From Gullah culture dating back to the 1600s, to resort culture dating back to the 1960s, learn the history of Hilton Head Island at these sites.

By Maya Kachroo-Levine
November 01, 2020
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Credit: Louise Heusinkveld/Getty Images

When traveling abroad, history and culture is such an important part of our experience. You wouldn’t go to Florence, Italy without learning about the Medici family and visiting the Uffizi Gallery, after all. And yet, sometimes, when exploring our own country, we forget to investigate the ever-present American history.

Some of the best destinations in the U.S., beyond offering incredible hiking trails, beaches, or restaurants, offer insight into the past. And on Hilton Head Island, the past is remarkably well-preserved. These Hilton Head Island sites will expose visitors to crucial southern culture.

Coastal Discovery Museum

Once a plantation house, the repurposed property on 68 acres is now a museum showcasing the natural and cultural history of Hilton Head Island. The Coastal Discovery Museum is home to permanent and rotating exhibits, and hosts culturally relevant programming throughout the year. Among the workshops held at the museum are Gullah cooking classes and storytelling sessions.

Gullah Heritage Trail

The Sea Islands buzz with Gullah culture, which was derived from the culture of enslaved West Africans, many of whom picked cotton in South Carolina and Georgia. As such, the Gullah people were some of the first to live on Hilton Head Island and have been preserving their African culture here since the late 1600s. Gullah Heritage Trail Tours bring guests to old Gullah family compounds, their old one-room schoolhouse, plantation ruins, and the historic marker of the first freedom village.

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park

Also an important site for Gullah culture, Mitchelville is said to have been the first free village in the U.S. following the Emancipation Proclamation. When enslaved West Africans in the Sea Islands were freed under the proclamation, many ventured to Hilton Head Island, specifically to a Union army outpost. That’s when Mitchelville was founded, as “the first site where people born into slavery became free in the United States of America.” Because of its significance, Hilton Head Island takes great care to preserve the Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park.

Harbourtown Lighthouse and Museum

Here’s a fun fact about the Harbour Town Lighthouse: it’s not a lighthouse. In fact, it was built as a tourist attraction when Hilton Head Island became a vacation destination. Set on Sea Pines Plantation, the 93-foot lighthouse was built in 1969. While the late ‘60s is nothing compared to the generations-old Gullah culture dating back to the late 1600s, it’s still an interesting window into Hilton Head Island life 50 years ago. Climb the 110 stairs to the top of the lighthouse, where you’ll find a mini-museum, with old photos of a bygone vacation era.

Hilton Head Island’s Forts

Hilton Head Island has four Civil War forts that still welcome visitors. Fort Mitchel is just off Skull Creek Drive, Fort Sherman and Fort Howell are accessible from Port Royal Plantation, and Fort Walker is best seen while touring the Coastal Discovery Museum.