15 Must-See Historical Sites On Hilton Head Island, SC

Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, is well known for its pristine sandy beaches, luxurious resorts, world class golf courses, hundreds of shops and restaurants, and great weather, but it is also an island rich in history and culture. From Native American shell rings to Civil War ruins, read on to find out how you can seek out and explore the rich tapestry the next time you visit this amazing island.

Some History Basics

Hilton Head Island is named for the English sea captain William Hilton who was hired by a syndicate of Barbadian planters and claimed the island for England. Hilton “discovered” the island in 1663, but European colonization did not occur until around 1800. Before the Civil War the plantations of Hilton Head (using enslaved labor) prospered growing rice, indigo, and cotton.

The Hilton Head Island as we know today began with the remarkable foresight of one man, Charles Fraser. His dream was to fashion a distinctive vacation resort where environmental considerations were integrated with its development. Fraser was a daring trailblazer who confronted popular sentiment in the 1950s to craft Sea Pines, an enormously successful and environmentally thoughtful resort development.

15 Must See Historical Sites on Hilton Head Island

Coastal Discovery Museum

A great first stop in exploring Hilton Head Island’s rich history is the Coastal Discovery Museum. The museum, housed in a former plantation house, is located on 68 splendidly preserved acres of forest, field, and marsh. The museum offers permanent and rotating exhibits on the natural and cultural history of the island, from Native American times before the settlement of Europeans, through the resort boom of the 1960s and 1970s.

But perhaps even more striking than the exhibits are the classes and tours the museum offers. You can learn how to weave traditional sweet grass baskets perfected by the Gullah people of the island, or how to pitch a net in the traditional Gullah style of fishing practiced here. You can also tour historic forts and learn the history of the Revolutionary War on the island.

The museum, trails, gardens, live oaks, butterfly enclosure, and horses are just a few of the fun experiences you will encounter during your visit.

Coastal Discovery Museum
70 Honey Horn Drive
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
(843) 689-6767

Zion Chapel of Ease and Cemetery

This is the site of the first chapel on Hilton Head which was completed in 1788. All that is left of the Chapel is its still and haunting graveyard.

This location was the center of activity on the island in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries, as the chapel was in close proximity to a militia muster house and a Masonic Lodge. It is also home to the oldest existing structure on the island, the Baynard Mausoleum, which was built in 1846 by William Baynard, a wealthy plantation owner.

The cemetery contains the graves and memorials for four Revolutionary War Patriots: Isaac Baldwine, James Davant, John Stoney, and Charles Davant. Charles Davant was ambushed by a Tory militia unit, was mortally wounded, and is the only known Patriot casualty on the island.

The chapel was abandoned and destroyed in 1868

Zion Chapel of Ease and Cemetery

574 William Hilton Parkway
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

Gullah Heritage Tours

Take a tour to learn about the Gullah culture of the Sea Islands including Hilton Head Island. The Gullah people are descended from enslaved West Africans who cultivated and harvested the famed Sea Island Cotton.

Because the Sea Islands were so remote (both before the Civil War and for 100 years after freedom) and reachable only by boat, the descendents of the enslaved people developed their own rich culture that keeps alive much of their African Heritage including literature and folklore, cuisine, and dialect. Before 1960, the vast majority of people who lived on Hilton Head Island were descendents of slaves.

The Gullah Heritage Trail Tours, led by people of Gullah descent who were born and raised on the island, include some of the most important sites on the island, giving visitors a sense of Gullah life before the bridges and resorts colossally changed both the landscape and the lifestyle.

Gullah Heritage Trail Tours

70 Honey Horn Drive (at Coastal Discovery Museum)
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
(843) 681-7066


Civil War Forts

Before its beaches were marked with resorts and vacation homes, Hilton Head Island was dotted with forts. Its location and size made it strategically important for defending the South Carolina mainland. Four forts were built on Hilton Head during the Civil War.

Although there is not much remaining of the old encampments (that ultimately housed over 50,000 Union troops) traces of the original earth works and historical markers tell the story of the Island’s role in the war.

Fort Walker – The story begins with Fort Walker on Port Royal Sound. It was built by Confederate soldiers in 1861 to help protect the critical southern ports of Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah. Later that same year, Union forces successfully attacked the fort during the battle of Port Royal Sound, thus gaining a strategic foothold to aid the Union blockade of the ports. Today, all that remains are earthworks and numerous interpretive markers in Port Royal Plantation. Fort Sherman and Fort Mitchel – Two additional forts were built in 1862 by the Union Army to continue the defense of the Union blockade and to prevent Confederate assaults. Fort Sherman (the remains of which are still visible in Port Royal Plantation) and the earthworks of Fort Mitchel in Hilton Head Plantation are administered by the Heritage Library Foundation. 
Fort Howell – The fourth fort, Fort Howell, was built to defend Mitchelville, the nearby village built by the country’s first emancipated slaves. The earthwork remnants are partially eroded and covered by trees. 

For access to Fort Mitchel, you may acquire a Hilton Head Plantation gate pass at no charge, however the pass is only good for Fort Mitchel. To see both Fort Walker and Fort Sherman you must have a gate pass to Port Royal Plantation or sign up for a guided tour by the Coastal Discovery Museum (843.689.6757) or the Heritage Library Foundation (843.686.6560). Fort Howell is located at 160 Beach Road. It is open to the general public for self guided tours everyday from 8:00am to 5:00pm. There are interpretive markers erected by the Hilton Head Island Trust.


Mitchelville Freedom Park

During the Civil War, freed slaves fled to Hilton Head Island to a freedman’s town established by General Mitchel of the Union Army. That town, called Mitchelville, grew to over 1500 citizens and became the first self-governed freedman’s town in the United States.

