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Bluffton History

Take a step back in time, in historic Bluffton, South Carolina!

Bluffton’s birth and growth were intimately intertwined with the rise of the Lowcountry rice and cotton plantations during the antebellum period.  Like other coastal communities, it provided a refuge from the harsher plantation environment that often manifested itself in yellow fever and malaria outbreaks.  The high bluffs facing the May River welcomed the comforting southerly winds, keeping the mosquitoes at bay and making sultry summer days bearable.  The town was a place where children could attend school and planter families could socialize.

Bluffton’s first small dwellings were constructed in the early 1800’s on the river’s bluffs, and others soon followed.  The layout of the town’s streets in 1830 indicated that it had become a summer haven, and soon a commercial center for isolated plantations throughout the Sea Islands that received their goods from Savannah via the May River.  A hotbed for political rhetoric, in 1844, cries of secession were first given voice and debate here.  With the Civil War raging and the eventual occupation of Hilton Head Island and Beaufort by Union forces, the town was mostly abandoned by residents and utilized as a base for Confederate pickets observing Union troop movements.  The town was pillaged by Union forces on several excursions up the May River, and eventually burned on June 4, 1863.

Although the overall destruction was severe, 15 houses and 2 churches survived, including the c.1841 Heyward House, now a house-museum offering daily tours to the public.  By the turn of the century, the town again experienced growth with the opening of several hardware and dry-goods stores and the growth of a burgeoning oyster-harvesting business.  Lowcountry residents returned to Bluffton, a place many continued to call home for the summer.  The 1922 construction of the Houlihan Bridge from Port Wentworth SC Highway 17 ended commercial trade by water several years later.  The shift away from being a center of trade ushered in a new phase of Bluffton development, where again it became predominantly a summer getaway.

Over the past 50 years, it has attracted many full-time residents due to the growth of Hilton Head Island as a major southeastern vacation destination.  Thanks to the growing popularity of cultural heritage tourism, the annual festivals, and it’s status as a Nationally Registered Historic District, this charming coastal village is once again experiencing tremendous growth.