History of Pinckney Island

Pinckney Island National Wildlife Refuge Image

The Pinckney Island is a 16 km2 (4,053-acre) National Wildlife Refuge situated in Beaufort County, South Carolina, between Hilton Head Island and the mainland. Prominently named after Major General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, it was built to accommodate a forest and forest nature for conservation and aesthetic purposes.

The refuge is one of seven refuges managed by the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex in Savannah (of Georgia, United States).


Pinckney Island is one of the richest archaeologically, with over 120 prehistoric and historical sites identified. The prehistoric sites’ analysis indicates human occupation dating from the Archaic Period (8000 BCE-1000 BCE), with accelerated use during the Mississippian Age (1000 CE-1500 CE).

Not much is known about the prehistoric tribes and native Americans who populated the island from 8000 BCE. However, exclusive research suggests a nomadic tribe did flourish in this land who were primarily hunter-gatherers.

Ancient artifacts prove that impermanent, small-scale settlements were built on Pinckney by Spanish and French invaders in the 16th centuries and 17th centuries. Permanent settlements did not occur until 1708 CE when a businessman Alexander Mackay, an Indian trader, obtained title to 0.81 km2 (200 acres) of present-day Pinckney Island. By 1715 CE, Mackay had exclusively acquired the rest of the island and most of the other islands that include the present refuge. In 1736 CR, Mackay’s widow sold the islands to the man behind the name – Charles Pinckney, father of the famous General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney.

General Pinckney was an American commander during the Revolutionary War, a signer of the United States Constitution, and, in 1804 CE and 1808 CE, a presidential candidate for the infamous Federalist Party. After acquiring the islands from his father, Pinckney was an absentee landowner until 1804 CE, when he moved to the property and started managing the island. The Pinckney family reconstructed the islands into a profitable plantation, cutting much of the natural forest and tilling and draining the fertile soil. By 1818 CE, over 270 slaves worked to produce fine quality long-staple Sea Island Cotton on 1.20 km2 9297 acres); 500 slaves lived on the island by 1840 CE.

The plantation prospered until the American Civil War when Union troops occupied it. Minor skirmishes occurred on Pinckney Island. The most notable incident occurred on August 21, 1862 CE, when the Confederate 11th Infantry/Beaufort Light Artillery struck the camp of Company H, New Hampshire Volunteers, Third Regiment, killing four Union soldiers and wounding eight Confederate men and two Union men.

U.S. Army records reflect that commanders recruited black troops for the Union Army from the region. Five military (U.S. Colored Troops) headstones are situated in a cemetery on the northwest side of Pinckney Island. The U.S. Army had likely recruited slaves from the Pinckney plantation.

After the conflict and late century farm recession, the plantation did not succeed. By the 1930s CE, it was practically abandoned. In 1937 CE, after more than 210 years of Pinckney family ownership, the estate was sold to Ellen Bruce, wife of James Bruce, a New York banker who used the estate as a hunting preserve. The Bruces planted pine and hardwoods, built ponds to draw waterfowl and provide for irrigation, and placed 60 percent of the farm fields back into agriculture.

In 1954 CE Edward Starr and James Madison Barker, a well-known MIT alumnus and an early leader in the field of international business, bought the islands. They continued to maintain them as a game preserve. In 1975 CE, they donated the islands to the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service to be exclusively managed as a National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and as a forest and nature preserve for conservation and aesthetic purposes. The Pinckney Island NWR was ultimately established on December 4, 1975 CE.

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