St. Helena Island is one of the Sea Islands in Beaufort County, South Carolina that are historic sites of early European colonization of North America. St. Helena is also the center of African-American Gullah culture and language. It is sometimes claimed to be the oldest settlement in the United States.
The island is surrounded by expansive marshes, particularly along the southeastern side of the island. It is the largest Sea Island in the Beaufort area and is the largest island between Edisto Island and Hilton Head Island along the South Carolina coast. The island is informally divided into several different communities, each with their own distinct identities. The two most established communities on the island are Frogmore and Lands End.
The first European to explore St. Helena was most likely Spanish explorer Lucas Vazquez de Ayllón around 1520, as part of the Spanish exploration and colonization of the Sea Islands. Deepwater Port Royal was established as the center of the area, and at one time was the capital of the entire Spanish colony of Florida. The area was later colonized by the French; the Spanish again, then finally fell into English hands, who occupied it until the American Revolution. The Sea Islands were the sites of numerous early forts, One, Fort Fremont is located at Lands End on the southern tip of St. Helena. Across Saint Helena Sound is Parris Island, site of several more historic forts that have been sites of extensive archaeological digs. The forts were established to protect Port Royal.
The historic Penn Center, established in 1862 as a school for freed slaves, is one of the nation's most historically significant African-American educational and cultural institutions. In recent times it was an important meeting center for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose Southern Christian Leadership Conference met on the Penn campus. In 1974, the U.S. Department of the Interior named Penn Center a National Historic Landmark.