A Look Back at Pawleys Island: Exploring The Historic Low Country Town

Just south of Myrtle Beach and east of Georgetown, along the coast of Horry County, South Carolina, is a beautiful barrier island known as Pawleys Island. This popular tourist destination is known for its picturesque beaches, historic sites, and laid-back lifestyle. But few people know that Pawleys Island has a long, fascinating history that stretches back centuries. From the area’s early exploration and settlement to its growth as a beach destination. Let’s explore the history of this beloved low-country island. 

Who owned Pawleys Island?

The island's name is derived from the nearby plantations owned by the Pawley brothers, Percival and George. Its status as one of the nation's oldest resort communities dates back to when Lowcountry rice planters sought refuge from the summertime malaria on the island. The original summer houses, simple yet elegant story-and-a-half cottages, were built with comfort in mind. Today, these early-era homes are cherished treasures, none more so than the Hagley House. This understated Greek-Revival-style house was built for P.C.J. Weston and served as a reminder of the island's rich history.

Exploring the New World 

The first known Europeans to explore the Pawleys Island area were Spanish conquistadors in 1521. The Spanish explorers traveled up the Waccamaw River, then known as the Winyah River, and made their way onto the island. They encountered coastal Indians and cultivated tobacco, cotton, and indigo crops. 

European explorers continued to explore the Pawleys Island area for almost 200 years after that first Spanish exploration. In 1718, English settlers from Charles Town, modern-day Charleston, journeyed up the Waccamaw River and claimed land on the outskirts of Georgetown. The settlers called the area Waccamaw Neck and began cultivating the land. 

Early Settlers and Pirates 

In 1739, the very first residents settled on Pawleys Island. Thomas Lynch Sr., Henry Collins, Thomas Spiers, Samuel Woodford, and their families were granted 350 acres on what was then called DeBordieu’s Island, named after French soldier Bernard de Bordieu. These settlers are said to have been fleeing religious persecution in England, though some historians argue that they sought freedom from taxes and government control. 

The area soon became a haven for pirates as well. In 1747, pirate Stede Bonnet was captured off of Pawleys Island. He was tried in Charles Town, where he was convicted and hanged for his crimes of piracy on the high seas. 

Revolutionary War Era 

When the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, most of Georgetown County sided with the Americans, while many residents of Winyah Bay found themselves supporting the British cause. Plantation owners on Pawleys Island were still relatively loyal to England; George Washington reportedly visited one of their plantations during his southern tour in 1791 to rally support for the American cause. 

Civil War 

By 1860, most residents of Georgetown had declared their loyalty to the Union cause during the Civil War. In 1862 and 1863, Confederate forces occupied Pawleys Island while blocking ships attempting to bring supplies upriver. Many plantation owners on Pawleys Island supported the Confederate cause, while others remained loyal to the United States government. After the war ended in 1865, most plantation owners returned to their homes and began rebuilding their lives after four long years of war and destruction. 

Reconstruction and Beyond 

In 1875 a man named Isaac Murchison purchased parts of six plantations that had been destroyed during the Civil War, including those owned by Thomas Lynch Sr., who had settled on Pawleys Island nearly 140 years before, for a total of 4,000 acres of land. He renamed this combined landholdings “Pawleys Plantation” after his friend Col. Robert Fennel Pawley a former Confederate soldier. Murchison also changed DeBordieu’s Island’s name to Pawleys Island in honor of Col. Pawley. The Murchison family was responsible for much of the subsequent development that would turn Pawleys Island into a popular destination over the next century.  

Growth as a Beach Destination 

The Great Depression damaged tourism to Pawleys Island and other parts of South Carolina’s coast. Still, World War II brought renewed interest in coastal leisure spots due to increased industrial activity up north. Many beach resorts opened up along South Carolina’s coast during this time, including several resorts near Pawleys Island, such as Litchfield Beach & Golf Resort (opened in 1947) and Ocean Ridge Plantation (opened in 1954). These resorts attracted tourists from all over who sought rest and relaxation on South Carolina’s beautiful beaches. 

The 1960s saw even more residential development in Pawleys Island and improvements to its infrastructure, such as access roads and bridges connecting it to mainland South Carolina. In 1973, Hurricane Belle hit Pawleys Island hard, damaging homes and business properties, causing extensive flooding, and wiping out all the dunes along its beaches except one near North Litchfield Beach that remains today (known locally as “the Hammock”). Despite these setbacks, most people persevered through these difficult times. By this point, tourism had become an important part of life on Pawleys Island, just like any other beach resort town along South Carolina’s coast. 

What unique attractions make Pawleys Island stand out? 

Perhaps what makes Pawleys Island stand out most is its sense of seclusion while still being close enough to larger cities like Myrtle Beach or Georgetown. This has made it an ideal spot for those looking for a tranquil getaway away from the hustle and bustle of city life whilst still offering plenty of activities and attractions swimming, fishing, beachcombing, or visiting some of its many historical sites such as Atalaya Castle or Hobcaw Barony are all popular pastimes amongst visitors here. 

What is the current state of tourism on Pawleys Island? 

Today, tourism is booming on Pawleys Island - thanks largely to its beautiful beaches, waterfront restaurants, and luxurious resorts, which have stood out as some of South Carolina’s best for many years now! There are also plenty of tourist activities, including fishing charters, golf courses, kayaking adventures, and more - making it an ideal destination for those wanting something a little bit different from your typical beach vacation!

Conclusion 

The small island town of Pawleys Island has a rich history spanning hundreds of years, from its early European explorers to present-day visitors flocking here for its beaches and laid-back atmosphere. With its beautiful beaches and beloved traditions, Pawleys Island will continue to be a favorite destination for visitors and locals for many years to come. 

While times have changed and the town has had to evolve with the changing times, the strong sense of community and laid-back lifestyle that so many fall in love with remains intact. While Pawleys Island may no longer be home to grand plantations, it still has a vibrant culture reflecting its unique historical place. Contact for more information.

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