First Families of Hilton Head: The Aikens

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Following genealogical bread crumbs leading us into the mysteries of the past can be a fascinating way to look into the lives of others. A genealogical paper trail that reveals the past can provide an important context for present realities; it allows you to know people differently.

Researching Gullah families has been rewarding in my role of an amateur genealogist, but it has sometimes been disappointing because of the difficulty of finding solid sources of ancestral information. For some families, there are mounds of good information that allows you to connect the dots so to speak; to reconstruct the past in ways that establish a firm foundation for the present. For other families, details from the past are sparse, and family connections sometimes become a matter of speculation.

Recently, a friend called me a genealogist. Believe it or not, it’s not a title that I would consider for myself. I think that amateur sleuth seems a more fitting description of what I do. I have always enjoyed a good puzzle, which is why the Aiken family has been such a great family to research.  

Looking into the Aiken name fortunately and unfortunately was an easy process. The Aiken name is common in South Carolina for a few reasons. Of course, if you are familiar with state geography, you already know that there is an Aiken county as well as the city of Aiken.

Founded in 1835, the city was named after William Aiken Jr., who was the 61st governor of South Carolina, a president of the South Carolina Railroad, a member of the state legislature, as well as a member of the U. S. Congress. William Aiken Jr. was also distinguished because he was one of the largest slave-owners in the state and in the country. He owned over 700 slaves, which put his name on America’s top 10 list of slave owners.

William Aiken Jr. was one of the South Carolina’s wealthiest citizens. Included among his assets was Jehossee Island. The island included the largest rice plantation in the state, with more than 1,500 acres, producing approximately 1.5 million pounds of rice a year. William Aiken Jr.’s 700 slaves made it possible for him to operate his expansive holdings.

It was clear from the beginning of my research on the Aiken family that there was a large genealogy footprint for me to investigate. Some of the available information came directly from official records, as well as their detailed reconstruction of their own past. This made me aware of the strong Aiken family pride. Pride in ancestors who survived slavery and embraced freedom, citizenship and self-sufficiency. Pride in the accomplishment of working for and owning their own land. Pride in the Aiken name which is today memorialized on the street where some of them still live, Aiken Place.

Clearly my research was uncovering the fact that the Aiken family was a family who strived to achieve all they could, often under very difficult circumstances. When I first asked the family how far back they could trace their family roots, I was told about James Aiken, who was born in 1871. However, when I began my research, I was not only able to find James, but also his father Joseph Goodwin Aiken, who was born in Bluffton in 1831. Remarkably, I was also able to find his father Moses Aiken, and his mother, Abby. Using the extensive archives available at the Heritage Library, I found Joseph’s siblings: a brother Monday Butler, and two sisters, Mary Ann Stuart and Patty Brown. This information was available because they were all listed on his Freedman’s Bank Account registration, dated March 20, 1869.

In addition to finding Joseph’s family, I found a strong possible data match, based on location and birth year, for a Joseph Goodwin (aka Jessie “Joseph” Goodwin Aiken) in the 1850 Federal Census – Slave Schedule.  It’s was an incredible find, because it’s extremely rare for actual slave names to be listed in a slave schedule; normally it only categorizes the slaves by male/female, age, sex, color. It also lists the number of slaves that someone owns.

Great great great granddaughter, Lillian Aiken Davis, tells the story of a harrowing life and death experience that was passed down through the family. She said that Joseph and his family made the dangerous decision to escape enslavement and seek their freedom on Hilton Head Island. As they crossed the water to Hilton Head, they had to muffle the sounds of their infant child because all of their lives were at risk.

Once Joseph and his family arrived on Hilton Head Island, he knew that protecting his family meant continuing to fight for their freedom, so Joseph enlisted in the army on April 12, 1864. He served in the Union Army’s Colored Troop Company G in the 2nd Light Artillery Regiment. Traditionally, Colored Troop regiments were not involved in active combat; however, the Company G was responsible for post and garrison duty on Hilton Head and in Beaufort. Joseph’s son, Peter, also fought in the Civil War, and was listed as the bugler for Company D in the 34th Regiment.

Over time, the Aiken family made their home in Hilton Head’s historic Mitchelville, but eventually moved to the island’s Gardner community, which is now known as Indigo Run.

