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History of Sullivan’s Island


History of Sullivan’s Island

Captain O’Sullivan

MAY 30TH 1674

            “It is ordered that a Great Gun bee [sic] mounted in some convenient place neere [sic] the River’s mouth, which with one charge of powder at a time, shall be committed to the care of Capt. Florence O’Sullivan, to be fired upon the approach of any ship or ships, and that the said Gun be conveyed to the said place upon Tuesday next, come a sennit.

Sullivan’s Island’s place in the history of South Carolina is of extreme importance in that her first order of duty was to protect the seat of the new colony of Carolina, Charles Towne. The threat came from both the French and Spanish who were interested in colonizing the eastern coast of the “New World.” They did not take to the English presence in South Carolina well and had previously attempted several settlements in the area prior to the English settler’s arrival in 1670. The island receives it’s namesake from Captain Florence O’Sullivan who was charged by the government of Carolina to protect the city by placing a gun in the best place possible for such a task. 

Because of its location in relation to the Charleston harbor, Sullivan’s Island was the ideal place for setting up such protection. However, other barrier islands along the coast had similar lookouts and gun stations. There were watches on Folly Island (now Folly Beach), Kiawah Island, on the northern end of Isle of Palms and Bull’s Island. The local Indian tribes such as the Sewee and Bohicket aided the English by manning these watches. As head of the watch on Sullivan’s Island, Captain O’Sullivan was given the honor of having the island named after him. 

Having arrived on the first boat into the colony from England in 1670, Captain O’Sullivan was the first to own land in what is known as the Old Village in Mount Pleasant. The Irishman was also a member of the Grand Council, the Commons House of Assembly and was the deputy to one of the eight Lords Proprietors, Sir Peter Colleton. Thus he became the surveyor-general of the new colony of Carolina. O’Sullivan died in 1683 only 13 years after his arrival in the colony. 


The Pest House

As Charles Towne began to grow in both economic wealth and population her citizens became more and more susceptible to sickness. In 1706 there was an outbreak of yellow fever that plagued the city killing several colonists. Therefore, those in charge decided to create quarantine on Sullivan’s Island otherwise known as the “pest house.” The Pest House was built of brick an according to local historian Suzannah Smith Miles was “only 30- by 10- feet in size…” Built in 1707 it was located somewhere between Fort Moultrie and the southern tip of the island. 

Also with the growth of the colony came a new population, Africans. The people of Charles Towne were extremely careful about bringing these peoples into the colony in that they wanted to ensure that they were free of disease and other plagues prior to entering into the general population. Just as the sick were sent to Sullivan’s Island to keep them away from the well, so to the slaves that were imported into South Carolina were required to go through quarantine on the island. An act was passed in 1744 that stated,

 “Be it enacted, that no ship or vessel…shall arrive or come into this province over the bar of the harbour [sic] into Charlestown, with Negroes imported or brought in such ship or vessel shall have been landed and put on shore on Sullivan’s Island.”

The slaves were required to stay on the island for at least ten days time. According to Writings of the Islands: Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms by Suzannah Smith Miles, the pest house remained on Sullivan’s Island until 1790 when it was removed to Morris Island. Thus, Sullivan’s Island was not the beautiful quiet beach town that it is today; rather it was a place of horrific disease-ridden endings and sad and painful beginnings.

Sullivan’s Island’s place in history changed for the better in the year 1776 when the island played a significant role in our country’s beginnings. The month was June and the news was that the British were sending a fleet to Charleston to “put the colonials in their place.” News reached the city before the British fleet, led by Sir Henry Clinton arrived in the harbor. The Americans led by Colonel William Moultrie along with a group of Catawba Indians erected a fort near the southern tip of the island with palmetto logs. 

When Clinton arrived in Charles Towne Harbor with his fleet of eleven ships and twenty-nine hundred regulars, the fort was incomplete. Under Colonel Moultrie and Colonel William Thomson, the Americans had little hope for a victory. Clinton’s strategy was two-fold; attack the fort from his ships and then send a force of troops onto Sullivan’s Island via Breach Inlet to attack the Americans from behind. Thomson was able to drive the British at Breach Inlet back to Long Island (now Isle of Palms) with the help of the riptides so prevalent even today in the Inlet. 

