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Located just a few miles east of Beaufort, South Carolina, St. Helena Island showcases the rich fabric of rural Lowcountry life both path and present. St. Helena Island is one of the Sea Islands, a chain of over 100 islands off the coast of SC, Georgia, and Florida that includes Hilton Head, St. Simons, and Kiawah. If you’re planning a trip to Beaufort or Port Royal, SC, let Visit Beaufort help you include a stop at St. Helena Island.
The Sea Islands were occupied by Indigenous communities for thousands of years before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the 1500s. St. Helena Island was subsequently colonized by the French, reclaimed by the Spanish, and then by the English, who occupied the island until the American Revolution.
Throughout the colonial period, British and American plantation owners used enslaved Africans and Native Americans to produce rice, cotton, and other agricultural products. Isolated from other parts of the South, communities on St. Helena Island and other Sea Islands developed a unique Creole language and culture known as Gullah Geechee.
During the Civil War, St. Helena Island was occupied by Union forces after they declared victory in the Battle of Port Royal. White landowners fled, and thousands of enslaved people were suddenly freed. In 1862, abolitionists provided donations to set up the first school for African-Americans in the Southern United States.
Over time, the Penn School grew into a 50-acre campus with multiple buildings, some of which are still standing today. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made several visits to the campus, by then known as Penn Center. He composed his “I Have a Dream” speech while staying at one of the cottages onsite.
Today, Gullah culture continues to thrive on St. Helena Island. The passage of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act allocated $10 million in federal funding to preserve the history and culture of Gullah communities in the Carolinas and Florida.
Just a short drive from downtown Beaufort, St. Helena Island has preserved its rural character. Agriculture, shrimping, and fishing continue, and some Lowcountry land is protected by conservation easements. Frogmore is the island’s commercial center, with a mix of charming shops and art galleries, as well as restaurants featuring authentic Lowcountry and Gullah cuisine.
St. Helena Island boasts a quiet, seaside setting and a slower pace of life, but there’s no shortage of things to do and see. Consider the following activities:
Several companies offer tours highlighting the area’s history, culture, and nature.
St. Helena Island, SC, is just one of the many exciting day trips you can take while visiting Beaufort, Port Royal & Sea Islands. Let the experts at Visit Beaufort help you plan the vacation of your dreams. Whether you’re looking for kid-friendly activities, world-class dining, immersive historical experiences, or outdoor adventure, our team can provide expert advice and recommendations. Visit Beaufort is the official Destination Marketing Organization (DMO) for Beaufort, Port Royal, and the surrounding areas. For more information, contact us today.