First Families of Hilton Head Island: The Bligens

People
Typography

Back row left to right: Noreen Woods, Anthony Woods, Selena Woods, Assad Woods, Sharwayne Miller, Sharon Miller, Dante Madison, Laverne Madison Front row left to right: Anthony Johnson, Vivian Woods, Jeremiah Miller, Dorothy Miller Not present: Samuel Bligen, Muriel Woods, Jerome Bligen, Karen Bligen, Elizabeth Bligen, Dawn Bligen, Melba Bligen, Linda Bligen, Ernest Holland, Todd Woods, Isaiah Woods, Ernest Nicholas Holland, Lennitt Bligen, Barbara Lew, Anthony Phillips, Dominick Phillips

The stories of the first families of Hilton Head Island have many similarities. For example, most families came to the island as slaves and decided, upon emancipation, to make Hilton Head their ancestral homes. In this regard, the Bligen family is no different. What makes the family unique, however, is that their ancestral line is richly populated with people who had the strength and the wherewithal to step out of the “norm” and face challenges that other people dare not consider.

Courage has many faces. Usually, it is motivated by a steadfast desire to achieve an objective, or it is motivated by fear of failure. But regardless of the motivation, courage tends to emerge at just the right time — at the exact moment when an extraordinary response is needed. For the Bligens, time after time and situation after situation, the family faced difficult challenges, and it was their courage and strength that allowed them to survive and prevail.

The Heritage Library Foundation documents the long history of the Bligen family. Their history can be traced as far back as 1820 when patriarch Cyrus Bligen and his wife, Tina, purchased 50 acres of land and settled in Hilton Head’s Squire Pope area. Cyrus and Tina lived on the island, and Census records list them as farmers. The assumption is that Cyrus, like most former slaves, had developed the skills and ability to work the land, and find creative ways to support his family.

For Cyrus, a former slave who began his life as a free man with nothing but the clothes on his back, to be able to buy land was a great accomplishment in itself. But his name also appears in the following documents: the 1868 South Carolina voter registration for the Bluffton/Hilton Head electoral districts, St. Luke’s Parrish; the 1868 Agricultural Census; and the 1865-72 U.S. Freedman Bureau Labor Contracts, Indenture and Apprenticeship. Those records brought Cyrus to life. The voter registration roll information was especially significant because of the courage it took for a former slave to choose to validate his manhood and his personhood by voting. Cyrus wanted to be counted as a newly recognized American citizen, one who could vote and be listed as self-employed. That epitomized the courage he had, and the pride he felt in his newly earned citizenship.

Imagine what it would be like for a recently freed slave who, after a lifetime of enslavement, submission and debasement, was willing to accept the challenge of full citizenship; of learning a new way of living and being. Most importantly, he had to develop a new way of thinking about himself in a country that had considered him less than human. For former slaves, freedom was a brand-new concept. It wasn’t something that could be defined for them in a manual or discussed openly among themselves; learning how to nurture and grow self-confidence, a sense of human dignity, pride, and self-worth, were extraordinary challenges. They had to re-define their relationship to each other and to the world outside of their community.

Cyrus’ story is continued through the lives of his two sons, Frank and Abram. They also chose to raise their families on Hilton Head Island. By the time the Civil War broke out, Abram was still legally a slave, and old enough to fight. Records show that he enlisted in the Union Army on April 25, 1863, as a private in the U.S. Colored Troops 21st Regiment, Company B. At the time, joining the Union Army and risking their lives to fight for the principle of freedom was a selfless act of bravery for slaves; they were choosing to risk dying as soldiers rather than dying as slaves.

After three years of service, the war ended and Abram and his older brother Frank wanted to continue serving and protecting their community. So in 1869, they decided to join the local militia, carrying on their father’s example of strength and courage and passing it along to their descendants, as well.

