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 has more than 17 miles of beaches.
Cumberland has more than 17 miles of beaches.
Windswept dunes
Windswept dunes

History

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.

Ruins of Dungeness.
Ruins of Dungeness.
Plum Orchard
Plum Orchard

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.

More than 350 bird species have been recorded on Cumberland Island.
More than 350 bird species have been recorded on Cumberland Island.
Deer are numerous on the island.
Deer are numerous on the island.

Cumberland birds and wildlife:

Feral Horses

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.

 

Feral horses roam the island.
Feral horses roam the island.

Marine Life

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.

 

Sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
Sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs.
Dolphins are a common sight.
Dolphins are a common sight.
Large sharks prowl the waters around Cumberland.
Large sharks prowl the waters around Cumberland.

Fishing

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.

Cumberland Island provides great fishing.
Cumberland Island provides great fishing.

Tarpon landed just off Cumberland beach:

Camping

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.

 

Camping is popular on the island.
Camping is popular on the island.

Greyfield Inn

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.

 

Greyfield Inn
Greyfield Inn
Inside the inn
Inside the inn

Getting There

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.

 

A markercumberland island, georgia -
Cumberland Island, St Marys, GA 31558, USA
[get directions]

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Comments 66 comments

Robwrite profile image

Robwrite 6 years ago from Bay Ridge Brooklyn NY

Great hub. You really described the place well. I loved the pictures you chose. You know, I'd never heard of Cumberland Island before.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Rob! It's an amazing place.


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Fascinating history of Cumberland Island and beautiful photos. Thank you, Holle. Have been missing you. Hope all is well in your world.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, drbj! My life has been pretty crazy recently. lol


prasetio30 profile image

prasetio30 6 years ago from malang-indonesia

I always love your travel report, habee. That's give me a new spirit to travel around the world. I'll put the Cumberland Island on my travel list. Good work, my friend. I love the pictures. Rate up.

Prasetio


2besure profile image

2besure 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

Thanks for sharing this simply beautiful spot with us. I am always looking for new places to visit.


images99 6 years ago

Hi habee-I love to travel and write about travel so whenever I find a chance I travel else I travel the way I am doing right now, through articles, thanks for sharing.


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

Beautiful post!


Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

You lucky girl having see such a beautiful place. Thank you for describing it so well and showing us around.


MPG Narratives profile image

MPG Narratives 6 years ago from Sydney, Australia

What a beautiful place, I love the wildlife photos. Thanks habee.


BrianS profile image

BrianS 6 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

What a fabulous place and very well illustrated. Love the idea of horses running free as well, must be an amazing sight.


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Incredibly thorough habee! I loved the videos. The young lady in the first was delightful! This is super! I danced on your buttons!


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

How about a hub on where to retire for peanuts? :-))


mquee profile image

mquee 6 years ago from Columbia, SC

Hi Habee, I don't think there are many things in life that are more enjoyable than traveling whether here at home or to a foreign country.

This sounds like a perfect place to camp out and fish, both of which my wife and I enjoy. You gave some great descriptions and photos here. We will put this down as a future vacation spot. Thanks for sharing.


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 6 years ago from San Francisco

Great entry! (It definitely came through, by the way). Cumberland sure has a fascinating history, and I would love to see the wildlife you describe. It would be great fun to kayak over to the island and either camp or stay at Greyfield Inn - siiiigh! Thanks for sharing this wonderful place with us!


sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

It does sound like a magic island.


bayoulady profile image

bayoulady 6 years ago from Northern Louisiana,USA

habee, They should hire you at their tourism bureau to write press, brochures, and etc. for them! Your reports of beaches, attractions, accomodations, the horses, and videos(especially your trip) were invaluable. Anyone that finds this article will have all their questions answered! RATE UP! AWESOME!


mtsi1098 6 years ago

A fascinating adventure and Missoe-ly done (this probably is not a word so don't try spell checking it). Sounds like a great camp outing and I will stay out of the water :) ...thanks


50 Caliber profile image

50 Caliber 6 years ago from Arizona

Holle what a great place to visit. I like the bands of wild horses that are left out here, I'd like to see them in an island setting as well, 50