Meanwhile at the other end of the island at Fort Moultrie the British shot their cannons directly onto the unfinished palmetto fort, their cannon balls instead of exploding upon impact simply stuck into the spongy fibers of the palmettos or bounced back onto the beach. Three of the ships ran aground and another was destroyed by the British to keep it from being captured by the Americans. The Americans had successfully defeated the huge British fleet. Letters from British commanders Sir Peter Parker and Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton from June 30th, 1776 explain,

The Commanders of the American Station deeming it expedient to make an attempt on Charles Town, in South Carolina, the fleet sailed on June 1st from Cape Fear…..General Clinton landed on Long Island on the 9th…..At half an hour after ten on the 28th, the Bristol, Experiment, Active and Solebay, brought up against the Fort…In the course of the action the Bristol had the whole of her mizzen and half her mainmast shot away and was twice on fire. The Experiment, Capt. Scott was almost unrigged, which with the Bristol had several shots through their sides and their colors shot to pieces. The Sphinx had her bowsprit shot away and the whole fleet received considerable damage….General Clinton landed his troops on Long Island, which had been represented to him as communicating with Sullivan’s Island by a Ford, passable at low water, but he found, the channel which was reported to have been eighteen inches deep, to be seven feet deep, which circumstances rendered it impossible for the army to give that assistance to the fleet, in the attack made upon the fortress that the General intended…

The South Carolinians who fought so bravely at the Battle of Sullivan’s Island are celebrated even to this day as the symbols of the battle are seen on the South Carolina state flag with the Palmetto Tree and the Crescent Moon. As historian Walter Edgar relates in his History of South Carolina, “The Battle at Sullivan’s Island gave a psychological boost to the revolutionary cause in South Carolina.” The locals celebrate the victory to this day with Carolina Day. Every June 28th a parade is held and ceremonies throughout Charleston and Sullivan’s Island are conducted to commemorate the victory. 

Throughout her history, there have been a few persons of fame who have made their mark on Sullivan’s Island. Edgar Allen Poe arrived on the island aboard the brig the Waltham he came as a soldier enlisted as Edgar A. Perry. Previously he was a student at the University of Virginia, but because he had accrued a tremendous amount of gambling debt, he was forced to leave the school. After failed attempts at writing in Boston, Poe felt his only way out of his financial situation was to enlist in the army. 

By the time Poe found himself on Sullivan’s, the island had turned into a summer resort for wealthy Charlestonians and planters. Poe became the company clerk and was able to spend much of his time on the island writing. It is about Sullivan’s that Poe wrote one of his most famous works The Gold Bug. An excerpt from the poem describes the island in detail

The island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the main land by a scarcely perceptible creek, oozing its way through a wilderness of reeds and slime, a favorite resort for the marsh hen. The vegetation, as might be supposed, is scant, or at last dwarfish. No trees of any magnitude are to be seen. Near the western extremity, where Fort Moultrie stands, and where are some miserable frame buildings, tenanted during summer, by the fugitives from Charleston dust and fever, may be found, indeed the bristly palmetto; but the whole island, with the exception of the western point, and line of hard, white beach on the seacoast, is covered with dense undergrowth of the sweet myrtle.

As Suzannah Smith Miles relates, “Today, the ‘miserable frame buildings’ have been replaced by substantial homes. Fort Moultrie still stands guard, not as a military base but as a National Park monument. The mainland of Mount Pleasant is, depending on the bridge openings, easily accessible by a causeway cutting through the ‘reed and marshes’ which still remain a favorite place for the marsh hen.” Poe remained on the island until 1829 when he left the army. 

Osceola, the famous Seminole Indian Chief, is one such person. His story begins in Alabama where he was born into the Muskogee tribe. Many displaced Indians found themselves in Florida amongst a group of both Indians and runaway slaves called the Seminoles. After President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Bill of 1830 the Americans decided to include the Seminoles in their plans to move the Indians out west. In 1835 an Indian agent named Wiley Thompson tried to get the Seminole to sign a treaty where they would agree to move westward the Indian chiefs refused. When Jackson received news that the Seminole refused to sign the treaty he sent a military force to Florida to force them to do so. This was the beginning of the Second Seminole War.

Osceola was chosen as the leader of the Seminole and led many victories in the Florida swamps for upwards of two years. He was eventually captured along with 116 warriors and 82 women and children. They were sent to Sullivan’s Island aboard the S.S. Poinsett and imprisoned at Fort Moultrie. Osceola died from malaria during his imprisonment. It was written in the Charleston Courier in 1838 that

On the morning of January 30th, 1838 in the thirty-fourth year of his life, Osceola, the Rising Sun, he who had been the very life spirit of the Seminole War, for home and country, passed peacefully away. Realizing that he was about to die he had dressed himself in his warrior clothes, painted his face, arranged on his head his turban with its three ostrich plumes and laid his scalping knife on his breast…

Osceola is buried at Fort Moultrie at the foot of the north wall. His grave reads: “OSCEOLA. Patriot and Warrior. Died at Fort Moultrie, January 30th, 1838.”



