Mosquitoes are most likely responsible for the establishment of Pawleys Island as one of the nation’s oldest beach resorts.
Although it is also likely the local Waccamaw, Pee Dee and Wee Nee Indians were attracted to the island for its cool ocean breezes and abundant seafood, it was the European settlers who built the first getaway houses there.
Mosquitoes aplenty no doubt already abided in the wetlands of the Waccamaw Neck, but the addition of rice fields, which were kept flooded most of the growing season, provided ideal breeding grounds for the pests.
The planter families developed the custom of fleeing the plantations during that time of year to avoid the fevers now known as malaria, which they did not know were caused by the mosquitoes.
Many planters had homes in Charleston as well as in the Upstate or in a planter colony that developed in the Midlands near present-day Wedgefield in what was then known as the High Hills of the Santee. But many of the Waccamaw Neck planters simply decamped to nearby Pawleys Island, taking their cows, chickens and slaves with them.
Percival Pawley was the first European settler to develop plantations on the Waccamaw Neck. He received land grants in 1711 of a type that became the norm on the Waccamaw Neck: the land ran from the river to the sea.
It’s not certain if Percival had an island getaway. But historians say that the island itself was named for Percival’s sons George, Anthony and Percival Jr.
Over the years, the surrounding mainland region also came to have the name Pawleys Island.
Because of the loss of property records during the Civil War, it’s not certain if any of the Pawleys had a house on the island, but tradition says the historic Pawley House on the island was owned by a family member.
Islanders are proud of their historic district, designated in 1972 by the National Register of Historic Places. Most of the houses listed on the National Register of Historic Places share a distinct style of gabled roofs and wraparound porches. The style has been picked up by commercial buildings off the island, including the post office.
Most of the older houses in the historic district were built in the 1840s as the rice planters amassed their fortunes. The South Causeway was built by slaves in 1846 under the direction of planter R.F.W. Allston.
Some island property owners had colorful histories.
Joshua John Ward was at one time the largest slaveholder in the country, with more than 1,000 working his plantations.
The owner of Liberty Lodge, one of the historic houses, he is said to be the inventor of the Pawleys Island Rope Hammock.
Plowden C.J. Weston, owner of what is now known as the Pelican Inn, was a noted apologist for the slave system and became a captain during the Civil War.
The local economy went into the doldrums after the Civil War and rice growing moved to other parts of the country where it could be done more cheaply.
The economy and the popularity of Pawleys Island picked up again around 1900 when Atlantic Coast Lumber Co. built its huge factory in Georgetown. The site is now occupied by Arcelor Mittal’s steel mill.
Atlantic Coast Lumber wanted to help its hundreds of employees enjoy the beach, so in 1902 the company built a railroad from Hagley Landing to the island, running along the South Causeway. Passengers came up from Georgetown on a paddle wheeler to Hagley.
The hurricane of 1906 damaged the railroad so badly it was discontinued, but Pawleys kept its place as a draw for vacationers.
A few inns opened to accommodate vacationers, but there was never a large hotel. Today the Sea View Inn, built in 1937, is still operating, as is the Pelican Inn, built in 1858.
There is no other commercial business on the island.
When property owners heard talk of large chain hotels considering vacant land on the island, they incorporated as a town in 1986 and passed ordinances forbidding commercial establishments. The slogan was “Keep Pawleys as it is.”
Some of the houses are available for rent, as are a few timeshares and condos, but there are no hotels or restaurants. Visitors must go across the causeways for those activities.
Though it’s a bustling commercial area now, until the 1950s there was little along Ocean Highway. One of the first was the Pawleys Island Hammock Shop, built in 1935 to showcase the product. It became the center of the Waccamaw Neck’s first shopping area.
Farther inland, closer to the year-round residences, is All Saints’ Waccamaw Episcopal Church. The congregation was formed in 1739, and its campus of older buildings, the cemetery and rectory are all on the National Register of Historic Places.
The rectory, built in 1822, is one of the few antebellum homes that still stand on the Waccamaw Neck. The National Registry account says it is “an intact example of a Carolina House.”
Hurricanes have not been kind to Pawleys Island. During both Hazel in 1954 and Hugo in 1989, the raging ocean cut through the south end of the island, but it was repaired.
Years ago, adoring visitors and property owners dubbed the island “arrogantly shabby.” For those fans of the island, it is as much a place in the heart as a place on the land. Those folks may be seen at the annual “Pawleys Pavilion Reunion,” which celebrates the much-loved pavilion that burned down in 1970.