Visitors arriving in Beaufort are usually enchanted by the beauty of this small city, tucked off the beaten path on the banks of the Intra-Coastal Waterway. Despite its seeming isolation, Beaufort’s position has long been one of strategic importance, with the town playing a part in and witnessing many of the nations most significant events.
Following its discovery in 1520 by Spanish explorers, the region changed hands frequently as the Spanish, French and British battled to colonize in New World. By the early 1700s, English planters and traders had established a foothold in the area and the Lords Proprietors established a seaport town, Beaufort Town, in honor of Lord Proprietor Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort. The original town plan, similar in concept to the Grand Modell of Charles Town (Charleston) established some 40 years earlier, was comprised of 397 lots and a public square.
By the eve of the Revolution, the populations of Beaufort had increased to approximately 4,000. The wealthy planters and merchants of the region frequently traveled to London and sent their sons to England for an education. These close commercial and social ties meant many Beaufortonians were loyal to the Crown. In the end, however, King Georges huge increase in taxes crippled the local economy and, thereby, brought most locals over to the Revolutionary side. These colonial Beaufortonians who had remained loyal to the Crown were compelled to leave the area, never to return. The remaining “Beaufort Revolutionaries” part of a powerful political band known as Lowcountry Federalists went on to play a crucial role in the adoption of the present United States Constitution.
By the early 19th Century, the slave trade had transformed farming into large plantations cultivating huge quantities of cotton, rice and indigo. The wealth that ensued created an elite class of planters and merchants. The heat of summer and the pestilence of mosquitoes eventually led these planters to build grand summer homes in town where they could move their families to enjoy the cool breezes along the coast. As slavery and commerce in general became contentious issues, two prominent Beaufortonians served on a seven-member committee charged with drafting the Ordinance of Secession in December 1860. The beginning of the resulting Civil War found the Federal Government searching for a naval post of the south Atlantic for blockading Confederate ports. They decided that Beaufort would be an ideal location.
Completely unprepared for the invasion in November of 1861, the white inhabitants of Beaufort abandoned plantations and town houses, leaving behind their slaves and half-eaten meals. The loss of this rich center of trade in the heart of the Confederacy was both a financial and psychological blow to the South. Slaves were freed immediately. Homes in the area were quickly commandeered as offices, hospitals, and residences of Union officers sparing them the fate of destruction seen elsewhere in the South. Other properties were placed on the auction block (and frequently bought by former slaves) for failure to pay Federal taxes.
During the period of reconstruction, Beaufort again turned to farming. IN addition, phosphate mining became a huge industry. Rich industrialists from the North wintered in the region. In 1893, however, the town suffered another setback through the destruction of a major hurricane that struck the area. Coming ashore at high tide, the storm completely covered the Sea Islands. Many thousands of people and livestock were drowned, numerous buildings were damaged, and the local phosphate mining industry was destroyed.
The early 20th Century found the seafood industry, truck farming, and tourism (with many antebellum mansions turned into guesthouses) providing income for local families. Long recognized for its strategic location, Beaufort experienced significant military growth during World War II, providing much needed economic infusion to the area. The latter part of the 20th Century also witnessed a major growth in tourism luring vacationers to enjoy the beaches, Northerners to establish second homes to escape cold winters, and retirees to carve out new lives in the pleasant, affordable region.
Today, Beaufort bridges a long, colorful history and a promising future. Rich in archeological and cultural treasures from its Native American, colonial and antebellum past, Beaufort also possesses priceless resources in its verdant coastal terrain. Writers have referred to the string of barrier islands that hug the southeast coast of the United States as a strand of pearls. To those who know it, Beaufort is the treasured jewel at the center.