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Private Fastness: Tales Of Wild

June 2024
16min read


One of the good things that happened in America in 1970—a year otherwise noted for spreading oil slicks, raging forest fires, mercury in rainbow trout, and burgeoning pipelines in the tundra—was the decision by the National Park Service to purchase Cumberland Island, southernmost of the Georgia sea islands and a flaming issue in the long and bitter struggle between real-estate developers and conservationists over the future of the state’s coastline.

Cumberland is one of the most beautiful and historic of the barrier islands that buffer the Georgia coast from Savannah southward to the mouth of the St. Marys River on the Georgia-Florida border. All the major islands—Ossabaw, St. Catherines, Sapelo, St. Simons, Jekyll, and Cumberland—are of considerable interest historically, but Cumberland stands out because of the colorful variety of its past and because its natural beauty and traditions have been carefully preserved by a succession of owners with more than a passing interest in history.

Until quite recently Cumberland seemed secure in its pristine, almost primordial beauty, inaccessible and remote, far removed from the multitude of vacationers who every summer descend on the public beaches of some of the other islands. But in 1968 the Sea Pines Plantation Company, developer of Hilton Head Island up the coast off South Carolina, purchased 3,117 acres (about 22 per cent of the total land) on Cumberland from three heirs of the Carnegie family, who for more than a half century represented the largest group of landowners on the island. Charles Fraser, president of the company, planned to build a “recreational environment” on Cumberland, similar to the plush, private, ultrasecurityconscious Sea Pines Plantation he had masterminded on Hilton Head. But the other landowners on Cumberland, including members of the Carnegie and Candler (Coca-Cola) families, refused to sell Fraser the additional land he needed, and conservationists, long aware of the beauty and value of the island and its surrounding marshes, sent up howls of protest. By late spring of 1971, after a long and bitter public debate (in which Fraser referred to his opponents as “publicity-seeking instant conservationists,” and they painted him as a sort of latter-day Svengali), the National Park Service, with about six million dollars in grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, arranged to purchase more than two thirds of the island, with the intent to preserve it as a national seashore—a move most of the island’s owners approved.

For anyone who has been fortunate and privileged enough to visit Cumberland, its preservation as a national seashore is a source of immense pleasure and satisfaction. Bounded on the north by the Satilla River and on the south by the St. Marys, Cumberland parallels the Georgia coast in the shape of a turkey drumstick, the plump end to the north. On the western side of the island a vast marsh stretches a plain of green toward the mainland, so that from the air the island appears much larger than it actually is. It is a place of incredible beauty, lush and brimming with wildlife, its eighteen-mile beach unmatched anywhere on the Atlantic. Cattle and pigs wander over the island, and wild horses, solemneyed and unapproachable, roam the beach. In the interior, thousands of deer inhabit the dense, dark forest of pine and live oak, heavy hung with gray Spanish moss. The vegetation is semitropical, and so luxuriant that it quickly reclaims even briefly neglected footpaths, roads, and beach houses and obliterates all but the most durable traces of the island’s four thousand years of habitation and four hundred years of recorded history.

Cumberland was a temporary home for wandering bands of Indians at least as long ago as 2000 B.C. , and archaeologists are just beginning a systematic investigation of the numerous oyster- and clam-shell middens scattered over the island. So far, little is known about these ancient Americans, but we have a great deal of information about the later inhabitants, the Timucua Indians, who controlled the island when French and Spanish explorers first sailed the coast in the sixteenth century. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Cumberland was the site of two important Franciscan missions to the Timucua: San Pedro y San Pablo de Poturiba (“Poturiba” being a Spanish corruption of the Timucuan “standing fighting”) on the northwest end of the island, and San Pedro Mocama (“by the sea”) near the southern tip. San Pedro was the Spanish name for the island, and as early as 1569 the Spanish stationed a garrison of troops on Cumberland. Fort San Pedro has long since disappeared, and archaeologists have been unable to determine the precise location of either mission. There is some tantalizing evidence (an Indian village site and scattered middens) that has led several archaeologists to postulate a fairly definite area for Mocama, but no sign of the mission church itself has been found. Most experts think the churches were built of wood, and despite their size—Mocama was as large as the church in St. Augustine in the early 1600’s—there is little hope anything but their locations will be found.


San Pedro Mocama, which was established in 1587, was the principal Franciscan mission for this area of the coast. The friars there were concerned with the souls of the Timucua, who held sway over the coast southward to St. Augustine and into north-central Florida. The Indians knew Cumberland by the lovely name “Tacatacaru,” the exact translation of which is unknown, but which seems to have had something to do with fire. The Timucua met the French Huguenots who sailed the coast in the 1560’s, and were described by the latter as intelligent though frighteningly pagan people who worshipped the sun and the moon, carried out human sacrifices, and allowed their fingernails and toenails to grow to hideous lengths. They were capable of putting on a fierce visage, lacquering themselves with bear grease, tatooing their bodies with macabre designs, and dressing in Spanish moss.

