Introduction to Palmetto Bluff
While driving to your destination take a moment to listen to a brief introduction to the history of Palmetto Bluff. This beautiful property has gone through a variety of evolutions and changes throughout its long history. From the home of indians to plantations to the destination of New York socialites, there are many stories to be explored.
As you drive through the gate into Palmetto Bluff you are following a thoroughfare that has existed for over 200 years. In 1784, the South Carolina legislature approved an ordinance for laying out a road from the public road to New River bridge Grandville county to May River Head. The new road followed almost the exact same path to the May River as Old Palmetto Bluff Road does today. The pond to the right, home to alligators and egrets,f was once the rice field of the Raphraim Plantation and one of the largest plantations at Palmetto Bluff. Raphraim was a plantation of Confederate General Thomas Fenwick Drayton and his home overlooking the May River once stood in the neighborhood now known as Headwaters. More than one-hundred enslaved workers farmed and maintained the forty-five hundred acres of Raphraim plantation. The final resting place for many of the people who once toiled on Drayton’s Plantation and their descendants is down Raphraim Cemetery Road. But the story of Palmetto Bluff begins long before the era of plantations.
The oldest artifact found at Palmetto Bluff is a stone projectile point that dates to the time when mastodons and giant sloths roamed South Carolina. The loss of the finely crafted tool was probably keenly felt by its owner, a member of a group that archeologist refer to as Paleoindians. This early visitor of twelve thousand years ago may have been traveling to the coast; a coast that because of the vast amounts of water frozen in glaciers existed fifty miles farther east then it does today. As the climate warmed, tidal estuaries and sea islands were created by the rising sea level. The new landscape and its rich and varied ecosystems attracted generations of Native Americans. The oyster shells, bones and fragments of clay pots and stone tools that these prehistoric visitors left behind yield details of the past to modern archeologists. But around 1400 A.D. the land of Palmetto Bluff was abandoned. Its not clear why people left the area perhaps it became a hunting land that was visited only rarely by groups living elsewhere or perhaps hostilities between groups made it a no man’s land to be avoided. Whatever the reason, it would be over three hundred years before humans once again took up residence at Palmetto Bluff.
It was not until the early 18th century that the land along the May River began to attract attention. Land was a popular investment for well to do colonists and visitors. And in 1730, Robert Wright, Chief Justice of South Carolina, and George Anson, a British naval captain, decided to add twelve-thousand acres along the May River to the portfolios of properties that each already owned in and around Charleston. Neither man gave any indication that he wanted to move to the vast tract they owned and within a few years it was clear that neither would.
In 1739, Wright died of yellow fever and that same year, Anson who had been recalled to England, was given orders to lead a fleet to South America to harass the Spanish settlements and ships. Despite a series of misfortunes and disasters, Anson managed to capture a Spanish galleon laden with treasure and he returned home to England to enjoy his fame, fortune and his new title as First Lord of the Admiralty.
In 1757, Anson and Wright’s heirs began to divide their May River property into parcels that were sold as individual plantations. Depending on the year there were between twelve and fifteen antebellum plantations in operation at Palmetto Bluff. The number of plantations varied as some plantations were divided into smaller tracts and other were combined. Indigo, rice and sea island cotton were grown for the markets in Savannah. Corn and sweet potatoes were grown to feed the enslaved who toiled in the fields and household. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Palmetto Bluff’s families rallied to the Confederate cause. Both Henry Hartstein, owner of Greenleaf and Chinquapin Plantations and surgeon Nathanael Savage Crowl, whose family owned Pettigrew Plantation, left careers in the United States Military for commissions in the Confederacy.
Brigadier General Thomas Drayton owner of Raphraim Plantation led the Confederate forces at Fort Walker on Hilton Head. The war devastated the economy of the Lowcountry and many of the families who had abandoned their homes and slaves for the safety of Savannah or other cities found that after the war they could no longer afford to keep their properties.
J.H. Estill owner of the Savannah Morning News, saw an opportunity in the sales of the plantations. He began purchasing land at Palmetto Bluff in the 1880’s. And by the beginning of the 20th century he owned over ten-thousand acres. For years, Estill’s home overlooking the May River provided the successful businessman with an idyllic retreat from the demands of Savannah. However, when Estill decided to run for governor of Georgia, spending his leisure time on his country estate in South Carolina seemed unlikely to win votes in the peach state. So, in 1902, Estill sold the property to Richard T. Wilson Jr., a wealthy New York banker. Even though Estill returned to full time residence in Georgia he did not win the bid for governor.
It was Wilson who named the property Palmetto Bluff and he and his new bride honeymooned here in 1902. Although Wilson intended to use the property as a hunting retreat, his wife Marion loved the social scenes of New York and Newport. Therefore, shortly after purchasing the property, the Wilson’s began the construction of a grand mansion appropriate to a hostess of Mrs. Wilson’s standing. When the four-story home was completed it contained a ballroom, library, servant quarters, and numerous guest bedrooms. During the winter months it was the sight of lavish parties and splendid dinners.
When a fire destroyed the mansion in 1926, a devastated Wilson sold the property to J.E. Varn who used the land for timber and cattle ranching. In 1937, Varn sold Palmetto Bluff to Union Bag and Paper Company. Fortunately, although the forests of Palmetto Bluff were thinned and managed, the land never suffered from large scale lumber operations. Instead Union Bag and Paper, which became Union Camp and was later acquired by International Paper, used the property as a corporate retreat. Crescent Resources LLC. purchased Palmetto Bluff in 2000 and began the development of the community you see today.