Though little known to most Americans, the Port Royal Sound area is not only one of the largest natural harbors on the East Coast, it’s one of the nation’s most historic places. It’s a fact made all the more maddening in how little of that history remains.
This was the site of the second landing by the Spanish on the North American continent, the expedition of Captain Pedro de Salazar in 1514. (Ponce de Leon’s more famous landing at St. Augustine was but a year earlier.) A Spanish slaver named Francisco Cordillo (sometimes spelled Gordillo) made a brief stop in 1521, long enough to name the area Santa Elena—one of the oldest European place names in America.
Port Royal Sound didn’t get its modern name until the first serious attempt at a permanent settlement, Jean Ribault’s exploration in 1562. Though ultimately disastrous, Ribault’s historic expedition was the first French settlement in America, named Charlesfort. Ribault returned to France for reinforcements to find his country in an all-out religious civil war. He sought safety in England only to be clapped in the Tower of London.
Meanwhile his soldiers at Charlesfort became restive and essentially revolted against their absentee commander, with most moving to a subsequent French settlement, Fort Caroline, near present-day Jacksonville, Florida. In a twist straight out of Hollywood, in 1565 Fort Caroline bought food and a ship to return to France from a passing vessel, which turned out to be commanded by the infamous English privateer John Hawkins. While the French waited for a favorable wind for the trip home, who should arrive but none other than Jean Ribault himself, fresh out of prison and at the head of 600 French soldiers and settlers sent to rescue his colony!
In yet another unlikely development, a Spanish fleet soon appeared, intent on driving the French out for good. Ribault went on the offensive, intending to mount a preemptive attack on the Spanish base at St. Augustine. However, a storm wrecked the French ships and Ribault was washed ashore near St. Augustine and killed by waiting Spanish troops.
As if the whole story couldn’t get any stranger, back at Charlesfort things had become so desperate for the 27 original colonists who stayed behind that they decided to build a ship to sail back home to France—technically the first ship built in America for a transatlantic crossing. The vessel made it across the Atlantic, but not without price; running out of food, the French soldiers began eating shoe leather before moving on, so the accounts say, to eating each other. Twenty survivors were rescued in the English Channel.
After the French faded from the scene, Spaniards came to garrison Santa Elena. But steady Indian attacks and Francis Drake’s attack on St. Augustine forced the Spanish to abandon the area in 1587. Within the next generation British indigo planters had established a firm presence in the Port Royal  area, chief among them John “Tuscarora Jack” Barnwell of Port Royal Island and Thomas Nairn of St. Helena. These men would go on to found the town of Beaufort , named for Henry Somerset, Duke of Beaufort, and it was chartered in 1711 as part of the original Carolina colony.
In 1776, Beaufort planter Thomas Heyward Jr. signed the Declaration of Independence. After independence was gained, Lowcountry  planters turned to cotton as the main cash crop, since England had been their prime customer for indigo. The gambit paid off, and Beaufort soon became one of the wealthiest and highest-regarded towns in the new nation.
The so-called “Golden Age” of Sea Island cotton saw storm clouds gather on the horizon as the Lowcountry became the hotbed of secession, with the very first Ordinance of Secession being drawn up in Beaufort’s Milton Maxey House. Only seven months after secessionists fired on Fort Sumter  in nearby Charleston in 1861, a huge Union fleet sailed into Port Royal  and occupied Hilton Head , Beaufort , and the rest of the Lowcountry  for the duration of the war—a relatively uneventful occupation that ensured that many of the classic homes would survive.
Gradually evolving their own distinct dialect and culture, much of it linked to their West African roots, isolated Lowcountry African Americans became known as the Gullah . Evolving from an effort by abolitionist missionaries early in the Civil War, in 1864 the Penn School was formed on St. Helena Island specifically to teach the children of the Gullah communities. Now known as the Penn Center , the facility has been a beacon for the study of this aspect of African American culture ever since.
The 20th century ushered in a time of increased dependence on military spending, with the opening of a training facility on Parris Island  in the 1880s (the Marines didn’t begin training recruits there until 1915). The Lowcountry got a further boost from wartime spending in the ’40s. Parris Island, already thriving as a Marine hub, was joined by the Marine Corps Naval Air Station in nearby Beaufort in 1942. In 1949, the Naval Hospital opened.
Today, the tourism industry has joined the military as a major economic driver in the Lowcountry. Hollywood discovered its charms as well, in a series of critical and box-office hits like The Big Chill, The Prince of Tides, and Forrest Gump.