Beaufort, South Carolina, (population 12,950) is the second oldest city in South Carolina, chartered in 1711. The city is located on Port Royal Island along the Intra-Coastal Waterway, part of a string of barrier islands along the southeast coast of the United States. Beaufort is in the heart of the South Carolina Lowcountry, as the state’s coastal communities are known. Its rich farmland surrounds one of the most significant deepwater harbors on the Atlantic coast.
Discovered in 1520 by Spanish explorers, the region changed hands frequently as Spain, France, and England battled to colonize the New World. By the early 1700s, English planters and traders were established in the area. Some of those who later joined the Revolution played a key role in the adoption of the Constitution.
By the early 19th century, plantations supported by the slave trade produced huge quantities of cotton, rice, and indigo. Wealthy planters and merchants built grand summer homes in town to enjoy the coastal breezes. Two prominent Beaufort citizens were part of the seven-member group that drafted the Ordinance of Secession in 1860. With the outbreak of the Civil War, the federal government decided that Beaufort would be an ideal naval post for blockading Confederate ports, resulting in an invasion in November of 1861. Unprepared citizens abandoned plantations and town houses, which were quickly commandeered as offices, hospitals, and officers’ residences, sparing them from destruction. One example is the Federal-style John Mark Verdier House Museum, built in 1800-1805 by a prosperous merchant. The Marquis de Lafayette was a houseguest there in 1825, and during the Civil War Union officers used the home as their headquarters.
A post-Civil War decline in agriculture and phosphate mining was exacerbated by a hurricane in 1893 and boll weevil infestations in the early 20th century, leading to economic stagnation. By the early 20th century, the seafood industry, truck farming, and tourism were economic mainstays. Many antebellum mansions were turned into guesthouses. Because of its strategic location, Beaufort also experienced significant military growth, so that by mid-century the economy was on a better footing. The city maintains its military connections: it is home to Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and is in close proximity to Parris Island, where Marine Corps recruits are trained, and a U.S. Naval Hospital.
Beaufort’s National Landmark District preserves architectural details and artifacts representing the area’s Native American, Spanish, and French influences. Visitors can also experience the living history of the Gullah culture with a trip to the Penn Center, the first school for freed slaves in South Carolina, on nearly St. Helena Island. Walking tours, horse-drawn carriage rides, and bus or passenger van tours are all available for those who want to learn about Beaufort’s past and explore its historic areas.
Each year, Beaufort hosts the Gullah Festival of South Carolina, which celebrates the history, cultures, languages, and accomplishments of the African Americans of the Lowcountry. Another annual event, the Fall Festival of Houses and Gardens, offers tours of local historical homes and gardens.
Designated a Preserve America Community in October 2009.