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The Lowcountry region had been subject to numerous European explorations and several aborted attempts at colonization before the British successfully founded the city in 1711. Below is a timeline of Beaufort - from exploration to foundation.
In 1520, less than thirty years after Columbus discovered America, Captain Francisco Gordillo, exploring from Hispaniola, stopped near Port Royal Sound long enough to name the region Santa Elena, one of the oldest European place names in America. In 1559, to prevent the intrusion of the French, Philip II of Spain ordered a colony planted at Santa Elena. Angel Villafane explored the Sea Islands but failed to establish a permanent colony.
In 1562 Admiral Coligny of France sent Captain Jean Ribaut to found a colony of French Protestants in the New World. Ribaut explored the coast from Florida to South Carolina and decided upon the sea islands of Santa Elena. He described the areas as a place teeming with edible wildlife and with a harbor where "all the shippes of the world could anchor in comfort.” He named the harbor Port Royal, a name which has been in continuous use for over four hundred years. Ribaut left thirty Protestants on modern Parris Island at his settlement of Charlesfort (named for the infant king of France) and returned to France for supplies. Religious wars detained him, and his thirty colonists, plagued by troubles with the Indians and among themselves, abandoned Charlesfort, built a boat on Parris Island, and sailed for France. In 1564, Ribaut, undeterred, returned to the southern coasts, but this time to the St. Johns River in Florida where he established Fort Caroline.
The alarmed Spaniards quickly sent Pedro Menendez de Aviles to counter the French. Menendez founded St. Augustine and from this base ruthlessly eliminated the French colony, killing Ribaut and the entire garrison. Menendez then established a string of posts along the coasts of Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The northernmost of these was placed on the site of Ribaut's Charlesfort on Parris Island. In 1566 the Spaniards built the fort, San Phillipe, and the Mission of Santa Elena at Port Royal. By 1580 the settlement was one of the largest Spanish towns north of Mexico. But more troubles lay ahead. In 1586 the English privateer, Sir Francis Drake, attacked and burned St. Augustine, forcing the withdrawal of outlying Spanish forces and the final abandonment of the settlement at Port Royal. But for another hundred years, Port Royal was Spanish lands and waters, and intruders ventured in at their peril.
In the 1600s the English began to appear among the Sea Islands, looking for a site for a colony. William Hilton came in 1663, followed by Robert Sanford in 1666. Sanford left behind South Carolina's first settler, Dr. Henry Woodward, to minister to the Indians. Woodward was with the original colonists in 1670. When ships carrying the first settlers for South Carolina arrived at Port Royal, Woodward and the Indians warned the immigrants that the Spanish claim and threat were too strong for the contest. The settlers moved north and settled the banks of the Ashley River in 1670. By the 1700s English planters and traders had established a foothold at Port Royal. The two most prominent men were Thomas Nairn on St. Helena Island and John Barnwell on Port Royal Island. These men were mainly responsible for founding the town of Beaufort in 1711.
Lastly, one of the most vibrant and well-preserved histories in Beaufort, SC is our Gullah Culture. The Gullah are known for preserving more of their African linguistic and cultural heritage than any other African-American community in the United States, and some of the largest populations of Gullahs are here in Beaufort, Port Royal & the Sea Islands. To read all of Beaufort's Gullah history, click here.
Beaufort, SC stands strong as a living landmark, handcrafted from the storied history of the south. Rediscover the legends of those who walked here generations before you and unearth new treasures that will enrich your life forever.
Many thanks to the Historic Beaufort Foundation for their work in preservation, protection, and presentation of sites and artifacts of historic, architectural, and cultural interest throughout Beaufort County, South Carolina.