Sullivan’s was not just a military base and prison during the nineteenth century; it was also a favorite place for Charlestonians and Lowcountry planters to “vacation.” Renowned Charleston architect Robert Mills (designer of the Washington Monument) wrote of the island in his Statistics of South Carolina published in 1826:

Sullivan’s Island may properly be considered as a part of Charleston, as its inhabitants (when the island is inhabited) are all made up of our citizens.
This island forms the summer retreat for pleasure and health of all or any in the city that choose to visit it. During the summer season the boats ply constantly between the two places, the distance scarcely exceeding four miles.
One and sometimes two steamboats, besides many sail boats or packets are engaged at that time, which are all well supported. The fare never exceeds twenty-five cents.
The village here laid out is called Moultrieville in honor of the gallant defenders of the fort, erected there during the memorable 28th June, 1776, a few days previous to the declaration of Independence. It contains about 200 houses, all of wood, and which are occupied sometimes to excess during the summer. 
Moultrieville has a handsome appearance, particularly on entering the harbor; the greater some of the houses (for more than a mile) front the beach, which extends the whole length of the island, a distance of three miles. This beach at low water is very firm and wide, affords a delightful ride or walk, where the delighted visitant may inhale the pure and bracing sea breeze, which wafts health and vigor to the system.” 

During Mills’ time, Sullivan’s Island or Moultrieville had two churches including the Grace Protestant Episcopal Church founded in 1819 and the Presbyterian Church founded in 1824. There was also a marketplace and several hotels on the island. 

Sullivan’s Island During the War Between the States

Fort Moultrie played a vital role during the War Between the States. According to Suzannah Smith Miles, “In essence, the war actually began on Sullivan’s Island at Fort Moultrie when, on Christmas night 1860, the fort’s commanding officer, Major Robert Anderson, decided to secretly evacuate the fort and remove his garrison to Fort Sumter…” This was the actual straw that broke the camel’s back and thus only a few months later the first shots of the war were fired from across the Charleston Harbor at Morris Island and Fort Johnson on James Island out to Fort Sumter

The Confederacy held the Island and martial law was declared there until the end of the war. Several smaller forts were constructed including Battery Beauregard, Battery Bee and Battery Marshall which overlooked Breach Inlet. The Island, along with many places in the South, took a beating during the war. However, it didn’t take long for her to bounce back to become a bustling vacation spot once again.

Sullivan’s Island in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

The only way to and from the island until the Grace Memorial Bridge was built in 1929 was via the ferry. So when people vacationed on the island not only did they bring their suitcases and luggage, they also brought their hens, dogs, ponies, cows, etc. After a long journey beginning at Meeting and Market Streets and out across the harbor the vacationers arrived at the “Island” (as it was called in those days). Once the ferry trip was over then the passengers would transfer all of their belongings onto the trolleys in Mount Pleasant and then over the Intracoastal Waterway towards Sullivan’s Island. The trolleys were no longer necessary after the construction of the Ben Sawyer Bridge in 1945. 

There were several beach houses were constructed on Sullivan’s. However, these were not owned with fee simple title as they are today. The United States Federal Government owned the island and would then lease parcels of land for a period of 75 years to those who wanted to build homes on the island.   There was a condition that these properties could be reclaimed by the Federal Government at any time. This practice continued until May 14, 1953 when a legislative act gave all property-holders clear titles to the land on which they lived. 

Many had homes of their own on Sullivan’s’ Island but quite a few would stay at the New Brighton Hotel, later known as the Atlantic Beach Hotel. The land that the hotel sat on was given by the Town of Moultrieville (the main governance on the Island in those days) to Robert Chisolm for the purpose of constructing a hotel. This was one of the only fee simple ownerships of land on the island at the time. This property was called Ocean Park and stretched across the island from the front to the back of the beach. The hotel was constructed between the back of Middle Street between I’On and Atlantic Avenue right around Station 22. It is likely that the hotel was completed sometime in the mid-1880s. The hotel was a popular resort that also boasted three beach cottages in addition to the main hotel structure. 

The hotel burned on January 9, 1925 and one of the cottages burned along with it. The two remaining cottages are still on the island today, although they had been moved closer to the beach prior to the fire. The story of how the fire was started includes a bootlegger who was attempting to locate his whiskey in the bushes alongside the hotel. He lit a match to try and find the whiskey in the dark and thus sparked the flames. This was the last time a hotel has been on the island. 

Because of the fact that Sullivan’s Island has been a resort or vacation spot since 1817, there are several historic homes that still remain on the island to this day. Although many homes have been destroyed over the years from various natural events such as the earthquake of 1886 and numerous hurricanes and during the shelling and bombardment of Charleston during the War Between the States, many homes still remain. Its history is so rich that in 1986 the island was given a state grant to pay for an architectural survey. 

Throughout the last few decades there have been several efforts by various persons and organizations to protect these historic homes and buildings from among other things development. There has been a concern that because of the island’s popularity some of the older structures could be, as they have in the past, razed to make room for newer more modern homes. According to an article in the Post and Courier in 2004 by Robert Behre the Town Council of Sullivan’s Island has created historic districts on the island to help oversee these changes so that they can ensure that the historic integrity of the island is not compromised.