Along the Atlantic Coast of Georgia great barrier islands sit like sentinels protecting the mainland and sheltering the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway. It is along these waters that Cumberland Island National Seashore is located. With 17-1/2 miles of clean sand beaches and 19,565 acres to explore (the park covers 36,415 acres of which almost half is marsh) the remoteness and visitor restrictions make this a unique place to visit.
One of the oldest barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast and with a landmass larger than Manhattan Island, Cumberland Island National Seashore is blessed with rich soil and a number of ecosystems within the confines of its shores. Fertile and critical saltwater marshes, estuaries, fresh water ponds, forests of moss cover oak, massive dunes, and clean sand beaches that provide critical habitat to loggerhead turtles can all be found within the island's boundaries.
Cumberland Island is claimed to be the largest barrier island on the Georgia coast, a fact that is both correct and incorrect depending on how you add the land mass up. It does have the longest beach and the most acreage, however when marshes are thrown into the equation both Ossabaw and St. Simons Islands, located north of Cumberland, become larger.
Cumberland Island National Seashore has an incredibly rich history that is almost more fascinating than the natural wonder of the island itself. Archeological studies indicate that Native Americans inhabited the island over 4,000 years ago. When European settlers arrived there were at least seven Native American villages on the island that was named both Tacatacoru and Missoe, the Mocama Indian word for Sassafras. Their shell mounds can still be found today and provide scientists with a unique view of early life on Cumberland.
In 1566 Spanish explorers arrived on Cumberland Island naming it San Pedro and built several forts and missions through 1670. Abandoned by the Spanish in 1724, there are no obvious traces of early Spanish habitation on the island.
San Pedro Island was renamed Cumberland Island by General James Oglethorpe in honor of William Augustus, the then 13 year old Duke of Cumberland in England. The English built a series of forts on Cumberland Island including Fort William on the southern tip and Fort Saint Andrews. A small settlement called Berrimacke was formed as well as a hunting lodge called Dungeness. After the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, the threat of Spanish attacks on English settlements to the north was neutralized. The forts and settlements were abandoned and by 1775 the island was practically uninhabited. However the American Revolution would bring dramatic change to Cumberland.
During the late 18th Century and the years leading up the American Civil War Cumberland Island was timbered, plowed developed, and cleared. The oak and pine were cut for shipbuilding and fields of corn, cotton, rice, and indigo were planted in the surprisingly rich soil. Cattle, hogs and horses were introduced and were allowed to roam freely on the island. Some of the most productive plantations in the Southern United States were located on Cumberland.
In 1796 construction of Dungeness Mansion near the location of Oglethorpe's long abandoned hunting lodge began. Phineas Miller built the four-story mansion on an Indian shell mound. After construction was completed Dungeness became the center of Georgian high society where the elite of the fledgling country held parties and social events of legendary proportion. During the War of 1812 the British occupied Cumberland Island briefly and used Dungeness as their military headquarters, relegating the residents to the hot and uncomfortable upper floors.
In 1818 General Harry Lee requested to spend his last days on Cumberland Island at Dungeness. In ill health after a trip to the West Indies he died on March 25 and the father of Confederate Civil War General Robert E. Lee was laid to rest on the island. His tombstone is still present today although his body was moved to Virginia in 1913.
At the end of the Civil War the plantation economy of the south was in ruins. Dungeness fell into disrepair and burned to the ground in 1866, possible set on purpose or by accident by freed slaves. Although Union Troops moved most of the freed slaves to Amelia Island in Florida, a group stayed behind and formed a settlement on the northern tip of Cumberland near Burbank Point. Cumberland Island was once again almost completely abandoned.
In 1880 Thomas Carnegie bought most of Cumberland and built the largest mansion ever to be located on the island. The 59 room Scottish castle completed with turrets, a pool house, 40 outbuildings, golf course, acres of manicured gardens and a squash court must have look incredibly out of place on the Georgia Coast. The mansion was used as a retreat through 1959 when it too burned to the ground. Several other buildings including Plum Orchard mansion and Greyfield, built in 1900, are still standing and in use today.
In 1969 Hilton Head developer Charles Fraser envisioned a copy of the South Carolina resort on Cumberland Island. When construction of a 5,000-foot long airstrip began a massive movement to save the island started. In 1972 the Carnegie family and Mellon Foundation working in close cooperation with environmentalists and the federal government bought most of the private land on the island and donated it to the National Park Service. Cumberland Island National Seashore was born.
In recent history John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette, who both died in a 1999 Massachusetts plane crash, were married at the First African Baptist Church in 1996. The tiny church, with only eleven handmade pews, sits near the original emancipated slave settlement by Burbank Point.
The history of the island is important to understand because thirty years of controversy has raged on how the park should be used since it's creation. Private residents and their guests are allowed more liberties while on the island. Today almost 2,000 acres of Cumberland remain in private hands and could be developed. Debates continue on whether to build a causeway to increase visitation and the Department of Interior has been under tremendous pressure to allow easier access to the park. Trash disposal and vehicle use are also major problems as well as damaged caused by feral pigs and horses that still roam the island.
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