Cumberland Island | Saint Marys, Georgia
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Wild and beautiful Cumberland is the largest island along the Georgia coast. It has been declared a National Seashore, so development here has been strictly limited. The island’s 16 miles of pristine, white-sand beaches have captivated the hearts and minds of many. Cumberland is, indeed a very special place. Its thick forests of live oak and palmettos and its beautiful, desert-like beaches leave visitors with a memory of unspoiled natural beauty which lingers, it seems, long after they have left the island.
Settlement ruins from the late 1700s and an abandoned lighthouse are among the human imprints on Cumberland. Walk in the footsteps of early natives, explorers, and wealthy industrialists. You can take a ranger guided tour or explore the island on your own in quiet solitude.
The island has three major ecosystem regions. Along the western edge of the island, there are large areas of saltwater marshes. One will also see gnarled live oak trees covered with Spanish moss and palmetto plants at the edge of Cumberland’s dense maritime forest. Cumberland Island’s most famous ecosystem is its beach, which stretches over 17 miles. The island is home to many native interesting animals, as well as non-native species. There are whitetail deer, squirrels, raccoons, armadillos, wild pigs, alligators, as well as many marshland inhabitants, and many species of birds, including the occasional bald eagle.
Cumberland Island’s first inhabitants, the Timucuan Indians were called Cumberland ‘Missoe’. They lived on the island as early as 4,000 years ago. During the time of European colonization, at least seven Mocama Indian villages were located on the island, and 11 were located on the mainland opposite the island.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Cumberland Island was part of the Mocama missionary province of Spanish Florida. The Spanish arrived in 1566, they named the island San Pedro and constructed a garrison and mission at the southern end of the named San Pedro de Mocama, which remained in operation from 1587 to 1660, and was one of the main mission towns. Another Spanish mission on Cumberland was Puturiba, which operated from 1595-1597. An additional mission was relocated from the North Newport River to the northern end of Cumberland from 1670-1684 named San Phelipe.
Historical records tell us that, until 1681, there were approximately 300 natives and Spanish missionaries living on Cumberland Island. In 1683, French pirates attacked Cumberland Island, looting and burning many of the buildings, causing many of the natives and the Spanish missionaries to flee. Another attack in 1684, by the Spanish pirate Thomas Jingle, resulted in the final abandonment of the island. Most of the Timucuans had converted to Christianity before the island was abandoned. When the Spanish left, most of the natives died of European diseases, or chose to leave as well.
English Gen. James Oglethorpe arrived at the Georgia coast in 1733. The name of Cumberland Island was given by a young Timucuan named Toonahowi, (the nephew of Chief Tomochichi who visited England with Oglethorpe.) He suggested the island be named for William Augustus, the 13-year old Duke of Cumberland.
Oglethorpe established a hunting lodge he called Dungeness, named after a headland in Kent, England. A fort was erected at the southern point of the island called Fort William. At the northern end of the island, Oglethorpe built Fort St. Andrews, and for a decade a small village named Berrimacke existed near the fort. The forts were built to defend English settlements to the north from the Spanish in Florida.
After defeating the Spanish in the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, the need for the forts evaporated, the forts were abandoned, and the village disappeared. No trace remains today of Fort William, and most signs of Fort St. Andrews have been washed away.
In the 1760s, the island was divided into royal grants but saw little activity. When naturalist William Bartram visited the island in 1774, the island was mostly uninhabited.
The Plantation Era
Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene purchased land on the island in 1783 to harvest live oaks for ship building. Wood from the island was used to build the USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides.” Greene died in 1786. His wife, Catherine, remarried Phineas Miller ten years later, and they built a huge, four-story tabby mansion on top of an Indian shell mound. She named it Dungeness after Oglethorpe’s hunting lodge. The mansion, with 6-foot thick walls at the base, featured four chimneys and 16 fireplaces and was surround by 12 acres of gardens. Dungeness was the scene of many special social galas where statesmen and military leaders enjoyed the Millers’ hospitality. When the island was briefly occupied during the War of 1812, the British used Dungeness as their headquarters.
The Millers became the first major planters on the Island. They, like many others, grew the valuable and labor-intensive Sea Island Cotton. To grow the cotton, they owned 210 slaves.
During the war of 1812, the British attempted to subvert the American economy by freeing slaves. In January 1815, a British squadron landed on Cumberland Island. The British leader, Admiral George Cockburn, set up his headquarters at the Dungeness mansion. Cockburn declared the island to be “occupied territory.” He said any enslaved Africans on the island were free. Slaves seeking freedom started flocking to the island from all over the coast. The response was so great that a group of 66 slaves paddled 23 miles in a wooden canoe to reach the island. In all, approximately 1,500 enslaved Africans joined the British squadron on Cumberland Island. As the encampment on Cumberland Island grew, food, water, and clothing became scarce. Sailors were quartered on their ships. Soldiers and former slaves camped on the island, and the sick and wounded were placed in a makeshift hospital on the lower floor of Dungeness. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, was signed on December 24, 1814. News of the peace had to be carried overseas by ship. In February, the forces at Cumberland Island learned of the treaty. Cockburn, his squadron, and the freed slaves sailed out of Cumberland Harbor in March 1815. The majority of the freed slaves were settled in Trinidad, where their descendants still live today.
