The May River: A Shimmering Treasure

For generations, the May River in Bluffton has united Lowcountry residents who live along the shores of this shimmering estuary.

During the antebellum period, Savannah-area plantation owners brought their families to spend the summer under the shade of the live oak trees lining the May River. The breezes off the river prevented the intrusion of mosquitoes lurking on sweltering rice plantations and spreading diseases like malaria and yellow fever.

When Union soldiers drove Hilton Head residents out of their homes during the Civil War, they sought asylum in Bluffton, which earned its name from the signature high banks along the May River. That natural bluff made it easy for Confederate soldiers to spot an invasion attempt during the tumultuous Civil War.

South Carolina’s economic saving grace during the post-war Reconstruction Era, the May River was used to transport goods and summer vacationers between Savannah and other port cities.

By any measure, the most coveted resource sold along the water trade route were the oysters that inhabited the pristine river. South Carolina’s oysters, or Eastern oysters as they are called, continue to be in high demand for the authentic taste of the Lowcountry the bivalves provide. As the oysters clean and filter the water of the May River, they absorb some of the salty Southern flavoring that can only be found in South Carolina’s waters.

Home to some of the nation’s tastiest oysters, the May River also serves as an unofficial community gathering spot when the tides roll out. On any given summer day, the May River Sand Bar is lined with boats blasting music, mariners playing cornhole, the sweet smell of fresh food on the grill and kids chasing after newfound friends. The sunset version of this come-as-you-are party may be the highlight of any South Carolina summer.

Other May River highlights include the historic Garvin-Garvey Freedman’s Cottage of freed slave Cyrus Gardner, and the 150-year-old Church of the Cross, which offers stunning water views.

A short walk from the shops in Old Town Bluffton, the May River can be accessed at the end of Calhoun Street or the sandy Brighton Beach. Tours of the Church of the Cross are available from 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday through Saturday. Tours of the Garvin-Garvey Freedman’s Cottage are available on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. $5 per person; free admission for children.