I am an old newbie, part of the Boomerang Club. I came to Bluffton in 2004, left in 2014 for family concerns back North, and dreamed of returning every day until we made it happen in August 2020. So I have my toes dipped in the long-timer and the newbie waters, and feel I can translate concerns for both sides.
The question I get more often than any other from the current influx of newcomers is so blasphemous, I beg them to never again utter the inquiry aloud:
“Why is the May River a river?”
Heads turn, whispers begin, license plate numbers are jotted on napkins. It’s the surest sign of someone who didn’t read their orientation packet.
In the interest of not being seen adjacent to the next person to audibly insult our precious resource, let’s lay out some of the fact and fiction behind this debate.
If we want to be technical (and hear me when I say that NO ONE wants to be technical about this), the May is an inlet, a small arm of a larger body of water.
Many with bigger scientific bona fides than myself want to call the May an estuary. It’s not. An estuary is where freshwater from a river meets salt water from the ocean. The May is 100 percent salty from start to finish.
So how did this mislabeling begin? To find those answers, I turned to the man behind the You Know You’re From Bluffton When … Facebook group, a walking encyclopedia of State of Mind history, Bluffton native Michael Reynolds.
“It’s been the May River since 1668, that’s the first maps I could find with it labeled that way,” Reynolds said. “It’s always been the May River, and I don’t think they’re going to change it now.”
But even Reynolds can’t connect the dots on the “why” of it all.
He’s found and posted maps to the group that show the May River as far back as 1672, the First Lords Proprietors’ Map of Carolina – a depiction that is upside down and riddled with inaccurate depictions. A 1731 map he posted is more accurate and has the May as well. (Both maps have it listed as the River May, where others like the Ashley and the Cooper have “River” after it; this is a rabbit hole for a separate column.)
Reynolds believed the river was named by the French, as history books have them in Beaufort County as early as 1562 on a two-month voyage with 150 military men from France to Florida that turned northward toward South Carolina near the modern-day Port Royal. That crew included Jean Ribaut, a name synonymous with all things Beaufort.
But why “May”? There’s no historical relevance to the name, such as it being the name of one of the crew’s captains.
“A lot of map entities like bodies of water and cities were named after months of the year – that’s about as close to the truth as I can get on that,” Reynolds said.
Many of the earliest maps were also written in French, including the premiere references to the May.
When I’ve broached this question in private quarters around native Blufftonians I trusted not to forever shun me for raising the topic, I have often been told to think of it more of a feeling and forget the salt content of the water.
When you’re on the Sandbar, when you’re breezing past the docks at Palmetto Bluff, does it feel like an easy breeze down a river or a struggle with Mother Nature the likes of which are depicted in “The Perfect Storm”?
It’s clearly the former, often made all the more relaxing by a playful interaction with a dolphin or two. And yes, you’re about to overthink it again. Rivers are freshwater but dolphins hang out only in salt water.
Au contraire, mon frere. There are plenty of species of dolphins that hang in lakes and estuaries, according to Whale and Dolphin Conservation USA. But your overthinking it interrupted the feeling, man.
The Broad River actually has some freshwater in it at its headwaters near Coosawatchie. The New River drains out of Bill John Swamp, so it’s a river, too. So does that make the May the bastard of the mapmaking world?
Heck, no. May Inlet sounds about as natural as Murrells River, though Murrells Inlet is technically a river.
The reality is, there are inconsistencies and oddities galore in how we label landmarks around us.
The Baptist Church on S.C. 170 goes by Maye River, the only reference using the “E” that we can find on record. How’d that happen? Insert shoulder shrug emoji here.
Roll down the road a bit and you’ll come upon Gibbet Road. Reynolds has searched extensively but can’t find any families named Gibbet in the area. It’s thought to come from the French word for guillotine or gallows, even rumored that’s where the early French settlers performed executions (a notion Reynolds calls hogwash).
And for a time in the 1970s and 1980s, Gibbet Road actually was labeled Giblet Road. Reynolds remembers it well.
“Tommy Heyward used to say to whomever would listen that the county doesn’t even know what the street signs say,” Reynolds said. “Somehow, soon after, the Gibbet signs reappeared.”
The Gulf of Mexico isn’t technically a gulf, but are you going to be the one to champion that name change?
So let’s be real about it. Nobody wants to say “Save the Inlet.” Yes, the May flows into the Atlantic, but when you think ocean, you think of waves crashing against the beach. That’s not the brand of serenity we feel looking out over the May from the lawn of the Church of the Cross.
It’s more of an essence that was actually captured on one of the early French maps, which said under the May label, “where the flying fishes play.” It’s a chill vibe, a real-life Norman Rockwell painting for all of us to enjoy, so don’t mess that up with your fancy schmancy science.
Just be cool, Mr. Newbie. After all, it’s these little quirks and oddities that make Bluffton the French Riviera of the Eccentrics. In this case, there won’t be an answer, but let it be.
Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at email@example.com.