A Brief History of Bluffton
by W. Hunter Saussy
To understand the history of Bluffton it is necessary to have some knowledge of its geographic location and the history of adjacent areas such as Hilton Head, St. Helena, Port Royal and other barrier islands for the people who first settled Bluffton were of the same families that earlier developed those places.
While Port Royal St. Helena and Hilton Head were first explored by the Spanish in 1520, the French in 1562 and finally colonized by the English in 1670, the lower parts of what is now Beaufort County, which includes the Bluffton area, were considered “Indian Lands”. This situation existed until after the Yemassee Indian War which began in 1715. After a long, sporadic and bloody struggle the Yemassees and their Indian allies were finally defeated in 1728 and removed from the area; with the majority of the surviving Yemassees going to what is now south Georgia and Florida where they were absorbed into the Seminole tribe.
After the removal of the Yemassees the area was opened for settlement by white colonists. Purrysburg on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River, was settled by Swiss colonists in 1732 and Savannah was settled in 1733 by the English under General Oglethorpe.
Before these settlements were formed, the Lord Proprietors who controlled the Carolinas under a charter from King Charles II, granted themselves in 1718 additional baronies of approximately 13,000 acres each in these formerly “Indian Lands”. The Devil’s Elbow Barony, which covered an area between the Colleton and Okatie Rivers on the north, the May River on the south, Mackey’s Creek on the east, and a line drawn from Linden plantation on the May River to and including Rose Hill plantation on the May River to and including Rose Hill plantation on the Okeetee River, was drawn by lot Sir John Colleton and deeded to him on December 5, 1718.
The original Sir John did very little with this barony as he had other and more developed baronies in other parts of the Carolinas including his main barony, Fairlawn, in what became Berkeley County near Charleston. Finally his grandson, a so a Sir John Colleton, did develop some plantations in the Victoria Bluff – Foot Point areas. These plantations were destroyed by the British under General Provost in 1779 during the American Revolution.
This Sir John Colleton died in 1776, but prior to his death he divided the western half of Devil’s Elbow Barony into six tracts and sold them. A tract of 680 acres, which included the present town of Bluffton, went to Benjamin Walls.
Following the Revolutionary War, and with the invention of the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove plantation on the Savannah River, cotton, and particularly the long-staple cotton grown on the sea islands, became the chief money crop of the island plantations; and, together with rice grown an the mainland plantations bordering the fresh water rivers; the Savannah and New Rivers, brought great prosperity. Summers on a plantation and especially on a rice plantation were not the most healthful. The intense heat and the hoards of malaria and yellow fever carrying mosquitoes brought illness and death, primarily to the white population of the plantations. It was for this reason that the wealthy planters began to look for a healthier place to keep their families. And the area we now call the town of Bluffton was the ideal choice. With its high bluff and huge spreading live oak trees and facing directly into the prevailing cool, southeast summer breezes, the area had the healthful climate thy south. It was also easily accessible by water to their working plantations on the islands and on the mainland.
So began the real history of Bluffton. The first summer homes were built here in the early 1800s. There is evidence of the Pope and the Kirk families being here shortly after 1800. Unfortunately information on the period between the American Revolution and up to 1860 is very scanty. All of the Beaufort County Court House records of the period were destroyed by General William Tecumseh Sherman’s cavalry in 1865 while being moved from the Court House in Gillisonville to Columbia for safekeeping. Our main source of information of the antebellum period comes from old family letters, a few memories written by persons who visited the area, some church records, wills and some articles in the Savannah and Charleston news papers of that time.
We do know that the healthy climate and beauty of the area began to draw more and more planters here, not only to summer but for year round residency. Sometime during the 1830s the town was formally laid out under a street plan that still exists today.
In the period between the 1830s and the 1860s Bluffton continued to grow. It was first know as “May River”, then later as “Kirk’s Bluff’. In the early 1840s a mass meeting was called under the leadership of R. Barnwell Rhett to have the village change its name to Bluffton for the high banks on which it stands and as a compromise between the Kirk and Pope families, each of which wanted the town named for them. The first reference to “Bluffton” appeared in an advertisement in the Savannah paper of July 1843: `of boat service to Bluffton’.
