Bluffton, South Carolina was settled, as its name suggests, on a bluff overlooking the meandering May River about 30 miles north of Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport. One of the fastest growing cities in the United States, Bluffton grew by over 850% between the 2000 and 2010 censuses and as of 2019 boasts a population of 21,000.
Bluffton played an important role in the evolution of the United States. The town was named in 1840 but had been settled four decades earlier, primarily by plantation owners looking for higher, breezier ground to build their houses on. The May River offered several inlets where other families built homes and by the 1830s the settlement had grown rapidly into an economic hub just east of Hilton Head Island.
Bluffton was the center of the first South Carolinian cessation movement after the passing of the Tariff Act of 1842. Known as the Bluffton Movement, the group was formed in 1844 and led by Robert Barnwell Rhett. The group had a significant influence over the later cessation debate but was unable to sustain itself and disbanded a few years later.
Due to its proximity to the May River, Bluffton was a natural river port and stop-over for river steamers traveling between Savannah and Beaufort. A steamship landing placed at the foot of Calhoun Street in the early 1850s turned Bluffton into a regional commercial center. The town was officially incorporated in 1852, occupying a footprint of approximately 1 square mile.
Ten years later, two thirds of the structures within that 1 square mile lay in ruins. The Civil War took a hard toll on the town of Bluffton. Following the Union victory at the Battle of Port Royal, in November 1861, the Confederate garrison at Hilton Head Island retreated to the high ridges of Bluffton. This gave them a fairly secure vantage point to observe the massive Union fleet that organized the naval blockade of Confederate Atlantic ports from the Port Royal Sound and the waters around Hilton Head Island. Bluffton was used for over a year by the Confederates to spy on Union naval activity. Intelligence gathered at Bluffton likely helped Confederate ships run the blockade. This lasted from November 7, 1861 until June 4, 1863, the day Union forces nearly wiped Bluffton off the map.
The Union Expedition against Bluffton evacuated the town and destroyed between 30 and 40 structures. By the time Union troops were done, only 15 houses and two churches were left standing. Eight of those houses and both churches remain standing today and are each now highlights of the town’s nationally registered historic district.
Since then, Bluffton’s fortunes waxed and waned with time. As the development of the highway system led to a rapid decline in the number of steamboats, Bluffton’s status as a commercial center decreased. However, as Hilton Head Island and Beaufort County developed into a resort and recreation destination, Bluffton’s fortunes have revived. In the post World War II era the town has thrived and is one of the most popular vacation spots in the state. Today, visitors enjoy strolling Calhoun Street for its one-of-a-kind shops and restaurants, as well as the town’s year-round Farmer’s Market. Bluffton also has numerous parks, bicycle trails, and a beautiful river front that affords its reputation as one of the loveliest small cities in the South.
Getting to Bluffton from Savannah/Hilton Head International
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport is located just a short drive from Bluffton, South Carolina. Drive north on Interstate 95, then take Exit 5 for US-17. Turn right on SC-46 E/Main Street and follow SC-46 into Bluffton.