In 1756 Benjamin Holden purchased four tracks of land in Brunswick County from Royal Governor Arthur Dobbs, including inland tracks along the Lockwood Folly River and the nearby southward-facing island. Successive generations of the Holden family utilized the land for farming and fishing. In the early 1920s John Holden partitioned a section of the land as Holden Beach Resort, marking the first subdivision of beach property in Brunswick County. Soon thereafter, the family tried to build a bridge to the 3.4 square mile island, but the dredging of the IntraCoastal Waterway destroyed the endeavor. In 1934 a ferry began to operate between the mainland and the island. The next two generations of the Holden family built a hotel near the ferry launch, began construction of vacation rental cottages on the island, and by the 1940s the had expanded their operations to building and selling homes on the island. In the early 1940s homes with ocean front lots sold for less than $650. Development of the island slowed throughout the 1950s and most of the 1960s. The island was incorporated in 1969. In 1986 construction was finished on a new S-shaped high-rise steel and concrete bridge, easing access to the almost 2,000 homes on the island and spurring tourism. To this day the Holden family remains deeply involved in the life of the island.
Holden Beach has less than 900 full-time residents, but as with other Brunswick County islands its population expands over ten-fold during the summer months. There are few a retail businesses on the island, though restaurants, family venues, and retail stores abound on the mainland and in nearby Shallotte (a short 10-minute drive away). Due to the low-profile of commerce on Holden Beach, the island has been often touted as one of the premier "family beaches" in the nation. There is also a partition on the island, separating the private West Holden Beach, from the other, much larger part of the island that is accessible to the public.