beaufort as the “wealthiest, most aristocratic and cultivated town of its size in America.” Some of Beaufort’s more prominent citizens in the antebellum era were Senator Robert W. Barnwell, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton, Congressman and poet William J. Grayson, and Senator Robert Barnwell Rhett, the “father of Secession.”

This was the period when most of the fine homes which give distinction to Beaufort’s National Historic District were built. During this period also, Beaufort gained the reputation for having some of the finest libraries and some of the best preparatory schools in the South. The most notable of these was the Beaufort College whose building, erected in 1852, now houses the branch campus of the University of South Carolina.

Civil War and the End of Opulence

With the opening of the Civil War the Sea Island cotton kingdom came to a swift and thunderous end. On November 7, 1861. Commodore Samuel DuPont led a flotilla of U. S. Navy warships into Port Royal Sounds and quickly reduced the half finished Confederate forts, Walker and Beauregard, permanently securing the Sea Islands for the Union. The planters with their families fled inland, abandoning their homes, lands and slaves. Beaufort became the chief base of the South Atlantic blockading squadron and headquarters of the U. S. Army, Department of the South. The great houses served as hospitals, and as offices and quarters for the military and were thus saved for other generations. During the occupation by Union troops. Quaker missionaries founded the Penn School for black freedom on St. Helena Island.

After the War-Forward

Returning whites found their property and lands virtually confiscated under the Direct Tax Laws. Few of them ever regained what had been lost. During the Occupation years, agriculture became almost non-existent and in 1865 one observer wrote that the Beaufort region, formerly one of the most highly cultivated portions of the globe, “was not raising enough food to last until spring.” The more enterprising and tough-minded adapted quickly and began the long struggler back from crushing defeat and reprisal. Cotton production recovered but it never regained its supremacy, and with the coming of the boll weevil about 1919, the great long-fibered cotton disappeared forever from the Sea Islands.

In 1893 a giant storm came out of the Atlantic leaving destruction in its wake. The hurricane came ashore at the high tide, piling water on water until all of the islands were inundated and swept clean of existing agriculture and shipping. Many thousands were drowned and a phosphate mining operation was stopped permanently. Like war, it has remained a reference point in the region’s history.

Where rice, indigo and cotton flourished, feed crops, vegetables and soybeans, with attendant livestock production, supply the agriculture wealth. The shrimp fleet “drags” the sounds and coastal waters and a seafood industry thrives.

New, clean manufacturing and large military installations add greatly to the economy of the area.

A fast-growing tourist “industry” brings in new dollars, and retired people, drawn by the climate, the history and the, as yet, unspoiled beauty, are new settlers who add to the intellectual and cultural life in the Sea Islands.

Meanwhile an energetic and growing number of preservationists fight bravely, and often successfully, to keep the houses and scenes that make Beaufort an unusual, “different” place.