As a barrier coastal island, Hilton Head is in a strategic location along the South Carolina shoreline. As such, it has played an important role in the history of America, from the early exploration of the New World in the early 1600s to the Civil War and beyond. The island was originally occupied by Native American tribes, and first explored by the Spanish in 1521. By the mid-1600s, there were both Spanish and French settlers in the region, but it was an Englishman, William Hilton, who first claimed the island and allotted the land into plantations for indigo and cotton. With the rise of the plantation system came a need for African slaves. A rich Gullah culture, unique to the Sea Islands of the Southern coast, developed and thrives to this day.

During the Civil War, Union troops took over the island, causing many residents to flee. This, in conjunction with the destruction of cotton crops by boll weevils after the war, left Hilton Head all but empty. It was not until the 1940s that sportsmen rediscovered the island as a fertile hunting ground, which led to the development of Hilton head as a tourist destination.

Today, historical landmarks celebrating the rich cultural history of Hilton Head can be found all over the island. At Green’s Shell Enclosure, a former Native American farming site, you can see remnants of the Native American village from c. 1400. More recent landmarks include several Civil War forts and former plantations. The Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge, formerly the plantation of statesman General Pinckney, is open to the public for walking and biking.