The Magic of Cumberland Island
I really enjoy traveling, especially to destinations with beaches. I’ve visited scores of beaches and islands in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Atlantic Ocean, along with a few in the Caribbean. I’ve experienced some amazing shorelines, and each had its own unique appeal. Among my travels, however, I haven’t found anywhere with the fascinating history, the mystique, and the pristine natural beauty of Cumberland Island. Luckily for me, this charming isle is practically in my own back yard.
Cumberland Island is located just off the coast of Georgia. One of the state’s “Golden Isles,” it’s Georgia’s largest barrier island. Cumberland is more than seventeen miles long, covering 36,415 acres of maritime forest, sand dunes, marsh, meandering tidal creeks, and ancient live oaks gnarled and sculpted by the salt breezes from the Atlantic and adorned with lacy Spanish moss.
Cumberland Island is a superb vacation spot, whether you’re lodging at the beautiful Greyfield Inn or camping at one of the island’s campgrounds. Even if you have only a few hours to spare, you can spend an afternoon on the island to experience its wonder. Visitors can swim in the gentle surf, play on the seventeen miles of pristine beaches, hike some of the fifty miles of trails, fish, bird watch, collect shells and fossilized sharks’ teeth, view wildlife in its natural habitat, or walk among the ruins of once-splendid mansions, the old cemetery, or the Ice House Museum.
There are no real roads on the island, but bike rentals are available. You won’t find any fast-food restaurants or stores on Cumberland, either, and the only way to reach this island paradise is by boat or ferry. A trip to Cumberland Island is a real “back to nature” experience – one you’ll never forget!
Cumberland Island has a fascinating history. The first people to inhabit the island were native tribes, who settled there around 2,000 BC. Soon after, the Timucuans arrived, creating structured villages. They called the island “Missoe,” meaning “beautiful.” The largest of these villages was Tacatacura, which was located near the southern tip of the isle.
In 1562, French explorers landed on Missoe and became friends with the Timucuans. Four years later, eighty Spanish explorers came ashore and built crude fortresses. They named the island “San Pedro.” When Spanish missionaries followed their countrymen to San Pedro in order to convert the indigenous people to Christianity, the Timucuans viewed this move as an affront to their French allies and promptly murdered the Jesuits. In view of this act, along with the harsh living conditions, all the Spaniards left the island in 1573.
In 1578, another group of Spanish missionaries arrived – the Franciscans. The Timucuans accepted this group, and in 1587, a successful mission named San Pedro de Mocama was established. By 1595, another Spanish mission had been built.
In 1597, there was a revolt by the Guale tribe on the mainland near Cumberland. When the missions were threatened by the Guales, the Timucuans successfully defended them. Both missions, however, were soon abandoned by the Spanish. They returned in 1603 and built the San Pedro de Mocama Church.
In 1683, French pirates landed, burning most of the villages. The missionaries and most of the Timucuans fled the island in fear. The few that remained were subjected to more horrors when the Spanish pirate, Thomas Jingle, arrived in 1684. The Timucuans abandoned the island completely, and the Yemassi took their place.
General James Oglethorpe landed on the Georgia coast in 1733 and found Cumberland on one of his local explorations. One of his companions, a young Creek named Toonahowi, named the island “Cumberland” after William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland. Toonahowi had befriended the thirteen-year-old duke on his visit to England. In 1736, the English built Fort St. Andrews on the island, and Oglethorpe erected a hunting lodge that he named “Dungeness.” In 1740, the English established another fort on Cumberland – Fort Prince William. These forts were built to protect the English settlements from the Spanish in nearby Florida.
English fortifications were also constructed on a nearby island, St. Simons. In 1742, the Spanish invaded the area in an effort to regain control of the coastal lands, but the Spaniards were defeated in the Battle of Bloody Marsh. Before they were thwarted, however, the invading forces destroyed Fort St. Andrews.
In 1748, Cumberland Island became neutral territory – controlled by neither England nor Spain. This lack of protection opened the door for scores of criminals and social misfits, and the island became a refuge for outlaws.
