Kiawah Island is a barrier island located in Charleston County. The name Kiawah, pronounced “KEE-uh-wah” (and sometimes “KEE-wah” by locals), comes from the Kiawah Indians who originally lived here. They were a subtribe of the Cusabos, a now extinct tribe that once inhabited a large stretch of South Carolina’s coast. The chief – or Cassique – of Kiawah was responsible for leading the first English settlers to Albemarle Point (now called Charles Towne Landing), where the immigrants founded their first settlement in 1670.
Today Kiawah Island is a private residential, vacation, and golf resort with 1,700 full-time residents and up to 10,000 visitors per day during the spring-summer tourist season. A gatehouse bars entry to anyone without a pass, making it difficult for most people to access the interior of the island. Fortunately all beaches in South Carolina are public up to the high-water mark, so the island can be reached by boat. In addition, Charleston County Parks and Recreation Commission operates Beachwalker Park, a public facility which offers a small parking lot, showers, and a boardwalk leading to the shore.
Despite its population, Kiawah’s ten miles of open beach and well-developed sand dunes remain a safe haven for wildlife, including South Carolina’s state reptile, the loggerhead sea turtle. The western-most tip of Kiawah, called Captain Sam’s Spit, is one of the rare sites where people can reliably witness dolphins as they strand-feed (see below).
Vanderhorst Plantation on Kiawah Island
Long before Kiawah Island was developed into a resort, it was the site of Vanderhorst Plantation, named for founder Arnoldus Vanderhorst II. In 1675, the Lords Proprietors “traded” with the Kiawah Indians to gain control of the island. The exchange consisted of “cloth, hatchets, beads & other goods and manufacturers.” The earliest recorded date of colonial ownership was March 29, 1699, when Captain George Raynor – possibly a former pirate – was granted 2,700 acres by the Lords Proprietors. The first Vanderhorst home was built in 1780 but was destroyed by the British during the American Revolution.
Construction on the present house – seen in the painting above – began in 1801. Following the Civil War, Arnoldus Vanderhorst IV was often absent and relied on his half-brother, a former slave named Quash Stevens, to manage the property. Stevens eventually purchased his own property – Seven Oaks – on neighboring Johns Island.
During the first half of the twentieth century, Kiawah was cared for by Charlie Scott. Thomas Welch of James Island frequently visited on his boat, The Mystic. Captain Tom, as he was called, had a small cabin on Bass Creek, located on the back side of Kiawah. His son, Thomas Welch, Jr., kept free-roaming horses on the island.
The island was purchased in 1950 by C. C. Royal, who harvested a portion of the timber and recouped his investment in the first year. The first vacation home was built in 1954. A small amount of acreage around the Vanderhorst Mansion, as the home is called, has been preserved as a buffer. The home has been lavishly restored and now serves as a private residence.
More Pictures of Kiawah Island
Reflections on Kiawah Island
Back in November 2008, this shrimp trawler became stranded on Kiawah’s shore. Photographer Christian Hartsel explains, “The story goes that the captain was anchored when he went to sleep and woke up beached on Kiawah, about 75 feet from the dunes. I shot this picture the following morning, prior to the police setting up yellow caution tape. The Coast Guard and some heavy machinery pulled the boat back out to sea after it had been beached for almost a month.”