Port Royal is located on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway at the head of Port Royal Sound in Beaufort County, South Carolina. It is at the southern tip of Port Royal Island, one of South Carolina's Sea Islands. Port Royal is about 70 nautical miles (87 kilometers or 54 miles) southwest of the Port of Charleston. Port Royal is also about 44 nautical miles (50 kilometers or 31 miles) northeast of the Port of Savannah, Georgia. Port Royal is part of the Hilton Head Island-Beaufort metropolitan area. The Port Royal economy is based on light industry, tourism, and the US Marine Corps facility at Parris Island that Port Royal annexed in 2002. In 2010, Port Royal was home to over 10.6 thousand people.
When Europeans arrived in the area in the late 16th Century, the Cusabo people lived along the coast of what is now South Carolina. The Cusabo had relatively friendly relations with European settlers that lasted until the early 1700s. They were somewhat integrated into South Carolina society, although they lived in their own villages. In fact, they traded protecting the white settlements for money, goods, and weapons. They sold game meat to the colonists and captured run-away African slaves.
In 1525, Pedro de Salazar landed at Port Royal. Lucas de Allyon soon followed to build the first European fort in North America. Unfortunately, he died with many of his men during their first winter. Spain continued to use the area as an important anchorage for their explorations. In 1562, French Captain Jean Ribaut and about 50 Huguenots sailed up what they called the Port Royal River and built Charles Forte on today's Parris Island, leaving 30 settlers there. In 1565, King Philip II of Spain sent a squadron to destroy the French settlement. A year after destroying the fort, the Spanish returned to establish their own fort and made St. Helena Island the capital of what was then Spanish Florida.
In 1629, Charles I of England granted a large region that is now the Carolinas, Georgia, and much of Florida to Sir Robert Heath. However, the English did not try to colonize the area at that time. In 1663, England's Captain William Hilton raised England's flag over St. Helena Sound. (Later, Hilton Head Island was named for him.) In 1670, Charles II rewarded some of his friends who had helped restore the Crown by giving them territory that included Port Royal.
In 1684, almost 150 Scot Presbyterians came to Port Royal to build Stuart Town. The Spanish burned the infant town in 1686. In 1710, the town of Beaufort was built on Port Royal Island, but the English settlers were hindered by Indians, the French, the Spanish, and pirates. Many lives were lost to epidemics of yellow fever, smallpox, and hurricanes.
In 1712, the colony granted Palawana Island, near Port Royal Island, to the Cusabo people, although many already lived there. During the 1715 Yamasee War, the Cusabo sided with the Colony of South Carolina. The Yamasee War, which many historians believe was the bloodiest war with Native Americans, was a year-long struggle in which many white residents were killed. After the war, many Cusabo left the area and joined the Creek or the Catawba who were further west and south. During the Yamasee War, Beaufort was all but destroyed. In 1732, the English built Fort Frederick in Port Royal near what is today a US Naval Hospital. In 1779, during the American Revolution, Captain Barnwell successfully defended Port Royal from British attack.
During the American Civil War, Port Royal was spared because Union troops occupied the town. The Port Royal was a comfortable beachhead for the Union. Some of the officers' families even moved to Port Royal from Northern States. Its status as a Union stronghold saved Port Royal from being burned by General Sherman.
During and after the Civil War, Port Royal grew. Homes and churches were built. Businesses were established that included mercantile buildings, stores selling drugs and dry goods, a bakery, a blacksmith shop, and 17 bars. The luxurious Tavern hotel was built on the waterfront, and trains were so common that there were many pedestrian accidents on the rails.
In 1891, a US Naval Station was built on nearby Parris Island, boosting the Port Royal economy. In 1893, a terrible hurricane and attendant tidal wave took many Port Royal lives. Railroad tracks and streets were washed away by the tidal wave. After the storm, a yellow fever epidemic struck Port Royal. Economic hardship followed the hurricane when Port Royal's earlier phosphate industry closed down. The US Naval Yard was moved to Charleston, and the railroad business declined. When the trucking business came to South Carolina after the birth of internal combustion engines, the last vestiges of rail traffic disappeared. Port Royal was little more than a ghost town.
Through the first half of the 20th Century, little change came to Port Royal. Small industries kept the town from completely disappearing. In 1922, large-scale shrimping arrived. In the 1930s, the Blue Channel seafood packing firm came to Port Royal. In the 1940s, the nearby Marine Corps Recruit Depot expanded, bringing more employment to Port Royal.
In 1959, the South Carolina State Ports Authority made Port Royal an active port and provided funds for dredging of the turning basin and building berth space and transit sheds. The port authority leased the facilities to the Port Royal Clay Company to export the raw material used to make porcelain and paper.
Port Royal continued to be a sleepy village until 1976 when it was made an official Bicentennial Community. Port Royal hosted many celebrations, including a parade and a carnival, and the Spirit of 76 Train visited. The events brought new life to Port Royal, inspiring restorations of the many historic buildings there and the addition of hiking trails and a boardwalk.
In 1995, a master plan for the Town of Port Royal was presented by Dover, Kohl & Partners. New areas were annexed into Port Royal, and new civic buildings were built that included a new Town Hall, fire station, and post office. Rebirth of the arts and historic properties attracts visitors from across the United States, and tourism has become an important part of the Port Royal economy.