The southern corner of South Carolina was one of the first visited and earliest settled areas in North America. The Lowcountry is geographically bounded on the northeast by the Combahee-Salkehatchie River and on the southwest by the Savannah River, and within this geographic area today are the counties of Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper.
French explorer Jean Ribaut established one of the earliest colonies in 1562 in the area he named Port Royal. Four years later, Pedro Menendez established the Spanish colonial capital of Santa Elena on Parris Island surviving until 1587.
After the founding of Charleston in 1670 by English colonists, a lucrative commerce developed with the Cusabo Indians along the coast and the Westo and Creek Indians in Georgia. The first permanent settlements occurred among the sea islands in the late 1690’s. The Town of Beaufort was founded in 1711 and celebrated its 300th year in 2011. It was the second English settlement in South Carolina. During those early years the Yemassee Indians occupied the mainland areas, which were designated a reservation in 1707. Colonists’ cattle began encroaching on Yemassee lands and by 1715 open war had developed. The Yemassee tribe was driven from South Carolina opening up for settlement the area of present day Jasper and Hampton Counties.
Allegiance of the area’s 4,000 inhabitants was sharply divided at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Many Lowcountry planters followed young Thomas Heyward Jr., signer of the Declaration of Independence, in supporting the American cause while others remained staunch Tories.
British forces occupied the Beaufort area between 1779 and 1781 establishing Fort Balfour at Pocotaligo as their main post. The Lowcountry began a slow recovery following British defeat and evacuation, and over the next eighty years the region became an important agricultural area producing large quantities of cotton and rice.
Robert Barnwell Rhett, born and raised in Beaufort, launched his separatist movement in Bluffton in 1842 and became known as South Carolina’s firebrand “Father of Secession.” His fellow Lowcountry citizens strongly favored secession.
Soon after the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter in Charleston in 1861, Union forces captured and occupied the sea islands of the Lowcountry region. Beaufort and Hilton Head Island became the chief base of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and headquarters of the U.S. Army, Department of the South. In 1863 on St. Helena Island, north of Hilton Head, Laura Towne and Ellen Murray established the first school for blacks, known as Penn School.
Agricultural activities were practically nonexistent in the region during the years of Union occupation. Cotton production recovered during Reconstruction but never regained its supremacy. In 1919, with the infestation of the boll weevil, the great long-fibered cotton disappeared forever from the sea islands.
In 1878 the northwestern portion of the Beaufort District was established as the County of Hampton. The Town of Hampton was founded in 1879 in an area known as “Hoover’s Station” near the geographic center of the newly formed Hampton County.
Hampton County is predominantly agricultural, and in recent years has gained favor with outdoor sportsmen. Hampton County started one of the oldest and most successful promotional events in South Carolina in 1939 known as the Watermelon Festival, which is still held each year in June.
In 1912 Jasper County was formed from parts of Beaufort and Hampton Counties. The name for South Carolina’s youngest county was chosen in honor of Sergeant William Jasper, a hero of the Battle of Fort Moultrie during the Revolutionary War.
The old Yemassee Township, including the Town of Hardeeville, became part of Jasper County in 1952. Ridgeland, known as Gopher Hill until 1885, has always served as the seat of government for Jasper County. The community of Pocotaligo began as the chief council town of the Yemassee Indians in 1700. On April 15, 1715 Pocotaligo was the scene of the massacre that started the Yemassee Indian War.
Colleton County was one of the three original counties established in South Carolina in 1682. It was named for Sir Peter Colleton, Lord Proprietor of South Carolina. During the Colonial period, from 1685 to 1715, Colleton County was the chief cattle-raising region in the southern colonies. Salted beef was a major export from Carolina to the West Indies and Atlantic islands. The open range for cattle, along with abusive traders, aroused hostility among the Yemassee Indians south of the Combahee River. They revolted in 1715 massacring English settlers at Pocotaligo and ravaging Colleton County. The Carolina Militia under Governor Craven defeated the Yemassee at Salkehatchie and exiled them to Spanish Florida.
Following the Revolution, Colleton County became a major producer of sea island cotton on Edisto Island, short staple cotton in the upper part of the county and rice along the marshy coastal areas. Nathaniel Barnwell Heyward’s Bluff Plantation was the largest producer of rice and made him the wealthiest planter in South Carolina.
Many of the Lowcountry’s plantations were destroyed during the Civil War because of the Federal occupation of Port Royal and General William T. Sherman’s march to Columbia. Colleton County’s plantation economy ended and the area underwent reconstruction and economic depression. Cotton plantations were replaced by large timber tracts and numerous corn, soybean and livestock farms. Since World War II, Colleton County’s economy has grown steadily.
Many Lowcountry historic sites have survived the years and remain as important links to the region’s rich heritage. This predominantly rural four county area offers many historical resources including stately churches, impressive public buildings and bustling town squares as well as grand antebellum plantation homes nestled serenely among moss draped oaks.
Source: Resource documents for the Historic Resources of the Lowcountry, published in June 1979 by Lowcountry Council of Governments.
Editor’s Note: Research material from the Historic Resources of the Lowcountry archive files yielded many treasured photographs and documents, one of which we would like to share with you. During the Great Depression our government undertook programs to return citizens to work on projects having enduring value. The Writers’ Program of the Works Projects Administration was one of those projects. Our Lowcountry is fortunate to have been included. Palmetto Place Names describes many of our locales.The sometimes-skewed letters and misspellings only add to its charm. We hope you enjoy this as much as we have.