Two large churches, one Episcopal and one Methodist, were built and a private school was started by Prof. Hugh F Train, a Scotsman brought over to tutor the children of the wealthy planters. The poet Henry Timrod also taught in this private school. Several stores started on Calhoun Street and a Masonic Lodge was organized.
Despite its peacefulness and beauty, Bluffton was also a boiling political center during the unsettled years before the War Between the States. The first secession movement in South Carolina is said to have started in Bluffton in 1844.
Bluffton as a town was finally incorporated in 1852.
All of this affluence came to a grinding halt with the outbreak of the War between the States and the capture of Hilton Head Island by Federal forces on November 17, 1861. Most of the white population fled temporarily to Bluffton due to the Federal troops and gun boats, the entire population of Bluffton was soon evacuated to safer havens in the interior, such as Grahamville, Gillisonville, Allendale, etc. Bluffton became a deserted place with homes, furniture and belongings all abandoned.
During 1862 Federal troops and gun boats visited Bluffton on three occasions, but other than removing furnishings from the deserted houses which they used to furnish their quarters at Fort Pulaski the town was not damaged.
During this period the town was used by Confederate forces a headquarters from which pickets, or lookouts, were distributed at various points along Calibogue Sound and the May River. These pickets were to report any movements by the Federals up the May River to the Confederate cavalry stationed at Pritchardville, about eight miles west of Bluffton.
Early in June of 1863 General David Hunter, the commander at Hilton Head, ordered Colonel Barton, the commander at Fort Pulaski, to take his troops and destroy the town of Bluffton. Without going into detail as to the military operation involved, as this is another full story in itself, the town was set on fire and apparently two-thirds of the houses, including most of the better ones along the bluff, were destroyed on June 4, 1863. The two churches and approximately fifteen of the residences in the center of the town escaped destruction. Of these, two churches and eight of the houses remain today.
After the war, with their homes burned, their Hilton Head plantations confiscated by the Federal Government, and their rice plantations along the New and Savannah Rivers in ruin, many were bankrupt by the war and their Bluffton properties were sold for taxes.
Some families did return however and these together with new people who moved in from other parts of the state, primarily from Hampton, Colleton and Beaufort counties and a few from the North, began to rebuild Bluffton. This time the people were mainly merchants, not planters, and in time Bluffton became the commercial center for this part of Beaufort County with an economy tied very closely to the May River and forest products. Bluffton also continued to draw many summer visitors to their homes along the bluff. By the early 1900s Bluffton boasted seven or eight large general stores along Calhoun Street carrying everything the people needed to sustain themselves, from hardware and dry goods to molasses and groceries. Practically everything that came into and left Bluffton did so by river boats which maintained regular passenger and freight services between Savannah and Bluffton with stops at Daufuskie, Spanish Wells, and Palmetto Bluff then known as “Halsey’s”. Bluffton was once again a prosperous, peaceful and healthy place in which to live or vacation.
This second phase of Bluffton’s history came to a close following the building of the Coastal Highway, (US 17), and the bridging of the Savannah River at Port Wentworth in 1926. People living in the area could now drive to Savannah for their shopping; freight now arrived and left by trucks; and the river boats which were such a vital and picturesque part of Bluffton’s past disappeared from the scene. Bluffton as a trading center began to decline.
Bluffton, as in the past, continued to draw summer residents who treasured the cool breezes and general beauty of May River estuary. However it was the development of Hilton Head Island and the bridging of Mackey and Skull Creeks in the 1950s and the building of the Talmadge Bridge and the short route to Savannah which brought prosperity back to the area.
Today people say, “Bluffton is a way of life” or, “Bluffton is a state of mind”. In either case, Bluffton with its historic past, its beautiful bluff and river estuary, its healthy climate, and its quiet peaceful atmosphere, continues to charm everyone who will take the opportunity to visit it.
* Based on a talk given by W. Hunter Saussy Founder and President Emeritus, at the first general membership meeting of the Bluffton Historical Preservation Society, 31 January 1982.