Beaufort is the second oldest city in South Carolina, in the heart of the Lowcountry Sea Islands. On Port Royal Island, it is the seat of Beaufort County, about an hour’s drive from Hilton Head Island. Chartered in 1711 and spared the Union Army torches during the Civil War, the town maintains a wonderful collection of antebellum homes with grand porches to catch the breezes off the Beaufort River. Several are restored for tours and a few have become luxurious inns. There are some interesting museums to choose from and a good Beaufort County Librarywith its own exhibits and archives.
The historic waterfront downtown offers a collection of unique shops, art galleries and wonderful fare. Behind the stores and restaurants on Bay Street spreads Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park. Not just a great place for a picnic beside the river, it’s also a venue for a long list of events and celebrations, from waterfront weddings and family reunions, to the annual Gullah Festival each spring and the Beaufort Water Festival in July. The downtown marina adds the silhouettes of masts to the view and the clink of running rigging against masts to the soundscape. It’s a key stop for “snowbirds” traveling “The Ditch” (Intracoastal Waterway) between the Northeast and Florida.
With some 13,000 residents, Beaufort offers an old-fashioned, small-town feel. Family names prompt instant recognition. History hangs in every corner.But Beaufort also has its cosmopolitain side. A key location for several well-known films – such as Forrest Gump, The Big Chill and The Great Santini - it hosts the growing Beaufort International Film Festival each winter, along with several international symposiums.
The town sits between the Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort and Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, just up the street from a regional Naval Hospital in the neighboring, and increasingly trendy, Town of Port Royal. Every Marine from the Eastern United States learned about the Corps – often, the hard way - at Parris Island. And thousands of servicemen – including top-gun F/A 18 pilots – have served stints on the local bases. Many have retired to the area, including nearby Dataw, Fripp, Lady’s and St. Helena Islands, as well as to the Hilton Head area and points between.
Beaufort has been featured in The New York Times, named “Best Small Southern Town” by Southern Living, labeled a “Top 25 Small City Arts Destination” by American Style and counted as a “Top 50 Adventure Town” by National Geographic Adventure. Beaufort offers everything from boating, fishing and nearby beaches to historic tours, world-class artists and cultural events.
The Beaufort area’s rich history can be traced in writing for nearly 500 years, although Native American shell rings across Beaufort County attest to people enjoying Lowcountry life as long as 4,000 years back. Spain’s Captain Pedro de Salaza reached the area in 1514, making Europe’s second landing in North America. Both Spanish and French ships scouted the coast in the 1520s and noted the wonderful natural harbor of Port Royal Sound. France’s Captain Jean Ribaut built and soon abandoned a fort on a nearby Parris Island in 1562. The Spanish built Fort San Felipe nearby, establishing Santa Elena as a provincial capital. But faced with English attacks on its coastal outposts, the Spanish withdrew to Florida. It was nearly a century before the English established their first settlements in South Carolina, followed closely by Scots who traded with the natives.
Beaufort itself became an anchor for the region when it was chartered in 1711. Its next century included the Yemassee Indian wars and battles between neighbors and families during the American Revolution. But by the 1850s, the town had become a bustling merchant center and summer retreat for the world’s richest families, many of whom owned plantations farther inland or on nearby Sea Islands. Captured and occupied by the Union during the Civil War, Beaufort’s grand homes and public buildings became headquarters and barracks. It became a center for emancipation efforts following the war and several former slaves from the Beaufort area were active both in the war and in the reconstruction government that followed. A tradition of empowerment lives on at Penn Center on nearby St. Helena Island, which is the site of a school started by Quakers to teach freed slaves. It served as a key retreat for Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement.
After avoiding the worst of the Civil War’s fighting, Beaufort found itself literally an island in a devastated economic landscape. For a time, phosphate mining lifted the area’s fortune. But an epic hurricane in 1893 set Beaufort back for decades. The growing military bases, followed by tourism and retirement growth helped the town flourish as the 20th Century progressed.