Beaufort's best

9 most influential Beaufortonians might surprise you
By JEFF KIDD  |  |  843-706-8175

The city's history is replete with tales of greatness, in which warriors, statesmen, activists, business people and men of the cloth play integral roles.

Identifying the greatest among them is quite a tall order, but The Beaufort Gazette thinks it is up to the challenge — well, with a little help from some friends who graciously donated their time and expertise. We assembled a panel of nine people to pick the "Nine Most Influential People in Beaufort's History."

The goal was to recognize those whose actions made the city of Beaufort what it is today. This criteria meant some pretty important people didn't even make the ballot.

Boxer Joe Frazier, for example, is probably the most famous person associated with this area in the 20th century, but he made his fortune outside the area and was from Burton to boot. Sheriff J.E. McTeer is another highly noteworthy person, who for at least part of his life lived within the city limits. However, by virtue of his job, his greatest influence was exerted over unincorporated areas of Beaufort County and was thus, excluded.

And still the field of candidates was vast.

We picked three people from each of the three centuries that followed the city's 1711 incorporation. Here are the results:

John "Tuscarora Jack" Barnwell (1671–1724) — John Barnwell was an Irishman who immigrated to colonial South Carolina in 1701. A skilled cartographer, Barnwell literally and figuratively put Beaufort on the map, according to a family history by Elizabeth Barnwell Gough. He also was patriarch of a family that influenced Beaufort politically, socially and economically for generations.

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Barnwell's first contact with the area was in 1703, when he was directed to map Port Royal Sound, Gough wrote. Often a part of expeditions against the Spanish and French, Barnwell continued to map the region, eventually making "the great mother map of the American southeast from which all subsequent maps of the area were made."

In 1711, he was put in command of militia and 500 Indians, mostly Yemassee, to stand up to Tuscarora Indians who had been raiding English settlements in what is now North Carolina. Outnumbered, under-provisioned and contending with poor discipline and a harsh winter, Barnwell's force nevertheless routed the Tuscarora. The success of his mission and his status as the Carolinas' most experienced Indian fighter earned him his nickname, "Tuscarora Jack."

When South Carolina overthrew the colonial proprietors and arranged to become a royal colony, Barnwell was dispatched to London to represent the colony and help earn the crown's sanction for the new government.

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About four years later, his allies, the Yemassee, turned against the English. For years, Barnwell and Port Royal neighbor, planter and Indian agent Thomas Nairne had warned that policy toward the Indians was exploitative and inspiring revolt, according to Gough. Their warnings proved correct on Good Friday 1715, when the Yemassee, Creeks, Choctaws and Catawbas struck at Pocotaligo Town. A handful escaped the massacre, fleeing to Barnwell's plantation. Alerted to the uprising, 300 colonists fled to Beaufort and crowded aboard a ship. Among the passengers was Barnwell's 10-year-old son, Nathaniel. More than 400 settlers, though, were slaughtered. Barnwell again was called to repel Indians, this time pushing his former allies into Florida.

In 1721 Barnwell had a fortified outpost, named Fort King George, on the Altamaha River, in an attempt to check the Spanish influence on the region and its Indians. He was never able to achieve a renewal of the old Yemassee-British alliance, according to "The Dictionary of American Biography," but he had helped secure a future for Beaufort.

Thomas Nairne (unknown-1715) — A settler of Stuart Town and St. Helena Island, Nairne was one of five people commissioned by the S.C. Commons House of Assembly in 1707 to maintain and develop roads, bridges and creek cuts south of St. Helena Sound. He later lobbied South Carolina's lord proprietors in London to lay out plans for a town in the Port Royal area. In 1711, that request was granted, and what became the city of Beaufort was created as an outlet for naval stores, cattle, crops and scout boats exploring interior waters.

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Nairne was appointed to develop border watches on local plantations and in 1707 was named commissioner of Indian affairs for South Carolina, according to Alexia Jones Helsley's 2005 book "Beaufort, South Carolina: A History." In November 1711, Nairne, John Barnwell and three others laid out a 16-foot-wide roadway from the islands of St. Helena and Port Royal to the Ashepoo. Between 1711 and 1714, a road was cut across Port Royal Island, linking Beaufort to the Combahee River and making transportation in and out of Beaufort no longer entirely dependent upon waterways.

Nairne was killed in 1715 while negotiating with the Yemassee Indians at Pocotaligo. They met peacefully on the first night, but in the morning, the unsuspecting party was rounded up. Some were killed immediately. Nairne, who had advocated fair treatment of the Indians, was tortured for four days before dying, according to Helsley.

William Elliott (1717-1783) — Patriarch of one of Beaufort's leading families, he was a part of the St. Helena Parish delegation that ratified the U.S. Constitution for South Carolina. He also was in charge of the Port Republic Bridge Co., which helped connect Port Royal Island with the mainland, building two causeways joined by a rope-pulled ferry.

Elliott's principal contribution was the introduction of large-scale production of sea island cotton at his Myrtle Bank Plantation on Hilton Head Island in 1790. This was an economic revolution for South Carolina and helped bring prosperity to the city of Beaufort.

Robert Smalls (1839-1915) — Smalls was a slave who became a Civil War hero, sea captain and key Reconstruction-era politician.

Smalls lived in the John McKee household until 1851, when his master sent him to work for a Charleston resident, where he lived until the outbreak of the Civil War. He earned fame — and freed himself and his family from slavery — on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship, the USS Planter, to freedom in Charleston Harbor. Smalls had been part of the crew for the Planter, which supplied the forts in and around Charleston Harbor. On the night of his daring deed, while the white ship captain spent the evening in the city, Smalls and the other slave crewmen brought their families aboard. Smalls then piloted the vessel out of the harbor and turned the ship over to the Union Navy.