DeBorrah K. Ogans profile image

DeBorrah K. Ogans 6 years ago

Habee, Nice Hub! Interesting history on Cumberland Island! This really seems like a wonderful quaint place to retreat and get away from it all... Thank you for sharing, Peace & Blessings!


anglnwu profile image

anglnwu 6 years ago

Beautiful pictures and great historical facts. Cumberland island seems quite a place to visit for sure. Awesome!


nifty@50 profile image

nifty@50 6 years ago

Thanks for the awesome hub Habee, here's a great travel destination in my own back yard!


scla profile image

scla 6 years ago from Southern California

Wonderful information about an area that is probably not well known by most people. I am always interested in learning about new areas and the history behind it. It is definitely beautiful and the history creates a certain mystique and wonder about it.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Prasetio!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

2be, you'd love Cumberland Island!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Images, I enjoy "chair travel," also! lol


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Chris! Have you been to Cumberland Island?


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

HH, always great to see you!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, MPG!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Brian, the wild horses are my fave!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Mick, I didn't know you were such a great dancer!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

De Greek, that would be GA - famous for its peanuts! lol


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Mquee, you guys will love it!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Simone!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Sheila. How ya been?


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

mtsi, I like your new word!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

50, great to see you!!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Deb, Cumberland Island is like another world!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Anglnwu, you should visit!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Nifty, GA is fortunate to have this pristine island!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

scla, thanks so much for reading!


Judicastro profile image

Judicastro 6 years ago from birmingham, Alabama

Habee- great hub girl!! While living on st simons Chris and I kept saying that we were going to take that boat trip one of these days and go to Cumberland island. Alas we have moved back to Alabama and with my daughter moving away from Jax, it doesn't look like we'll make it any time soon. I did however take the ferry to sapelo island, right off the coast from Darien, ga. Very interesting island too. Have you been there?


carolina muscle profile image

carolina muscle 6 years ago from Charlotte, North Carolina

No.. I haven't been there yet, but I feel like I have after reading this post!! Great job, Habee!!


lctodd1947 profile image

lctodd1947 6 years ago from USA

Another great hub and wonderful information about Cumberland Island. It seems to be a perfect place to get away from it all. Thank you for sharing.


eventsyoudesign profile image

eventsyoudesign 6 years ago from Nashville, Tennessee

Wow! Beautiful pictures. I was enthralled by them. I wish I could visit Cumberland Island today. Great article. Teresa


KoffeeKlatch Gals profile image

KoffeeKlatch Gals 6 years ago from Sunny Florida

Habee, you truly have a way with words. And I love your beautiful pictures, they have a way of making you feel as though you are there. Thanks so much for sharing.


Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 6 years ago

Habee ~ Fabulous history, beautiful scenery, and best of all............ shoreline! Looks like a great place to relax............ thank you ~ Kaie


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 6 years ago from United States

Habee, What a gorgeous place and you did a beautiful job sharing that beauty with all of us. Thanks.


TopUniverse 6 years ago

The island looks solid to enjoy. By the way you got some cool pictures.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Judi, I haven't been to Sapelo in decades! I need to return.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Chris, you should check it out!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Ictodd, thanks for reading!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Teresa, glad you enjoyed it!


Coolmon2009 profile image

Coolmon2009 6 years ago from Texas, USA

I enjoyed reading your article on Cumberland Island. Thanks for the information on this destination.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

KK - such a sweet thing to say!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Kaie, Cumberland Island is an awesome place to visit!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Pam, thanks for stopping by!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Top, thanks for reading!


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Coolmon, glad you enjjoyed the "trip" to Cumberland Island!


susansisk profile image

susansisk 6 years ago from Georgia, USA

Great hub. I recently wrote about my trip to Cumberland Island. I didn't include history since you had it covered so well. I added a link to your hub. Hope that is OK.


sameerk profile image

sameerk 6 years ago from India

awesome hub


ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

looks a beautiful peaceful place


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks a bunch, Susan! I'll do the same.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks, Sameerk!

Eth, great to see ya, girlfriend!


Neverletitgo profile image

Neverletitgo 6 years ago from Minneapolis, MN

This is beautiful hub with beautiful pictures and video. I really enjoyed. I am proud to be your followers. Please visit my hub. Thanks for sharing.


habee profile image

habee 6 years ago from Georgia Author

Thanks for reading!

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