Abram’s great-grandson William Jr. is another example of determination and courage. Even though William lived in New York for several years, he was drawn to Hilton Head, and he returned to the island to build a home on the land that was passed down to him from his grandfather. He wanted to have a central place for his family to gather and live as a community; this was very important to him. Once he said that he cleared the land “so that his grandchildren would always have a place to go.” When his house was completed, he installed a plaque at the front door that reads: “In the name of Jesus Christ I, William Bligen, dedicate this house in honor of my grandfather, William Bligen, Sr. 1874-1958, who sweated & died on this land for his children to come.”

The plaque stands as a daily reminder of the struggles and sacrifices that the family endured to hold on to the land that was so dear to them.

Today, several generations have passed, and the Bligens still live on the land that Cyrus worked so hard to acquire and maintain. William Jr. spent his life as a hardworking family man, but until he turned 69, he didn’t know how to read. After spending a lifetime enduring daily embarrassment because of his illiteracy, he chose to achieve his lifelong goal of learning how to read and write. And he went on to become an author and community activist. His self-published book, “Road Out of Darkness,” describes his struggle to overcome illiteracy, his work as a tunnel builder and his experiences in the military.

Like most of the land on Hilton Head that is owned by native islanders, the Bligen land is considered to be heirs property, and as such, like many native island families, they have had to go to court to keep their land.

The Bligens have been engaged in a legal battle to keep the land in their family since 2005. Vivian Woods, a direct descendant of Cyrus Bligen, is leading the fight. Like Cyrus, Vivien has exhibited tremendous strength and courage in challenging the legal obstacles that are putting her family land at risk. However, she is working hard to navigate the legal system and is determined to keep the land in the family.

Vivian’s fight is a difficult one, but she is demonstrating the fortitude and determination of the long line of Bligens who came before her. Cyrus Bligen’s spirit continues to inspire and motivate his family.

WHAT IS HEIRS PROPERTY?

The Bligens2Land is land. Either you own it, or you don’t. Like any other asset, it has a value that can be calculated into a cost, right? Well, interestingly enough, the answer to that question varies, depending on whom you’re asking. To most people, the answer is a clear and definitive yes. However, to a member of the Gullah-Geechee community, or a native islander, the answer might be a resounding no. Confused? Let me explain. 

For 400 years, the Gullah-Geechee lived along 79 coastal Sea Islands from North Carolina to Florida and roughly 35 miles inland. The Gullah people are proud, and have a rich language and culture that has endured for generations. However, today, the Gullah culture is struggling to preserve its identity, and its identity is rooted in the land. For the Gullah people, the land symbolizes, a cultural bond that is as powerful as the island’s trees that weather every storm.

The challenge that the Gullah people face is keeping their culture alive so it won’t disappear or be forgotten. In this regard, one of the most important initiatives to validate the people and the culture was the federal establishment of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. This came about through an act of Congress on Oct. 12, 2006.

This designation highlights and recognizes, among other things, a special non-traditional and uncommon connection between the land and its people that many considered a rarity. For the Gullah-Geechee, the land is part of their identity; it represents a spiritual and cultural bond that is deeply rooted in ways that are difficult to describe.

To fully understand the complexities of heirs property, you need to examine its origins. At one time in South Carolina, the number of slaves outnumbered white slave owners. As a result, after emancipation many slaves chose to remain in the area of their enslavement. Some were given land by their owners, or they acquired abandoned land; others, through hard work and dedication, were able to purchase land. That land was transferred from relative to relative within families for generations for more than 150 years. However, that created problems because passing land down through the generations doesn’t always meet traditional contractual standards of legal ownership.

The central challenge of heirs property is that the land is not just property whose value can be fixed in traditional ways. The value is personal, and for many, it is tied to a family’s history and pride. The land is part of a family’s identity. When it is thought of in those terms, Gullah-Geechee land cannot meet standard forms of land valuation. In a real sense, the land is “priceless” because it represents the love and cohesiveness of family.  The land is not only a source pride because of the blood, sweat and tears that went into acquiring and keeping it. The older generations farmed it, lived on it, and in some cases, died to keep it in the family, making it impossible for families to place a price tag on its value.