After the war, Smalls parlayed that folkhero status into a political career. He was elected to the state Constitutional Convention of 1868, then the state General Assembly, followed by the state Senate. In 1874, Smalls was elected to the U.S. Congress and served five terms. He also served as customs collector for Beaufort from 1889 to 1913 and died in 1915. Smalls purchased the house in which he had lived as a slave at a tax sale in 1863, and he and his descendants occupied the property until his death.

Robert Barnwell Rhett (1800-1876) — Often called the father of secession, he was born Robert Barnwell Smith in Beaufort. He changed his name after entering public life, to match that of a prominent colonial ancestor, Col. William Rhett. He studied law and became a member of the South Carolina legislature in 1826. After his state legislative service, Rhett was South Carolina's attorney general, a U.S. representative and a U.S. senator. Extremely pro-South in his views, he split with John C. Calhoun in 1844 to lead the Bluffton Movement for separate state action on the Tariff of 1842, according to the Gale Encyclopedia of Biography.

Rhett was one of the leading "fire-eaters" — a contingent of fervent secessionists — at the Nashville Convention of 1850, which failed to endorse his aim of Southern separation. When South Carolina passed an ordinance in 1852 that merely declared a state's right to secede, Rhett resigned his Senate seat, arguing the measure didn't go far enough. He continued to express his fiery secessionist sentiments through the Charleston Mercury newspaper edited by his son, Robert Barnwell Rhett Jr.

When South Carolina did secede, Rhett was part of the Montgomery Convention convened to organize a provisional government for the Confederacy. He was one of the most active delegates and was chairman of the committee that formulated the Confederate Constitution. Subsequently, he was elected a member of the lower house of the Confederate Congress. When he achieved no higher office in the Confederate government, he returned to South Carolina where he sharply criticized the policies of Confederate President Jefferson Davis of Mississippi.

After the war, he settled in Louisiana, where he died in 1876. He was buried in Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery.

Stephen Elliott (1771-1830) — Elliott was an American legislator, banker, educator and botanist, who still is recognized for having written one of the most important works in American botany, according to his biography at In several installments from 1816 to 1824, he published “A Sketch of the Botany of South-Carolina and Georgia.”

In 1900, Science magazine described him as “the father of southern botany.”

Elliott was born and reared in Beaufort, then moved to New Haven, Conn., to attend Yale University. He graduated in 1791 as valedictorian.

He returned to South Carolina to work on a plantation he had inherited. He was elected to the legislature in South Carolina in 1793 or 1796 (sources disagree) and served until about 1800. He then left the legislature and devoted himself to managing his plantation and studying botany.

Elliott was re-elected to the legislature in 1808. He helped found a state bank in 1812. He resigned from the legislature and was appointed president of the Bank of the State of South Carolina. He held that position for the rest of his life. In addition, he taught botany and natural history at the Medical College of South Carolina until his death in 1830.

Brantley Harvey Jr. (1930-present) — Harvey is a Beaufort lawyer, elected to the state House of Representatives in 1958 and elected lieutenant governor of South Carolina in 1974. He has served on and was chairman of several governmental boards and nonprofit organizations, including the Rotary Club of Beaufort.

As a teenager, Harvey was a laborer who helped build the Beaufort Naval Hospital; as a young adult working for his father’s law firm, he helped certify the property titles that cleared the way for the creation of the modern Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort.

Harvey spent 16 years in the state legislature and four as lieutenant governor. During those two decades in Columbia, he fortified home rule and local government autonomy and helped Beaufort land a University of South Carolina branch and the Technical College of the Lowcountry.

Long after his exit from state politics, he was a proponent of the University of South Carolina Beaufort’s drive to grant four-year degrees and expand to its Hilton Head Gateway campus. In 1998, he and his wife, Helen, donated $1 million for the new USCB campus and $400,000 to the USC Law School.

Henry C. Chambers (1928-present) — Henry C. Chambers is a great-grandson of Reconstruction merchant-king Moritz Pollitzer and a fifth-generation Beaufortonian.

A graduate of Clemson University and a veteran of the Korean War, he is active in community affairs, past president of the United Way, active in the Boy Scouts, a founder of the local Boys & Girls Clubs and recipient of numerous honors and awards for community service.

However, he is best known as Beaufort’s longtime mayor. He presided over many ambitious projects, including new sewer and road infrastructure and the waterfront park that bears his name, helping transform Beaufort’s tourism industry.

Sen. James Waddell (1922-2003) — Representing Beaufort and Jasper counties, Waddell served in the General Assembly for more than 15 years before resigning from the Senate in 1992 to accept an appointment by Gov. Carroll Campbell as one of three members of the S.C. Tax Commission, according to the University of South Carolina. Waddell was born in Boydell, Ark., and attended The Citadel. He joined the Army, served in World War II and earned the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.

He later was a general agent with Pilot Life Insurance and president of Landmark Insurance Group in Beaufort. Waddell was elected to the S.C. House as a Democrat in 1954. He served until 1958, when he left to manage the successful gubernatorial campaign of Ernest “Fritz” Hollings.

On his return to the General Assembly, Waddell’s power and influence grew steadily. Legislation with which he is associated includes the Heritage Trust Act of 1976 and Coastal Zone Management Act of 1977.

Waddell was founder and chairman of the S.C. Coastal Council, now the Office of Ocean and Coastal Resource Management. He also was a major force in creating the Sea Grant Consortium on South Carolina and establishing the Waddell Mariculture Research and Development Center in greater Bluffton. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter appointed Waddell to the National Advisory Committee on Oceans and Atmosphere. When he resigned from the state Senate in January 1992, he was second in seniority.