The Aiken’s were here on Hilton Head Island, prior to Emancipation. Their family lived in Mitchelville, the first self-governed town for freedmen in the United States. Joseph’s daughter, Martha, along with an infant, who was probably her daughter, Jane, were also listed as Mitchelville residents. During that time, Mitchelville was a bustling, fully-functioning town, where residents were given land to farm. Compulsory education was a town requirement which ultimately set the standard for the state and the nation. By 1868, within three years of Emancipation, Joseph and his son Peter registered to vote in the Bluffton Hilton Head Electoral District. It is interesting to note that in the in the 1870 census, Peter Aiken reported himself as being able to read. This is significant because before Emancipation, attaining literacy was usually a clandestine activity because being literate and a slave was against the law in some states. It has been estimated that by 1865, only nine percent of slaves displayed some degree of literacy. And yet, the Aikens knew that knowledge was power. They also knew that, to a large degree, their lives and the lives of the future generations depended on education.

Joseph and his siblings built their lives around living off the land and the sea as most other islanders did. However, according to census records, by 1870, the Aikens were successful enough to list their wives as housewives, rather than as farm workers, which meant that the heads of the Aikens’ households were self-sufficient enough to be the sole providers for the family, and did not need additional farm help from the female members of the family.  

Family pride is evident in how the Aikens family lived their lives. They showed pride in land ownership; pride in self-sufficiency; pride in serving in the militia; pride in the hard work they did to secure themselves to the land they loved. They made sure they were counted and recognized for their accomplishments, and this is evidenced by military records and other census documents. The family worked hard to become a successful and integral part of life on Hilton Head Island.       

The 1890, Veterans Schedule lists Joseph Aiken as deceased. However, during his life, he established a powerful legacy linking success to hard work and literacy. By the 1900 census, all of the family members over 10 years old were listed as able to read and most of them could write.  Roughly 50 years later, the family proudly celebrated its first college graduate from Savannah State, great great great granddaughter, Julia Grant Thomas, who became an educator, paving the way for countless other Aiken family graduates to come.    

Joseph’s belief in the power of education continued to be handed down through the generations. His son James Aiken, also known as “Poppa James,” is described by his granddaughter Lillian Aiken Davis as a “highly intelligent person” who was well respected, kind and religious. According to her, he was a strong and generous man, and if someone needed something, if he had it to give, it was given.

James knew the Bible well and would often step in to preach at First African Baptist Church when the preacher wasn’t available. As a child, Lillian Aiken Davis remembers him teaching all of the children how to read and spell; these were lessons he learned from his father Joseph.  She said, her grandfather may not have had “book smarts,” but he was very smart and “knew what he needed to do to be successful.”

One lesson that Lillian remembers very well was on the importance of saving money. He always stressed the value in saving money to buy property, “not stuff.  Always save something. If you make a dollar, then save a dime. Always put some money away,” said great grandson, Carl Davis. Lillian added that her grandfather was perceptive enough to know that “once the bridge came that the island would never be the same.”  He was right.

James was wise, and had a strong drive to be successful; he understood that change was coming, and he realized how important it was to establish a link to the mainland. “He loved to be on the water. We all knew that when he pulled his cap back, that he was leaving the farm to go on the water,” says Lillian. James and his son William Aiken, born in 1894, were seasoned sailors, who were known for operating their sailboats to transport their crops of cotton, watermelon and oysters to Savannah to sell. William made regular weekly trips on his 22-foot sailboat named the Pelican. The 25-mile trip between the Broad Creek landing and the Savannah markets created a necessary economic connection between the island and the mainland which enabled the Aikens and other island residents to sell their produce in Savannah.

Members of the Aiken family proudly share stories of James’ experiences on the water during turbulent weather. He told family members: “If the weather would ever catch me in the sound, I’d just try to get ‘cross then lay over on Daufuskie till it breaks. If it stormed for a long time the freight might spoil, but I couldn’t help it.”  

James had a favorite spot for oysters where the bed produced a larger catch. “He never shared the location,” Lillian told me.  She then went on to tell about a time when James was stranded on the water for five agonizing days. Strong winds made it impossible for his sailboat to make it back to shore. When he finally made it back home, his wife Annie, who had been sick with worry, cut up the sail to his boat, so that he would not sail anymore.

The 57th Annual Aiken Family Reunion is this month, and it is one of the largest family gatherings on the Hilton Head Island. Well over 200 family members come from around the country to reconnect, and recommit to the value of maintaining strong family ties. 

The Aiken family has adopted the symbol of the mythic Sankofa bird, which is attributed to the Akan people of West Africa. The bird is depicted as flying forward while looking backward with an egg (symbolizing the future) in its mouth. The message is that “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot. One must go back to their roots in order to move forward.”  

Although the Aiken Family is now spread out across the United States, their roots were firmly planted on Hilton Head Island generations ago. On the island, some of the Aiken’s still live on Aiken Place. Like the mythic Sankofa, the Aiken’s are continuing to move forward while embracing their past and their prominent place in Hilton Head’s history.