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Cumberland Island is one of the Sea Islands of the southeastern United States and is the largest in terms of continuously exposed land. It is located on the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of the U.S. state of Georgia and is part of Camden County, Georgia (30°51′N, 81°27′W). Cumberland Island constitutes the westernmost point of shoreline on the Atlantic Ocean in the United States. The island is 17.5 miles (28.2 km) long, with an area of 36,415 acres (147.37 km² or 56.25 square miles), including 16,850 acres (68.2 km2) of marsh, mudflats, and tidal creeks. There is no bridge to the island. Many visitors reach the island by the Cumberland Ferry; a convenient access is located in downtown St. Marys, Georgia.
The island has three major ecosystem regions. Along the western edge of the island there are large areas of salt marshes. One will also see gnarled live oak trees covered with Spanish moss and the 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 (27 km). The island is home to many native interesting animals, as well as non-native species. There are White-tailed deer, squirrels, Raccoons, Nine-banded Armadillos, Wild Boars, American Alligators, as well as many marshland inhabitants. It is also famous for its feral horses roaming free on the island.
Native American Settlement
First inhabitants were indigenous peoples who settled there as early as 4,000 years ago. Later inhabitants participated in the Savannah archaeological culture and spoke the Timucua language. Its inhabitants were part of the Mocama, a Timucua group who spoke the Mocama dialect. In the 17th century the island and the adjacent coast were controlled by the Tacatacuru chiefdom. The main village, known as Tacatacuru, was located towards the southern end of the island; during the time of European colonization, the Spanish recorded the names of at least six more villages on the island, and eleven more were located on the mainland.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Cumberland Island was part of the Mocama missionary province of Spanish Florida. When the Spanish arrived in 1566, they named the island San Pedro. They built a garrison and mission, San Pedro de Mocama, near the village of Tacatacuru. The mission operated from 1587 to 1660. It was one of the main mission centers, situated at a major Mocama site. Another Spanish mission on Cumberland was Puturiba, which operated from 1595–1597. An additional mission, San Phelipe, was relocated from the North Newport River to the northern end of Cumberland from 1670–1684.
Historical records indicate that until 1681, there were approximately 300 natives and several Spanish missionaries living on Cumberland Island. In 1683, French pirates attacked Cumberland Island, looting and burning many of the buildings. Many of the natives and the Spanish missionaries fled the island. An attack in 1684 by the Spanish pirate Thomas Jingle led to the final abandonment of the island. The Tacatacuru relocated closer to St. Augustine, and Cumberland Island was thereafter occupied by the Yamasee. Most of the Mocama had converted to Christianity before the island was abandoned. During the colonial years, many died of newly introduced infectious diseases, to which they had no natural immunity. Survivors retreated to St. Augustine to the south.
English General James Oglethorpe arrived at the Georgia coast in 1733. The name of Cumberland Island was given by a young Yamacraw 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 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. For a decade the small village of Berrimacke existed near the fort. The forts were built to defend English settlements to the north from the Spanish in Florida.
After the English defeated the Spanish in the Battle of Bloody Marsh in 1742, the need for the forts ended. They abandoned the forts and eventually 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 acquired most of southern Cumberland Island as a result of a business deal used to finance the army. 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 (1.8 m) thick walls at the base, featured four chimneys and 16 fireplaces, and was surrounded by 12 acres (49,000 m2) of gardens. Dungeness was the site 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. They also freed the American slaves on the island. The Millers' Dungeness burned down in 1866. The Millers became the first major planters of Sea Island cotton on Cumberland. They held a total of 210 slaves to work the plantation. Catherine and Phineas Miller helped Eli Whitney develop the cotton gin, debuted in 1793.
While Sea Island Cotton was by far the largest and most valuable commercial crop, other documented agricultural products such as indigo, rice, and food crops were also grown. Rice sloughs are still visible on the island through satellite imagery. According to national oral history, live oak wood from the island was used to build the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides."
In 1818, an ill Gen. "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, a Revolutionary War hero and old friend of Catherine Greene, was returning from the West Indies when he asked to be taken to 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, the body of Harry Lee was reinterred at Lexington, Virginia, to lie beside his famous son, but his gravestone was left on Cumberland Island.
By the Civil War, Robert Stafford had become the major planter and landowner on Cumberland Island and one of the largest planters in Camden County. His grave is on the main road of the island.
The Elite Estate Era
In the 1880s Thomas M. Carnegie, brother of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, and his wife Lucy bought land on Cumberland for a winter retreat. In 1884, they began building a mansion on the site of Dungeness, though Carnegie never lived to see its completion. Lucy and their nine children continued to live on the island, naming their mansion Dungeness after that of Greene. Dungeness was designed as a 59-room Scottish castle. They also built pools, a golf course, and 40 smaller buildings to house the 200 servants who worked at the mansion. The last time Dungeness was used was for the 1929 wedding of a Carnegie daughter. After the Crash and the Great Depression, the family left the island and kept the mansion vacant. It burned in a 1959 fire, believed to have been started by a 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 Carnegie family owned 90% of the island.
Lucy Carnegie had additional estates built on the island for her children. These include:
- Greyfield, built in 1900, now a private inn.
- Plum Orchard, donated to the National Park Service in 1972, which maintains it.
- Stafford Plantation, not currently maintained.
In the 1890s, "The Settlement" was established at the north end of the island as a residential area for black workers, as Georgia had passed laws requiring racial segregation of housing and public facilities. The First African Baptist Church, established in The Settlement in 1893, was rebuilt in the 1930s. It is one of the few remaining structures of this community.
In 1954 some of the members of the Carnegie family invited the National Park Service to the island to assess its suitability as a National Seashore. In 1955 the National Park Service named Cumberland Island as one of the most significant natural areas in the United States and plans got underway to secure it. Simultaneously, the State of Georgia was working on plans to secure the island as a state park.  Plans to create a National Seashore were complicated when, in October 1968, Tom, Henry, and Andrew Carnegie sold three thousand acres of the island to a developer named Charles Fraser, who had developed part of Hilton Head, SC with a commitment to preserving its biodiversity and beauty. Fraser invited renowned conservationist and then Sierra Club executive director, David Brower, to the island to discuss how to develop the area with greatest conservation. Brower pushed for a 90/10 split, with 90% of the land to remain undeveloped. However, the thought of any additional development on the island beyond the structures already erected by the Carnegies and Sam Candler, who also owned part of the island, caused activists, politicians, members of the Carnegie and Candler families, and a number of organizations, including the Georgia Conservancy and the Sierra Club, to band together and push Fraser to sell to the National Park Foundation. They, along with others, also helped push a bill through the US Congress that established Cumberland Island as a national seashore. The bill was signed by President Richard Nixon on October 23, 1972. The Carnegie family sold the island to the federal government. With donations from the Mellon Foundation, Cumberland Island became a national park.
Current land ownership
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, most of the property will revert to the Park Service and become part of the national seashore, however some properties remain in fee simple ownership by decesndants of the Carnegies, with no reversion agreements with the National Park Service, including the Greyfield Inn.
- "Cumberland Island : Liberation and the War of 1812" (PDF). Forgotten Invasion. 2008. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
- Dilsaver, Lary M. (2004). Cumberland Island National Seashore: A History of Conservation Conflict (PDF). University of Virginia Press. pp. 81–83. Retrieved 5 January 2012.
- McPhee, John (1971). Encounters with the Archdruid. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 79–150. ISBN 0-374-14822-8.
- Cumberland Island site
- Carnegie Family/Cumberland Island photograph collection (1888-1919) from the collection of the Georgia Archives.