Often referred to as The Port Royal Experiment, under General Mitchel’s direction before the end of the war, freed slaves worked, attended school, built a town, built churches, and more.

You can visit Mitchelville on one of the Gullah history tours on the island or take a drive down Beach City Road, past the churches, homes, and school building still standing there today.

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park
229 Beach City Road
Hilton Head Island, SC 29926
(843) 255-7301


Harbour Town Lighthouse and Museum

The iconic lighthouse in Harbour Town was actually not built as a lighthouse at all. It was built as a tourist attraction when Hilton Head Island was first developed as a resort destination

Conceived by Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser, the Harbour Town Lighthouse has become the landmark most associated with Hilton Head Island.

Years later, the interior of the lighthouse was turned into a museum with photographs and memorabilia lining the walls, offering visitors who climb the 114 steps to the top of the tower a colorful history of the island.

Harbour Town Lighthouse
149 Lighthouse Road
Hilton Head, SC 29928
(866) 305-9814

Liberty Oak

Did you know the Harbour Town Yacht Basin was built around the Liberty Oak? Sea Pines founder Charles Fraser had a passion for protecting the environment and demanded the magnificent tree be saved during the construction of the yacht basin. Regardless of the considerable additional expense, the marina was built around the tree as Mr. Fraser requested.

Over the years, it has served as the venue for thousands of Gregg Russel concerts and other celebratory events (from weddings to proposals) and even a memorial for Charles Fraser himself. The LIberty Oak is approximately 325 years old, close to 555 feet tall and 90 feet across, and estimated to weigh 38 tons.

Liberty Oak

147 Lighthouse Road
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

Shell Ring

The Sea Pines Forest Preserve is home to a thriving ecosystem, but it also plays a critical role in preserving Hilton Head Island’s prehistory. Long before the island was a popular vacation destination, and even before the armies found the island a strategic location during the wars, the island served as the hunting and harvesting grounds for ancient Native Americans more than 4,000 years ago. One of the striking shell rings they left behind is snuggled within the Forest Preserve for visitors to experience and enjoy. Historians believe it was a communal gathering place or a site where rituals were performed.

How do you get to the Sea Pines shell ring? Enter via the Greenwood Drive access off the Sea Pines traffic circle. Pay the small entrance fee; the price is well worth the adventure. About one mile ahead, on the left, is the sign for Sea Pines Forest Preserve. Pull in, park your car, pick up the visitor map and follow the scenic trails through the preserve.


Braddock Point’s Cemetery

One of several Gullah family cemeteries on the Island, this small graveyard, also known as the Harbour Town Cemetery, is the burial grounds for the Chisolm and Williams families, descendents of enslaved West Africans who worked on Braddock’s Point Plantation.

Located on Lighthouse Lane in Harbour Town, near the 18th fairway of the golf course in Sea Pines, the cemetery is reputed to contain the graves of slaves, but the oldest surviving headstones date to the Civil War. Following West African tradition, some of the headstones have ceramic plates pressed into them to provide the deceased something to eat in the next world.


Old Lawton Rice Field

At Old Lawton Rice Field, visitors can view marshes and wildlife from a boardwalk featuring three observation decks. This fascinating piece of history is accessible by walking or biking on the lush, historic hail of the Sea Pine Forest Preserve. The Boggy Gut boardwalk takes you down a mile of the 1840s rice fields. 

 Sea Pines Forest Preserve

(843) 842-1979

Stoney Baynard Ruins

Revolutionary War captain Jack Stoney built Baynard Plantation, part of Braddock’s Point Plantation. His family remained there for several decades until a Stoney heir lost the property to William Baynard in a late night poker game. When Union forces invaded the island in 1861, the Baynards evacuated the property. It served as Union headquarters for the remainder of the war. Although the Baynard family reacquired the property after the war, the house burned in 1869 and was never rebuilt.

Open to the public, the Stoney Baynard ruins include portions of the main house, the chimney footing for what may have been an overseer’s house, and the foundation of a slave house.

Stoney Baynard Ruins

Plantation Drive (Located in Sea Pines)
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928

Leamington Lighthouse

The Hilton Head Island Rear Range Lighthouse, also known as the Leamington Lighthouse, is located in the Leamington neighborhood of Palmetto Dunes Resort overlooking the Arthur Hills Golf Course. It was built between 1879 and 1880 as part of a larger system of navigation lights guiding ships to Port Royal Sound. Although the faux lighthouse at Harbour Town is more widely known, the Leamington Lighthouse is the island’s one true lighthouse.

Featured on the National Register of Historic Places, the lighthouse was taken out of service in the 1930s. Today, only the 92-foot structure survives along with a vintage brick oil house and a water cistern.

Locals share stories that the lighthouse is haunted by “The Blue Lady,” the daughter of the last lighthouse operator.

Leamington Lighthouse

53 LeamingtonLane
Hilton Head Island, SC 29928
(843) 785-1106

Live Oak 

Next to the Leamington Lighthouse stands one of Hilton Head Island’s oldest live oak trees. A live oak is a large, sprawling, picturesque tree usually graced with Spanish moss. The tree is approximately seventy feet tall and has a canopy spread of approximately one hundred fifty feet.

The diameter of the tree was measured using a forester’s diameter tape to be one hundred nine inches. Using industry calculations this would make the tree to be 425 to 450 years old.

 Although Hilton Head Island is home to many world class golf courses and resorts, much of the landscape remains as it was when sighted by William Hilton’s ship more than 350 years ago. Natural beauty, stunning seascapes, and rich historical fabric make the island a singular experience. On Hilton Head Island you are never far from history. So the next time you find yourself on the island, be sure to stop and explore these amazing historical sites before you head back home.