In 1818, Gen. “Lighthorse” Harry Lee, Revolutionary War hero and old friend of Nathaniel Greene and Catherine, came ashore at Cumberland Island. He was in failing health and was returning from the West Indies when he asked to be taken to his old friend’s estate of Dungeness. After a month of illness, he died on March 25 and was buried on the island. His son, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, had a tombstone placed over the grave and visited his father’s final resting place several times. In 1913, Harry Lee was moved to Lexington, Virginia, to lie beside his famous son, but the gravestone was left on Cumberland Island.
Records show that in 1846, there were 36 white people and 400 enslaved people. The plantation economy was dealt a deathblow with the U.S. Civil War, and Dungeness deteriorated and the family moved away. Dungeness burned down in 1866.
At some point, Robert Stafford owned a large plantation with 350 slaves on Cumberland Island. He had a mistress, a Mulatto slave woman named Zabette who bore him 4 daughters and 2 sons. She was lent to him by her owner, who was also her grandmother. Zabette eventually moved up north during the war with her children, who were not registered as slaves, although they should have been. One son eventually died in a war, a second son died at age 30 due to mental retardation, and all four of her daughters were educated and married well. They never returned to Cumberland Island. When Zabette returned to the island after the war, she found that Stafford had started a relationship with another mulatto slave, and she again lived in a tabby house behind his. He did not provide for her in his will. Robert had two daughters with his second mistress, who would later return and challenge the Carnegie’s family title to the land, as they had been left out of their father’s will. A judge threw out their case.
In the 1880s Thomas M. Carnegie, brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and his wife bought land on Cumberland for a winter retreat, and in 1884, began building a mansion on the site of Dungeness, though he never lived to see its completion. His wife, Lucy, and 9 children, however, continued to live on the island, and named their mansion Dungeness after the Greene’s. Dungeness was a 59-room Scottish castle. They also built pools, a golf course, and 40 smaller buildings to house the 200 servants that worked at the mansion. The last time Dungeness was used before it burned in 1959 was for the 1929 wedding of a Carnegie daughter. It is thought that the 1959 fire was started by a disgruntled poacher who had been shot in the leg by a caretaker weeks before. Today, the ruins of the mansion remain on the southern end of the island. The Carnegies owned ninety percent of the island.
The estates built by Lucy Carnegie for her children include:
Greyfield, built in 1900, now a private inn.
Plum Orchard, donated to the National Park Service in 1972 and currently maintained by the NPS.
Stafford, not currently maintained.
In the 1890s “The Settlement” was established at the north end of the island for black workers. White workers received $1 a day, while black workers received $0.50. The First African Baptist Church, established here in 1893 and rebuilt in the 1930s, is one of the few remaining structures of this community. Sadly, the church and area inhabited by slaves and later free blacks is not accessible to the public.
Present Day Conservation
In 1955 the National Park Service named Cumberland Island as one of the most significant natural areas in the United States. In 1969 a developer tried to turn Cumberland Island into a commercial area. This caused environmental activists and the Georgia Conservancy to band together and push a bill through the US Congress that established Cumberland Island as a national seashore. The bill was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1972. The Carnegie family then sold the island to the federal government and with donations from the Mellon Foundation, Cumberland Island became a national park and is currently one of the most undeveloped places in the United States.
Cumberland Island is really two islands – the island proper and Little Cumberland Island – connected by a marsh. Little Cumberland is privately owned and not generally open to the public. Historically, Cumberland Island was in private hands, but large areas were deeded to the National Parks Foundation by members or heirs of the Carnegie family in 1971. Other lands in private ownership were purchased with funds provided by the Mellon Foundation and Congress, and in 1972 Cumberland Island was designated a national seashore. A small number of people – principally descendants of property owners – still have houses on the western and northern regions of the island, though only a very few people actually live year-round on the island. Many, however, have sold their property to the National Park Service (NPS), which in turn leases the property back to the former landowners during their lifetime. Eventually, the property will revert to the Park Service and become part of the national seashore.
The public areas of Cumberland Island are part of a national seashore managed by the National Park Service. NPS restricts access to 300 people on the island at a time, and campers are allowed to stay no more than 7 nights. The Cumberland Queen Ferry runs twice a day to Cumberland Island from the mainland (St. Marys). The only other way to reach the island is by private boat. Visitors cannot bring vehicles or bikes on the ferry, and there are no paved roads or trails. Bikes are available for rent at the Sea Camp Dock and bicycle rentals are on a first come, first serve basis. Visitors may also bring their own bikes to the island via private or charter boat. Visitors walk everywhere they go, but Cumberland Island is less than six miles wide at the widest point. The eastern seashore is 17.5 miles of continuous beach. There is one camping area with running water and bathrooms with cold showers; the other camping sites do not have facilities. All food, ice and supplies must be shipped from the mainland, as there are no stores on the island.
First African Baptist Church. Maintained by the National Park Service, this simple one-room frame structure, with 11 handmade pews, and three windows on each side, was built in 1937 to replace a cruder 1893 structure.
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Georgia Barrier Islands Photos
Photographs of 16 major barrier islands along the Georgia Coast with brief descriptions. Photos are arranged in geographical order north to south. For more detailed information on each island see Barrier Islands In Georgia and the Georgia Barrier Islands Map.