In 1763, royal land grants divided much of the land on Cumberland, but few people were willing to gamble moving to the island. In fact, when naturalist William Bartram landed on Cumberland in 1774, he found it all but abandoned.
In 1783, Nathaniel Greene scouted Cumberland for live oaks to be used in ship building. He found an abundant supply of suitable trees, so he purchased land on the island. Trees from Cumberland were used in the construction of the USS Constitution, fondly known as “Old Ironsides.”
After Greene’s death, his widow, Catherine, married Phineas Miller, and in 1796, they built a four-story mansion and named it “Dungeness,” in honor of Oglethorpe’s original lodge. The structure was built of tabby – a mixture of crushed oyster shells, lime, and sand. The walls were six-feet thick, and the mansion included sixteen fireplaces and was surrounded by acres of gardens. The Millers became the first planters on the island, growing cotton and harvesting the stately oaks.
When the War of 1812 broke out, the British occupied Cumberland and used Dungeness as their military headquarters. Two years later, Catherine Greene Miller died, leaving her land on Cumberland to her daughter, Louisa Shaw. The Shaws continued to grow cotton, but they also began growing oranges and olives in the fertile soil. Other plantations soon sprang up and were worked by African slaves.
In 1862, during the U.S. Civil War, Union troops occupied Cumberland Island. At the close of the war, Dungeness was burned. Once the war had ended, most of the plantation owners were allowed to return to their former lands, and the fields were now tended by freed blacks.
In 1871, the Miller land fell into the hands of Edmund Molyneux, who sold it to General William George Mackay Davis the next year. In 1881, Davis sold the land to Thomas Carnegie, the brother of Andrew Carnegie. Thomas and his wife rebuilt Dungeness in 1885. When he died a year later, his land was left to his wife, Lucy Coleman Carnegie.
By this time, a good number of blacks lived on Cumberland, descendants of slaves, and in 1893, the First African Baptist Church was constructed. On weekdays, the church doubled as a school. The church was rebuilt in the 1930s and served as the site for the wedding of John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Carolyn Bessette in September of 1996.
In 1898, a mansion was built for Lucy Carnegie’s son, George Lauder Carnegie. The edifice was named “Plum Orchard.” In 1900, another mansion, Greyfield House, was begun for Lucy Carnegie’s daughter, Margaret. By 1928, the Carnegie family owned almost the entirety of Cumberland Island.
By 1955, Cumberland Island had received much attention from historians. The U.S. Government took note and declared the island second only to Cape Cod as the most historically significant location along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
In 1959, the newest Dungeness mansion was set afire, probably by a poacher who was wounded by an overseer while the hunter was shooting deer. The ruins can still be viewed today.
In 1972, the island was proclaimed a National Seashore, and much of the land was purchased by the federal government.
Birds and Wildlife
Cumberland Island is rich in wildlife, and a wide variety of birds can be seen in the trees and wading along the shore. More than 350 avian species have been recorded here. Since the island is on the transatlantic migratory flyway, many birds stop at Cumberland for a rest. Rare and endangered species, including Wilson’s plover, the American Oystercatcher, and the least tern, are often spotted. Other interesting species that might be seen are wood storks, peregrine falcons, osprey, ibises, golden eagles, and bald eagles.
While strolling along one of the oak-canopied sandy trails on Cumberland, there’s no telling what kind of “critter” you might catch a glimpse of. It could be a stealthy bobcat, an opossum, an armadillo, a feral pig, an elusive wild turkey, or a whitetail deer with a pair of wide-eyed fawns.
Cumberland birds and wildlife:
One of the most popular attractions on the island is its herd of feral horses. Historians disagree on how and when the equine group came to the island, but it’s believed that they’re descendants of Spanish mounts brought to Cumberland in the sixteenth century. Other barrier islands scattered along the U.S. Atlantic coast are home to feral horses, including Chincoteague and Assateague Islands, along with North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The horses on Cumberland, however, are different. Instead of pony-like equines with short legs and wooly coats, the Cumberland Island horses are tall and leggy, and in the warmer months, they display slick coats.
