Beaufort: The First 300 Years
The city of Beaufort, chartered in 1711, is the second-oldest city in South Carolina. But its history is not merely long -- it is significant, too. The surrounding area was site of one of the earliest European settlements in the New World and has played important roles in the nation's Revolutionary and Civil War eras. It has been a backdrop for major motion pictures, a staging ground for military battles and training, a hub of trade and one of the most attractive tourist and retirement destinations the country has to offer.
Most of the city of Beaufort (pronounced "byew-furt", unlike its counterpart in North Carolina) is located on Port Royal Island, in the heart of the Sea Islands and South Carolina Lowcountry. The city is renowned for its impressive harbor along the Port Royal Sound and for maintaining a historic character through its antebellum architecture and streetscapes. Among the accolades that have been bestowed upon the seat of Beaufort County government is "Best Small Southern Town" by Southern Living, "Top 25 Small City Arts Destination" by American Style, a "Top 20 Fishing Town" by Field and Stream, a "Top 50 Adventure Town" by National Geographic Adventure and a "Top 200 Outdoors Town" by Outdoor Life magazine.
Exploration and early colonization
Before the arrival of European explorers, the Lowcountry region was inhabited by small Native American tribes that have since given their names to geography, including the Yemasee, the Coosawhatchie, the Coosaw, the Datha (Dataw), the Edisto, the Ashepoo, the Kiawah and Combahee. Several of these tribes were rivals and intertribal alliances and attacks occurred frequently before and during European colonization.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the Port Royal Sound and were the first to attempt to establish a colony. Landing on St. Helena's day (Santa Elena), the colony of the same name did not survive the disease, starvation, weather and attacks from tribes that beset it. Upon the explorations of Giovanni di Verrazano, France became the next European power to establish a presence. Nearby Parris Island was the location of Charlesfort, France's first colony in the New World, founded by Jean Ribault in 1562. Alarmed by its rivals intentions, the Spanish established St. Augustine in modern-day Florida in 1565 as a counter to French aspirations. As with Santa Elena, the French colony disappeared quickly under similar circumstances.
The Carolana (Carolina) colony was chartered by King Charles II of England in 1670 to the eight Lord Proprietors, who began the first major attempt to settle modern day South Carolina. Observations of the Port Royal Sound and immediate area had many on the initial expedition call for the first English settlement and capital of the colony to be located in Beaufort. However, tribes in the area suggested an area further up the coast, and the settlers later chose the area what became Charleston to become their capital and principal city.
The Port Royal Sound, however, was too enticing not to be settled, and continuous efforts were made. Upon the demise of the French efforts, the first Scottish settlement in what is now the United States, known as Stuart Town, was founded at modern-day Spanish Point in 1682, only to be destroyed by Spanish forces from St. Augustine in 1684. Continuous concerns about Spanish incursions into the new colony led to calls to create a town and port that would serve as a buffer against Spain and provide a closer harbor to area planters, who were becoming successful in their efforts to produce cash crops, especially rice.
Early settlement and the American Revolution
Beaufort was chartered in 1711 as the second major settlement in South Carolina and named after Henry Somerset, 2nd Duke of Beaufort. The settlement grew slowly, in part because of a major attack by the Yemassee Indians in 1717 and the threat of Spanish invasion. It was not until 1733 and the founding of Georgia as a buffer colony that Beaufort grew in population and prestige. Though most administrative powers during the early Carolina colony was focused in Charleston, the city gained a reputation for its excellent harbor and the establishment of several church congregations, most notable being St. Helena's Episcopal Church. By 1776, the city became well known for its shipbuilding enterprises, its rice and indigo trade, and was home to a new circuit court for the colony.
The American Revolution split loyalties in the community, with several families supporting the Tories while others favored independence and the Patriots. Many men fought in battles elsewhere in the state, though little warfare was conducted in and around Beaufort. The young republic was unable to provide adequate naval defense of the city, and it fell under British occupation in 1780 without much resistance or damage. It was not until hostilities flared in Virginia that British occupation ended in 1782, a year before the Treaty of Paris was signed. The Treaty of Beaufort, fixing the boundary between South Carolina and Georgia, was signed in the city in 1787.
In the antebellum period, the rise of Sea Island Cotton brought enormous wealth to Beaufort and the surrounding plantations. By some historians' accounts, Beaufort was arguably the wealthiest city in the United States prior to the Civil War and was often considered to be the "Newport" of the South. Although Charleston and Columbia were the leading cities in the state, much economic and political influence was reared by Beaufort. Lowcountry planters in the city and the surrounding islands were among the most ardent supporters of state secession, first during the Nullification Crisis in the 1830s and then in the 1850s. At the eve of secession, Beaufort was arguably at its cultural, economic, and political zenith, with a population of about 4,000, excluding slaves. Like modern-day Beaufort, the city attracted many residents from beyond the state, with many Northerners and Europeans residing in town and operating successful businesses.