Fortunately for the Franciscans, the Timucua were usually loyal to the Spanish, and when the Guale Indians north of the Satilla River rebelled against the missions in 1597, the Timucua on Cumberland, led by their chief Don Juan, fiercely defended the island from attack. The Guale (pronounced “Wali”) descended on Cumberland in fortycanoes, but Don Juan and his Timucua defeated the invaders, leaving the few Guale who got away to starve to death or to hang themselves with their own bowstrings.

By 1700, however, both the Spanish and the Timucua (greatly reduced by smallpox) had abandoned the Georgia sea islands, driven south by the English who had established Charleston in 1670 and had begun to press out into the wilderness in search of fur trade. In 1733 James Edward Oglethorpe founded Georgia to be a new Zion and a buffer between the Carolinians and the Spaniards, and three years later he built a fort, St. Andrews, on the north end of Cumberland. Oglethorpe named the island Cumberland at the insistence of a young Indian to whom the Duke of Cumberland had presented a watch. On the south end of the island, as storyhas it, he erected a hunting lodge, which he called Dungeness, after the county seat of the same duke. In addition, in 1736, he began construction of Fort William on the extreme southern point of the island, possibly near the site of the old Spanish presidio of San Pedro. Initially, Oglethorpe stationed about twenty men at Fort William, but he had a much larger force at Fort St. Andrews. Many officers at the latter post had their wives with them, and they settled in a little village they called Berrimacke, not far from the fort. At one time several hundred people probably lived there, yet the town has disappeared without a trace. It is one of the innumerable little villages that cropped up on the American frontier and then vanished when the tide of history turned elsewhere. In 1738 Oglethorpe narrowly escaped death in a mutiny of troops at Fort St. Andrews that was put down by loyal officers. After the Battle of Bloody Marsh on nearby St. Simons Island in 1742, which turned the tide against the Spanish, both forts on Cumberland were of little use. Fort William had been strengthened by Oglethorpe before the Spanish invasion in 1742 to include barracks for more than two hundred men as well as storehouses, magazines, and other adjacent buildings; it was still in use as a pilotage station when William Bartram visited the island in 1773, but now it has sunk beneath the sand and the encroaching sea. Similarly, Fort St. Andrews has disappeared into the sea, a victim of erosion.

In 1763 Spain ceded Florida to Great Britain, and a measure of stability returned to the coast. However, shortly before the Revolution, Cumberland and the near mainland appear to have suffered from an influx of minor desperadoes and smugglers, and the old island was the home base for at least one gang of illicit traders who specialized in contraband with the Spanish in Fernandina, on the Florida coast, and in illegal trade among the Indians of the Georgia and Florida hinterlands. But reputable men came to the area, too, attracted by available land and the balmy climate of the sea islands. The arable land on Cumberland was settled almost as soon as Oglethorpe secured the frontier against the Spanish, and many names famous in Georgia history begin to appear on land lots about this time. One such is the name of General Lachlan McIntosh, who owned two hundred acres near the midpoint of the island in the late 1700’s. McIntosh is the man who duelled with and killed Button Gwinnctt, one of the three Georgians who signed the Declaration of Independence.

Shortly after the American Revolution, a good part of Cumberland was bought by General Nathanael Greene, commander of American forces in the South at the end of the war. [See “Men of the Revolution—in” in the December, 1971, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .] In 1785, when Greene completed his purchase of almost the entire southern end of the island, Cumberland was still covered with large stands of virgin live oak and pine. The General wanted to timber the island, and he began logging operations immediately. He also drew up plans for an enormous mansion to be situated on the southern end of Cumberland, where Oglethorpe had built his hunting lodge. Grecnc planned to call the house Dungcness, after OgIethorpc’s lodge, and he intended the home to be a summer retreat for his large family, then living at Mulberry Grove Plantation on the Savannah River in mainland Georeria.


Greene was heavily in debt as the result of personally guaranteeing payment for his troop supplies in the closing days of the war, and he was struggling to reclaim old rice fields at Mulberry Grove and recoup his fortune when he died suddenly of a stroke in 1786. His widow, the beautiful and elegant Catherine, carried through her husband’s plans for Dungcness, and in 1803 moved her family (including a second husband) into the massive house that rose far above the trees at the south end of Cumberland. Dungeness was made of tabby (a concretelike mixture of limestone and oyster shells), and it was truly enormous, containing thirty rooms and standing four stories high forty feet from the cellar sloncs with walls six feet thick at the base. There were four chimneys and sixteen fireplaces, and twenty rooms above the first floor. It was a tremendous and expensive undertaking for the time and the place, and the house was never finished. Someone invented the story that an old Greene family superstition forbade finishing the house, but the truth is that neither Catherine nor her second husband, Phineas Miller, ever had the monev. The house was situated on a huge shell midden, and it was visible for miles. It became, almost immediately, one of the most famous plantation residences of the islands, an elegantly appointed house surrounded by an enclosed twelve-acre garden of tropical and semitropical plants, including crepe myrtle, sage palms, orange, clove, and fig trees, rubber plants, date palms, camphor and coffee trees, Portuguese laurel, guava, lime, citron, pomegranate, and many, many others. East of the house was a grove of eight hundred olive trees, and south, beyond the garden, a littie spit of land extended into the marsh where live oaks, festooned with Spanish moss, formed a natural canopy to shade out the hot Georgia sun. It was to this cool, relaxing spot, which the Greene children called the Park, that the family would retire at the end of the day.


