A History of Kiawah Island
Today’s Kiawah Island, with its world-class golf, tennis, and beaches, has become a much sought-after vacation destination. The lavish vacation homes, real estate, and resorts allow couples and families to enjoy a lush and beautiful island that seems to have been created just for this purpose. But the history of Kiawah Island is fascinating, and in it, we can find clues that tell the story of how the island evolved to become the vacation haven that is enjoyed today.
The earliest people to inhabit the island were the Kiawah Indians, which gives the Island its name. They lived in scattered villages on the mainland and barrier islands around Charleston. The Kiawah people were a hunter-gatherer society, using dugout canoes to travel the creeks, rivers, and marshes where they hunted and fished.
It was the Kiawah Indians who encouraged the first English colonists to settle the Charles Town (now Charleston) Harbor area, rather than Port Royal. They first befriended the settlers in 1670, and in 1675, were convinced to sell the land of Kiawah Island for nothing more than “cloth, hatchets, beads, & other goods”.
Enter one Captain George Raynor. Raynor was a pirate who kept two ships, and made his home anchorage in Old Dock Creek, a small creek on the backside of Kiawah Island. He used his fast ships to “patrol” the waters of the area, and was quite successful. In September, 1682, after a hurricane passed the coast, Raynor took his ships south, hoping to find a scattered Spanish convoy. He did, and three weeks later, he arrived in Charles Town a very rich man, finished with pirating.
In order to enter civil society, and dispel the ‘myth’ of his pirate past, he gave generously to charities and causes, and in 1699 the Lords Proprietors granted Raynor his hiding place, Kiawah Island. Rumors of pirate gold buried on the island exist today. Raynor sold half of his land to a Captain William Davis, and after his death, the original half was passed down to his daughter, Mary Raynor Moore.
By 1737, a wealthy planter named John Stanyarne had purchased both halves of the island, and began a cattle ranching and indigo plantation. At the time of his death in 1772, his will divided the island between his two granddaughters. Mary Gibbs received the western half, and Elizabeth Vanderhorst the east. The Vanderhorst Plantation, today the site of an exclusive gated luxury community and famous golf courses, was destroyed by the British in 1780 during the American Revolution. The Plantation house was rebuilt in 1801.
In 1900, a surviving member of the Vanderhorst family purchased the western half of the island, and again the island was under single ownership. In 1911 a daily boat service to the island had begun, bringing supplies to and from Charleston. In 1950, businessman C.C. Royal purchased the island to be used for logging. He paid $125,000. Royal had built a few vacation homes on Kiawah Island by 1954, after seeing the potential for a premiere vacation destination. That vacation rental potential led Royal to sell Kiawah Island in 1974, for a profit of $18 million. Kiawah was on its way to becoming a premier Lowcountry destination with an abundance of luxury vacation rentals.
In 1976 the island’s first hotel, the Kiawah Island Inn, opened its doors, and a number of luxury vacation homes were built at this time. The Cougar Point Golf Course, designed by beloved golfer Gary Player, opened that same year, and golfers soon rushed to the island.
Kiawah was incorporated as a town in 1988, and Kiawah Island real estate development continued to flourish through the 80’s and 90’s. The second Hotel on the Island, The Sanctuary, was opened in 2004, to accommodate the influx of vacationers and golfers. Kiawah Island has established itself as a world-class vacation destination for both golfers and beach enthusiasts, and in 2012, the Ocean Course, on the Eastern end of the island, was chosen to host the PGA Championships.