Edistow Indians first lived on the island, and while Spanish explorers claimed the land for Spain in 1520s, the Indians actually sold the island to the British about 150 years later. One of the first plantation homes, Brick House, appeared in the early 1700s. In fact, Brick House claims to be the first manor house built in America. Many of the island churches also date back to the 1700s. Rice and indigo planters grew the first profitable crops in the area. Despite close commercial ties with England, the majority of the early Plantation owners were staunch Revolutionary supporters. With the loss of the British market after the Revolutionary war, the Plantation owners turned to a new crop for profit: sea island cotton, or long staple cotton, defined by a long fiber which resulted in extremely soft cloth. The popularity of the sea island cotton brought both great wealth and the slavery system to Edisto Island.
One of the plantations on the island, owned by William Seabrook, is rumored to have been designed by James Hoban, architect of the White House. As a result of this noteworthy architecture, the Seabrook plantation set a standard for plantation home design on the island as the sweeping verandas and stately columns can still be seen in many of the remaining estates. Of other import, the Seabrook plantation once hosted the American liaison and French general, the Marquis de Lafayette. Legend states that the eminent guest named William Seabrook’s young daughter after himself: Caroline Lafayette Seabrook.
The Island also has a rich history in pirating, with a particularly popular landing destination of St. Helena’s Sound. Privateers would use the hidden coves, rivers, marshes, and streams as a safe zone in which to refit, resupply, and recover before heading out to the open seas.
The Civil War had a devastating effect on the Edisto Island economy. After leading South Carolina’s movement toward secession with the passion of the Edisto Island delegate, Joseph Jenkins claimed that if South Carolina failed to secede, Edisto Island alone would leave the union. Over the course of the ensuing war, many plantation owners left the island either to fight or to avoid conflict with occupying troops. Federal troops moved onto the plantations for use as campaign headquarters. After the War ended and the slaves were freed, many chose to remain on the island and claim the vacated land. Devoid of the slave labor, the defeated plantation owners returned to the island powerless to grow the difficult crop of sea island cotton, especially after the ravages of hurricanes and the boll weevil swept through in the early 1900s.
Today, Edisto still bears the marks of history. On the island, one can easily access oyster mounds built from discarded oyster shells from the Edistow Indians. One can travel Spanish moss draped roads that lead back to original plantation homes. And one can catch snatches of Gullah, the unique patois language of the African American slaves. With a past that intermingles with its present and future, Edisto Island offers much more than the typical beach vacation. This is the low country, and it is impossible to enjoy the present-day sun, beaches, and shells, without brushing up against a bit of history.