History of Bluffton

The first inhabitants in the Bluffton area were Yemassee Indians with a population of over 1200 in ten surrounding locations.  In 1715, the Yemassee War broke out and after several years of fighting, the Yemassee tribe migrated to Florida, opening the “Indian Lands” to European settlement. In 1718, the Lords Proprietors carved the area into several new baronies, including the Devil’s Elbow Barony that contained the future town of Bluffton.

Historic Old Town Bluffton emerged in the early 1800’s in small dwellings atop high river bluffs overlooking the May River. This coastal community grew in popularity during the antebellum period as a refuge – an escape from the harsh inland plantation conditions in the summer months which often manifested into yellow fever and malaria outbreaks. Strong southerly breezes from the river kept the infectious mosquitoes at bay and made sultry summer days bearable.
The layout of the town's streets in 1830 indicate that it started as a summer haven, and soon developed into a commercial center for isolated plantations in the vicinity that received their goods from Savannah via the May River. The town was a place where children could attend school and planter families could socialize and discuss the politics of the day.  Two notable structures reflecting the history and architecture of the time are The Heyward House, Circa 1840, and The Church of the Cross.

Literally a hotbed for political rhetoric, in 1844 some of the first cries of secession were first given voice and debate in Bluffton. Incensed planters gathered beneath what became known as the "Secession Oak" (still existing today, but on private property in Bluffton) and the secessionist movement was born. Sixteen years later South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.

On June 4, 1863, several Union gunboats and a transport carrying 1,000 infantrymen steamed up the river to Bluffton because, as the officer in charge wrote in his report, "This town has been the headquarters for the rebels for a long time in this vicinity." Troops were landed with orders to fire the town. Confederate soldiers attacked but were outnumbered and outgunned. When shelling and torching ended and the Union forces withdrew, 34 or more homes, churches and other buildings had been destroyed.

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 in June of 1863.  Although the overall destruction was severe, 15 houses and two churches survived. 

By the turn of the century, the town again experienced growth with the opening of several hardware and dry good stores and the growth of a burgeoning oyster harvesting business. Lowcountry residents returned to Bluffton, a place many continue to call home for the summer. The 1922 construction of the Houlihan Bridge from Port Wentworth to SC Highway 17 ended commercial trade by water several years later. This shift away from being a center of trade ushered in a new phase of Bluffton development, where again it became predominately a summer getaway.

Over the last 50 years it has attracted many full-time residents due to the growth of Hilton Head Island as a major vacation destination. Today Bluffton is one of the fastest growing towns in South Carolina and has become an important tourism partner with Hilton Head Island.

Bluffton’s unofficial motto, “Bluffton is a State of Mind”, reflects the makeup of this southern community which has become well known for its leisurely, independent attitude.

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