During the 16th and 17th centuries, the area comprising southern Beaufort County was known as Granville County of St. Luke’s Parish. As the Yemassee Indians had established ten towns with over 1,200 inhabitants in that area, it was considered “Indian Lands.” In 1715, the Yemassee War broke out and after several years of fighting, the Yemassee tribe migrated to Florida, opening the “Indian Lands” to European settlement. In 1718, the Lords Proprietors carved the area into several new baronies, including the Devil’s Elbow Barony that contained the future town of Bluffton.
The Town of Bluffton was eventually built on two adjoining parcels in the Devil’s Elbow Barony purchased by Benjamin Walls and James Kirk. The first homes were constructed during the early 19th century by area plantation owners seeking the high ground and cool river breezes as an escape from the unhealthy conditions present on Lowcountry rice and cotton plantations. Easy access by water provided more incentive for expansion and the many tidal coves afforded excellent locations for residences. The first streets were formally laid out during the mid-19th century and the name of Bluffton decided upon during the same period.
In 1844 the planters around Bluffton became angered by Federal tariffs which were making the goods they imported from abroad excessively expensive. Out of this discontent grew the “Bluffton Movement.” Incensed planters gathered beneath what became known as the “Secession Oak” and the secessionist movement was born. Sixteen years later South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union.
In 1852 the Town was officially incorporated by an act of the South Carolina General Assembly and comprised approximately one square mile. A steamboat landing was constructed at the end of Calhoun Street at this time, which allowed the Town to be a stopover for travelers between Savannah and Beaufort or Charleston.
Within one year of the capture of Fort Sumter, Bluffton became a safe haven for residents fleeing Union occupation of the South Carolina barrier islands. Bluffton was a headquarters for Confederate forces until Union forces on Hilton Head Island ordered the Town’s destruction in 1863. Approximately 60 structures were in the Town before the attack, only the Town’s two churches and fifteen residences remained standing after the attack.
On June 4, 1863, several Union gunboats and a transport carrying 1,000 infantrymen steamed up the river to Bluffton because, as the officer in charge wrote in his report, “This town has been the headquarters for the rebels for a long time in this vicinity.” Troops were landed with orders to fire the town. Confederate soldiers attacked but were outnumbered and outgunned. When shelling and torching ended and the Union forces withdrew, 34 or more homes, churches and other buildings had been destroyed. This, of course, was a severe blow to the town which took years to overcome.
Rebuilding came slowly as few local landowners could still afford the luxury of a summer home in Bluffton. The Town did not experience a true rebuilding until the 1880s, when the Town emerged as a commercial center for Beaufort County. The Town remained a commercial center until the Coastal Highway (US 17) and the bridge at Port Wentworth over the Savannah River were completed, making riverboat trade and travel less attractive. The Great Depression, beginning shortly thereafter, brought the closure of the Town’s prosperity and commercial importance. The popularity of the Town as a vacation spot remained even after its loss of commercial stature.
The development of Hilton Head Island, nearby Sun City, and related development have caused a resurgence of commercial activity in the Town. By 1974, off-island development began with Moss Creek. William A. Fischel’s concept of “incomplete assignment of property rights” relates to the off-island development pressure occurring in the Hilton Head/Bluffton area. In the case of Hilton Head Island, active growth management (1980s) tried to restrict further development in order to protect the island’s amenities. Hilton Head limited development by successfully restricting the number of units and number of bedrooms one could build. Hence, the result of these restrictions is off-island development. Once communities place restrictions on development, the development itself often spills over into surrounding communities, shifting growth inland. In this case, the “spillover development” from Hilton Head Island directly affects Bluffton.