Corner of Calhoun Street
and May River Road
Photograph taken by S. Cox
G.W. & C.B. Colton & Co. Colton's South Carolina. New York: The Co, 1876. Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/78696479/.
Keystone View Company. Hoeing rice, South Carolina, U.S.A. South Carolina, ca. 1904. Meadville, Pa.: Keystone View Company. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/00652861/.
Photograph taken by S. Cox
We welcome you to explore Bluffton's rich cultural heritage. The historic district is the site of one of the last remaining antebellum planter colonies in the heart of the Lowcountry. Follow along as we touch on stories that tell of the planter society through the turbulent Civil War years, to the successful accomplishments of Freedmen and reconstruction and to the town's current renaissance as a cultural destination.
Here, at the corner of Calhoun Street and May River Road you straddle the border between the old and the new. Just south of here, at the end of Calhoun St., lies the beautiful May River and what is known as Old Town Bluffton. To the north, along Promenade St., is the modern day Bluffton Promenade, full of delightful shops and restaurants. The town of Bluffton is in southernmost Beaufort County, South Carolina, on the mainland across from Hilton Head Island. Savannah, Georgia is just to our south. This entire area is known as the Lowcountry, with its own unique geography, culture and cuisine.
The Spanish were the first to explore here, followed by the French, and then finally the English. By the late 1600s, there was trade between the English explorers and local Indians. The first settlers were pleased to find the local climate and geography were excellent for cattle ranching, but significant settlement and farming would wait until the end of the bloody Yemasee Indian War and the permanent removal of the Yemasee Indians in 1728.
Over the next hundred years, the Lowcountry saw the increase of sparse settlements of large working plantations growing indigo, the famed “Carolina Gold” rice, and later Sea Island cotton – widely acknowledged to have been the finest cotton to be produced anywhere in the world. Planters used slaves from west Africa, particularly the Congo and Angola, for these labor-intensive crops. These slaves brought with them essential experience in cultivating rice as well as a rich culture of religion, crafts, and cuisine.
Many experts believe the name “Gullah,” as their descendants are known today, is a shortened form of the word “Angola” that was used to refer in general to all the enslaved people brought here from western Africa. Their direct descendants still make their homes throughout the Sea Islands along the coast of the Carolinas and Georgia. The unique Gullah culture and language survive to this day and are important threads in the rich fabric of the Lowcountry.
The Revolutionary War destroyed most of the area’s plantations, but rice production slowly recovered, and with the growing popularity of Sea Island cotton, Lowcountry planters once again prospered. One concern, however, was the disease that swept the plantations every summer. If you were a planter in the early 1800’s, you wouldn’t know that it was mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever that killed so many, but you did know that you needed to protect your family during those six months of hot, muggy weather. For you and other plantation owners, the perfect spot turned out to be right here --lovely high ground on a 40-foot bluff overlooking the May River where ample shade could be found under majestic live oak and towering pine trees, on land that faced directly into the cooling breezes off the river. In addition, you would have easy access to your plantation, by boat or on horseback, so you could visit when needed but still be home in time for supper in the evening.
First a few, then more and more planters built summer homes here. They brought their entire families in the spring and stayed until cooler weather returned in the fall. This bi-annual migration was a tremendous undertaking. Families moved their household contents, including their house slaves, back and forth each year between their plantation houses and what some called “camp cottages.” These simple cottages were spare and practical, built to be as cool as possible. Most did not have finished walls or ceilings, and were whitewashed inside and out. This growing village on the May River was not a vacation resort, but a summer base of operations for the owners of the surrounding plantations and their families. A handful of these cottages still exist today.
In what was then called the “Beaufort District,” many such Lowcountry antebellum planters’ summer cottage communities thrived. In addition to Bluffton, there were Gillisonville, Grahamville, Heywardville, McPhersonville, Robertville, St. Helenaville, and Lawtonville. Sadly, all except Bluffton were destroyed by Sherman’s Union soldiers or by natural disaster, leaving this town where you now stand as the only remaining example of this rich and unique cultural heritage.