Civil War and Reconstruction
The American Civil War had a dramatic effect on Beaufort, as an amphibious attack and subsequent occupation of the city made it one of the first communities in the Deep South to be held in Union hands, as early as November 1861. Though much of the town was spared from physical destruction, there were many incidents of arson and looting as a result of Union occupation and the early liberation of the substantial slave population. In a historic effort that pre-dawned American Reconstruction, the Port Royal Experiment provided a test case for the education of freedmen. It included the creation of what today is known as Penn Center. In addition to educational advancements, the city made some political ones as well. Robert Smalls, a native son and leading figure in post-war Beaufort would later become one of South Carolina's first elected African-Americans to the United States Congress and remained a prominent civic leader in the state and in Beaufort until his death in 1915. In part because of the large African-American population and also Small's leading role, Beaufort remained one of the last outposts of Republican Party power in the Solid South.
Several of Beaufort's most prominent families returned to the area but never regained the enormous wealth that slave-based agriculture provided. As the influence of cotton declined, the lure of aqua phosphate mining increased. By 1890, Beaufort had regained some of its wealth and prosperity from phosphate. It had also retained its position as county seat during that time. However, a series of events would bring Beaufort into a steady economic decline for over half-century.
On August 27, 1893, a Category 3 hurricane slammed into the Lowcountry, killing more than 2,000 area residents and causing immeasurable damage. Although only four individuals died in the city itself, Beaufort was heavily damaged and its phosphate industry was ruined. A fire that damaged much of the downtown area in 1907 continued to inflict economic and psychological harm to the city. A final blow to the area was gradual; the boll weevil decimated most of the cotton crop, which had for over a century been the major commodity of the community. By 1910, Beaufort had lost almost 40 percent of its population in a 10-year period. Though the city retained its political status as county seat, Beaufort became one of the poorest communities in the state through the 1940s. The growth of lettuce and tomato farming, in addition to shrimping, became the major facets of the economy during this time.
Beaufort's economic recovery in the latter half of the 20th century can be contributed to three major influences: military investment, resort development, and downtown revitalization. Although Parris Island was continuously occupied after the Civil War, it retained a limited role in military affairs until 1917, when it was selected as a permanent home for the U.S. Marine Corps. The onslaught of World War I, World War II and especially the Cold War brought new people and income to the area. A naval air station was established during World War II and transferred to the Marine Corps in the 1950s, thus cementing a major military legacy for the region. A U.S. Naval Hospital located in neighboring Port Royal was also constructed during the war.
New investment in the form of resort and lifestyle development on nearby Hilton Head Island and Fripp Island also had some economic contribution to Beaufort and the Lowcountry starting in the 1960s. However, significant economic improvement came upon the completion of a downtown waterfront park in place of abandoned docks, championed by then-mayor Henry Chambers. The park (now named after Chambers) spurred the redevelopment and reinvestment of adjacent Bay Street and downtown Beaufort, propelling land values and garnishing the attention of real estate investors, national media and Hollywood, through the form of successful and well-known films. In recent years, renovations to the park, countless renovations to private homes and businesses and several streetscape projects have continued to improve the overall quality of life in Beaufort.
Unlike most communities of its size in the south, Beaufort escaped much of the turbulence of the Civil Rights era. Jim Crow laws were gradually eased during the 1960s. Schools began the process of desegregation in 1964 and were fully by the early 1970s. Beaufort also elected its first African-American to city council (since 1910) in 1967. The city has experienced other demographic shifts, thanks in part to the city's military presence, its status as a retirement destination for residents from the northern United States and Canada, and a demand for migrant workers, primarily from Latin American nations and mostly for seasonal agriculture.
Downtown and Historic District
The original settlement of Beaufort can be found in the downtown or National Historic District area. Much of the city has been designated a National Historic Landmark. With approximate dimensions, downtown is defined as anything upon the peninsula jutting into the Beaufort River that is located east of Ribaut Road (U.S. 21). Further defined, downtown is broken into several distinct neighborhoods:
- The Point, also known as the Old Point is home to some of Beaufort's largest, oldest, and most expensive homes. Defined as the land between Carteret Street and the Beaufort River, this portion of downtown does not follow the major street grid.
