A Brief and Colorful History of South Carolina's Pinckney Island

Scenic Pinckney Island
Scenic Pinckney Island Zach Bjur
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Hilton Head and the surrounding islands are incredibly rich in history. From bloody battles and Gullah magic on Daufuskie Island to zebras and billionaires on Bull’s Island, it seems that everywhere you look you’ll find a deep history residing right below the surface, and Pinckney Island is no exception.

Much like Daufuskie Island, the beautiful Pinckney Island was home to people long before Europeans ever arrived. There have been over one hundred prehistoric sites found on the island and in the surrounding islands that fall within the National Wildlife Refuge.

The first Europeans to set foot on Pinckney Island were French and Spanish traders and explorers in the late 1600’s and early 1700’s. The island was used as a transient stop-off on trade routes and for those beginning their exploration into the vast and wild depths of the American continent. A trader by the name of Alexander Mackay acquired the land in 1708 and was the first European to use the island as a permanent home. After Mackay's death, the land was sold to a wealthy judge in Charleston named Charles Pinckney in 1734.

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge
Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge Google Maps

The Pinckney’s are a storied family in South Carolina’s politics; more than one governor of the young state of South Carolina was of Pinckney lineage. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was a decorated General and Revolutionary War veteran and the son of the Charles Pinckney that bought the Pinckney Island.

Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was a signer of the Constitution and played a prominent role in its creation. Once he inherited the island from his father, Charles Cotesworth turned it into a working plantation. He cleared many of the island’s trees to make way for cotton fields and the plantation was a large success until it suffered a fate similar to that of Daufuskie’s plantations during the Civil War—Union soldiers ransacked it.

After the war the island and the plantation were abandoned.

Union Soldiers on Pinckney
Union Soldiers on Pinckney Henry P. Moore

The island remained in Pinckney family possession until it was sold in 1937 to the Bruces, a wealthy banking couple from New York. As was the trend at the time, the couple used it as a hunting retreat, and they are responsible for aiding the island's return to its natural glory. To attract waterfowl and other animals for hunting the couple planted native trees and built freshwater ponds in the island’s interior to attract breeding birds. There are five of these ponds on the island and they are filled with gators, fish, and a myriad of birds. Ibis pond is particularly spectacular and can be found after just a short jaunt into the reserve.

The Bruces maintained the property until 1954 when they sold it to Edward Starr and James Madison Barker. After owning the property for 20 years, they decided the island was too beautiful to keep to themselves. The two donated the island and many of the smaller surrounding islands to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service with the condition that they be used as a National Wildlife Refuge.

Pinckney is now known for its wildlife diversity and beauty
Pinckney is now known for its wildlife diversity and beauty Jeff Gunn

From prehistoric homestead, to plantation, to hunting reserve, the island has quite the past. The island’s legacy however will remain as an incredible place to commune with nature and celebrate the outdoors, whether you're  hiking over the 14 miles of trails , biking along the beach,  trail running through the hardwoods and pines , or even kayaking around the island. Depending on your preference you can experience the island much in the way that the first prehistoric inhabitants did—visitors are encouraged to venture from the trail—or you can keep to the trails and explore the gorgeous ponds that were installed in 20 th century.

Kayaking around Pinckney Island is also a treat; the surrounding oyster beds and small hammocks are teeming with life and turn any paddle into an adventure.

As you hike Pinckney you can imagine all the lives that have graced this island before you, some places just attract people. You’ll feel the draw of the island walking through its trees; revel in the mystery of the magnetism. It is this way with the entire Lowcountry, people are drawn to these beautiful coastlines and forests. As the relationship between these lands and people goes on, the lure gains more momentum and a rich history propels it forward. Come be a part of the love affair and add your history to Pinckney Island’s rich past.

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