sunset near lighthouse in hilton head island

Learn About History on Hilton Head Island

Considering the gorgeous beaches and fantastic golf courses found here, it’s no wonder Hilton Head Island is a popular vacation destination. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend their vacation basking in the sun, jumping in the waves, and playing a few rounds of golf?

All that said, there is more to this lovely island than meets the eye. While the beaches and golf courses are wonderful, the lesser-known things to see and do are also well worthwhile. In particular, we love the amazing history of this island and the historic sites found around every corner.

In this article, we will explore some of the top historic sites to help you plan your exploration of the history of this beautiful and amazing place.

Civil War Forts

Did you know Hilton Head Island is home to a large amount of Civil War history? There were a total of four military forts on the island during this war, and while none have survived intact, you are able to visit the ruins of all four.

Fort Walker

The first of the four, this fort was built in 1861 by Confederate soldiers. It was created to protect the ports of Charleston, Beaufort, and Savannah. Not long after being built, the fort was captured by the Union Army, and 1,000 enslaved people on the island were freed.

Today, visitors can explore the earthworks and interpretive markers on the site of the original fort, but they must gain a gate pass to the Port Royal Plantation in order to do so. Another option is to take a guided tour offered through the Coastal Discovery Museum, which we’ll cover further below.

Fort Sherman

Fort Sherman was built the next year (1862) by the Union Army. The goal of this fort was to better protect against and prevent Confederate assaults.

This fort is also located on the property of the Port Royal Plantation, meaning once again that guests must either take a guided tour or get a gate pass in order to visit the ruins. That said, gaining entrance is well worth your time.

Fort Mitchel

Built the same year as Fort Sherman and used for the same purpose, Fort Mitchel is located at Hilton Head Plantation and open to visitors who wish to step into the past. You will need to get a free gate pass in order to enter the plantation, which grants access only to the fort.

Fort Howell

Finally, there is Fort Howell. This fort was built later in the war to protect Mitchelville, the country’s first village for freed slaves. This is the easiest fort to access, as no passes or tours are required.

Simply visit between 8am and 5pm, and take a self-guided tour by reading the interpretive markers scattered throughout the site.

Coastal Discovery Museum

Earlier, we mentioned the Coastal Discovery Museum. This museum is a great place to visit in order to learn about the plants, animals, and history of the island. In addition to the aforementioned tours, the museum also features trails, gardens, and a butterfly enclosure.

Both natural and cultural history are explored here, and the experience is fun and engaging, making for a memorable and educational visit.

Zion Chapel of Ease

The very first chapel on the island, Zion Chapel of Ease was built in 1788 and was once in the center of the Hilton Head action. This is because it was located near a Militia muster house, as well as a Masonic lodge. Unfortunately, the chapel itself was destroyed in 1868, but the site can still be visited.

In addition to being the first chapel on Hilton Head, this tiny place of worship is also home to the oldest structure on the island, the Baynard Mausoleum. The mausoleum was built in 1846 and can be visited to this day.

Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse

Despite being one of the most well-known sites in Hilton Head, the lighthouse in Harbour Town is not an actual lighthouse. While it is still worth visiting the Harbour Town Lighthouse, we also highly recommend checking out Hilton Head Rear Range Lighthouse.

Construction on this lighthouse began in 1879 and was completed in 1880. It was a part of a system of navigation lights, but is the only historic lighthouse remaining on the island. It has earned a place in the Register of Historic Places, and is a great place to learn some history.

Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park

We talked about Mitchelville earlier in this article, noting that it was the first village in the country occupied entirely by freed slaves. Historic Mitchelville Freedom Park explores the history of this very village.

Visit reconstructed structures representing the homes, store, and church located in the town, and read interpretive signs as you take a stroll through this historic site.

Want more information? Consider a guided tour during your visit.

Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island

Brought to the Americas as slaves, the Gullah people of Hilton Head Island have a distinctive and beautiful culture that many are completely unaware even exists (although ’90s kids may remember the show Gullah Gullah Island, which was inspired by it). This culture plays a huge role in the history of the island, and is something that should be shared.

For this reason, we recommend visiting the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island in order to learn about the language, art, and customs of the Gullah and get a better grasp on the history of the area.

If you want to learn more about the Gullah people, consider taking one of the many guided tours out there. These include tours leaving from Hayward House Historic Center and the aforementioned Coastal Discovery Museum.

Harbour Town Lighthouse

The Harbour Town Lighthouse may not be a historic structure, but that doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer in terms of historical information. In fact, the exhibits found inside the lighthouse on the way to the top are excellent and offer a great way to get a quick overview of the entire history of Hilton Head Island. 

We find that this attraction is best visited early in your trip in order to get that overview of the history of the area before diving deep at the other museums and historic sites listed above.