- Bay Street & Waterfront Park is centered along Bay Street, Beaufort's main downtown commercial street. Located between the Beaufort River and Bay Street is the newly renovated Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, which overlooks the Beaufort River and is home to many of Beaufort's festivals. An eclectic mix of restaurants, art galleries and other tourist-oriented shops can be found along Bay Street, Port Republic Street, Scott Street, West Street and Charles Street, which had originally served as Beaufort's commercial center. Many non-tourist commercial services have since relocated to areas along Boundary Street.
- The Old Commons neighborhood is located in the northeastern portion of Beaufort's original street grid, defined as the area between Carteret Street on the east, North Street on the south, Charles Street on the west, and Boundary Street to the north. Originally home to a hodgepodge of medium-sized homes, graveyards and chapels, this section of downtown is undergoing reinvestment and redevelopment, yet retains a southern style of architecture.
- The Northwest Quadrant is located in the northwestern portion of Beaufort's original street grid, loosely defined as the area between Charles Street on the east, Prince Street to the south, Ribaut Road on the west, and Boundary Street to the north. This area has for generations been the center of Beaufort's African-American community and is composed of turn-of-the-century homes, many in a shotgun house architectural style. Bladen Street serves as the principal street through the community and underwent a recent streetscape renovation to improve utilities, sidewalk access, landscaping and lighting.
- The Pigeon Point community is located immediately north of Downtown Beaufort. It is centered around two major city parks: Pigeon Point Community Park and the Basil Green Recreation Complex. An area with smaller homes and mostly one-story early 20th-century structures, Pigeon Point has experienced a renewal of development interest.
- The Depot community is located west of Ribaut Road, south of Boundary Street and north of the Technical College of the Lowcountry campus. It has been the focus of recent redevelopment efforts with regards to home improvements. Formerly concentrated around the Beaufort rail station (the depot), the neighborhood has similar characteristics to the Pigeon Point community and has many military families living in it, in part because of the proximity of Beaufort's military institutions.
- Outer areas include the corridors along Boundary Street (US Highway 21), Robert Smalls Parkway (S.C. Highway 170), and Ribaut Road on the east, which now serve as Beaufort's principle commercial gateway. Several major shopping centers in addition to numerous dining establishments and lodging facilities are the standard business types in this area.
- The City has annexed a sizeable portion of Lady's Island, though does not have complete jurisdiction of the entire area. Most of the City's holdings are upscale residential areas and the Beaufort County Airport.
- Spanish Point is a residential area near the TCL campus which has medical-oriented commercial establishments (because of the proximity of the Beaufort Medical Center) and several upscale residential neighborhoods.
- The Mossy Oaks community is at the southern edge of the city limits (along the border of Port Royal). There are some commercial establishments in the area in addition to residential neighborhoods ranging from apartments to smaller single-family homes and duplexes.
(Note: Before 1913, the city of Beaufort's charter called for an "intendant" instead of a mayor and six council members who were called wardens, then aldermen.)
- 1873-81: Alfred Williams
- 1882-83: Benjamin Burr
- 1883-85: J.W. Collins
- 1911-13: W.F. Sanders
- 1913: C.G. Townsend (died in office)
- 1913-15: W.R. Bristol
- 1915-18: G.E. Danner
- 1918-23: J.A. Kinghorn
- 1923-27: R.V. Bray Jr.
- 1927-34: W.R. Bristol
- 1934-46: J.E. Gill
- 1946-63: Angus Fordham
- 1963-67: F.W. "Willie" Scheper
- 1967-70: Monroe Key
- 1970-90: Henry Chambers
- 1990-1999: David Taub
- 1999-2008: Bill Rauch (resigned)
- 2008: George O'Kelly (acting mayor)
- 2008-present: Billy Keyserling
The Beaufort Gazette (http://www.islandpacket.com/beaufortgazette)
The Island Packet (http://www.islandpacket.com)
The Beaufort County Library (http://www.beaufortcountylibrary.org)
Historic Beaufort Foundation (http://www.historicbeaufort.org)
The City of Beaufort Web site (http://www.cityofbeaufort.org)
Beaufort Regional Chamber of Commerce (http://www.beaufortsc.org/cwo/Home)
Beaufort-Port Royal convention and Visitor's Bureau (http://www.beaufortportroyalcvb.com)
The Arts Council of Beaufort County (http://www.beaufortcountyarts.com)
Technical College of the Lowcountry (http://www.tclonline.org)
"American FactFinder," United States Census Bureau
"U.S. Board on Geographic Names," U.S. Geological Survey
USC Beaufort (http://www.uscb.edu)
Beaufort County School District (http://web.beaufort.k12.sc.us)
The Town of Port Royal (http://www.portroyalsc.org)
Penn Center (http://www.penncenter.com)