Today, there are around 150 feral horses on Cumberland. They can be seen just about anywhere on the island, from galloping along the beach to nibbling on grass around historic ruins. They seem to embody the wild, free spirit that is Cumberland Island.
The waters surrounding Cumberland are rich and fertile. Loggerhead sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs beginning in mid-spring and continuing until early fall. Even though each female might lay as many as 100 eggs, few of the hatchlings survive until adulthood. Nests on Cumberland are documented and protected to ensure future generations of loggerheads.
Manatees can occasionally be seen along the coast, but dolphins are a frequent sight. These playful marine mammals can often be seen frolicking in the waves, and some come very close to shore, allowing visitors to the island a close encounter.
Cumberland waters are also home to numerous sharks. In fact, the largest population of sharks on the U.S. Atlantic coast can be found here, including some real giants. Just off the northern tip of the island is a deep depression known as the “Eighty Foot Hole,” where some of the largest sharks in the entire Atlantic frequent. Fortunately, only one human attack has been recorded. The incident occurred in less than two feet of water, when a woman was bitten on the hand.
Angling is one of the favorite pastimes for visitors to the island. Fishing from shore or wading into the surf can produce catches of flounder, redfish, puppy drum, spotted seatrout, whiting, croaker, sheepshead, tripletail, ladyfish, sharks, and the occasional tarpon. One of the best places to fish for saltwater species is along the rock jetty at the southern end of the island. Because of the mild climate, fishing is productive year round on Cumberland.
In addition to saltwater fishing, there are several freshwater ponds in the island’s interior. The largest, 83-acre Lake Whitney, offers great angling for bass and bream. If you choose to fish in one of the freshwater ponds, be careful – they’re home to alligators and cottonmouth moccasins.
Tarpon landed just off Cumberland beach:
Campers are welcome on the island for up to seven days at the time. Cumberland offers both developed campgrounds and primitive camping.
Sea Camp and Stafford Campground both have restrooms, fire pits, and cold-water showers. Sea Camp also offers picnic tables, a boardwalk to the beach, grills, and an amphitheater where educational programs are presented by park rangers. Camping fees for Sea Camp and Stafford Campground are $4.00 per night, per person.
Primitive camping can be done at three backcountry locations. These sites provide no facilities, and fires are not permitted. The nightly fee for primitive camping is $2.00 per person.
If roughing it isn’t your idea of a great vacation, make reservations at Greyfield Inn on Cumberland. Built in 1900, this former Carnegie home was converted to a hotel in 1962 and is still operated by the Carnegie descendants.
Greyfield is the epitome of Southern elegance, filled with antiques and original works of art. The bedrooms are beautifully appointed, and some include clawfoot tubs and sweeping views of the marsh. The wide front porch is equipped with swings and rocking chairs, providing guests with a relaxing place to soak up the sights and the atmosphere.
Meals are included with your stay at Greyfield Inn, and they are legendary, in true Southern fashion. They include hearty breakfasts, picnic lunches, and candlelit dinners. Every afternoon, hors d’oeuvres and cocktails are served in the oceanfront bar, and the inn boasts an impressive wine cellar.
Private boats are allowed to dock at Cumberland Island for a small fee, but most visitors choose to take the ferry. To catch the Cumberland Island Ferry, you’ll need to travel to St. Marys, Georgia – just eight miles east of Interstate 95, via GA exit 1 or 3. The ferry runs daily March-November, and in the winter months, it runs five days a week. The ride over the sound takes just 45 minutes, and it’s almost as enjoyable as visiting the island itself.
Many kayakers make the trip to Cumberland, too, and kayaking is a great way to explore the marshes and estuaries. If you decide to kayak or canoe to Cumberland, check the weather first. The sound is usually calm, but it can get rough in inclement weather.
Learn more about Cumberland Island:
- A Day at Cumberland Island
Cumberland Island National Seashore - Operating Hours & Seasons (U.S. National Park Service) Operating Hours & Seasons Even though my family has lived in Georgia for many years, we had never been to...
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