All in all, Dungeness was an enchanting place, and Catherine Greene-Miller was a lavish hostess. Few weeks went by without at least two or three houseguests present. Kitty, as many of her friends called her, was a beautiful and sophisticated woman, a friend of many of the most illustrious patriots of the American Revolution. She was one of the handful of women who had borne the bitter winter at Valley Forge, gaining there the admiration and friendship not only of Washington but of Lafayette, Anthony Wayne, von Steuben, and Kosciusko as well. But no person as lovely and popular as Kitty Greene could long remain without enemies, and soon after General Greene died, she was linked romantically with Anthony—“Mad Anthony”—Wayne. The republican farmers of Georgia, who disliked Mrs. Greene for her aristocratic, federalist leanings, quickly spread the rumor that she and Wayne had been having an affair long before Greene died. Later the rumor was broadened to a version that had Kitty and Wayne murdering the General with a butcher knife.

But Catherine Greene was no murderess. She was a highly intelligent woman, strong-willed and accustomed to getting her way, yet accustomed also to hardships and disappointment. She had the knack of turning friendships—even casual ones—into extremely intimate relationships, and, of course, this was always interpreted in the basest physical terms by the local citizenry. Furthermore, Kitty was from Rhode Island, and most of her friends were Yankees, including Eli Whitney, who invented the cotton gin at Mulberry Grove in 1793. It was Catherine Greene who originally encouraged Whitney to work on the gin, and popular lore even credits her with a hand in the invention. When Whitney was perplexed over how to sweep the gin teeth clean, it is said that Mrs. Greene remarked, “Why Eli, you need a brush,” and flicked the lint from the teeth with her hairbrush.

It was Catherine’s second husband, Phineas Miller, who formed the illfated partnership with Whitney to manufacture and sell the gin. The innumerable lawsuits and trials of Miller & Whitney to protect their patent are too well-known to detail, but it was the frustration of dealing with the shrewd, unscrupulous backwoods Georgia farmers that led Whitney ultimately to observe: “I have a set of the most Depraved villains to combat and I might as well go to Hell in search of Happiness as apply to a Georgia Court for Justice.”


When his mind was on it, Phineas Miller was an excellent planter, and Dungeness cotton bloomed on the land, tended by more than a hundred slaves. Olive oil and perhaps some indigo added to the income of the family, which included five of Catherine’s children by General Greene and, in time, their families as well. But Miller died in 1803, and Catherine was once again left to manage the plantation and the increasingly complex financial affairs of the Greene-Miller estate. As she grew older, Catherine seems to have suffered from a progressively worsening nervous disorder, and the bitter rumors about her past were altered to suit the needs of the present. It was said that she was mean, immoral, that she drank too much, that she would think nothing of shooting a slave, and worse. When she died in September, 1814, she was not greatly mourned locally. She was buried in a little cemetery near a creek that winds through Dungeness. You may find her grave there today, shaded by the oaks and moss. Her tombstone reads:

In memory of Catharine Miller (widow of the late Major General Nathanael Greene, Commander in Chief of the American Revolutionary army in the Southern department in 1783) who died Sept. r 2 nd 1814 aged 59 years. She possessed great latents and exalted virtues .

After Kitty’s death, Dungeness passed to her daughter Louisa, a rather formidable woman not greatly beloved by her own family. The plantation now included a considerable grove of orange trees as well as cotton fields, and Louisa was a firm and efficient manager. She was in charge at Dungeness when the British, under Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn, seized the island in January, 1815, a few weeks after the War of 1812 was officially brought to a close at Ghent, Belgium. Cockburn interrupted a house party, but aside from banishing the family and guests to the upstairs, he and his men seem to have gotten on well enough with the Americans.

In one of their raids against the mainland, the British captured the little port of St. Marys and gave birth to one of the most revered tales in south Georgia. It seems that the British held the Collector of the Port, Archibald Clark, under guard and demanded to be given any government funds he possessed. Mr. Clark patiently explained that he had none, but the British officers, somewhat suspicious, entered his home and searched about for the money. Alas, they encountered a defiant Mrs. Clark in the living room.

One of the officers, pointing to a pattern in the living room rug, asked Mrs. Clark: “Isn’t that the British Crown?”

To which Mrs. Clark, with an eye toward history, replied: “Yes, and you will see that it is underfoot.”

Eventually informed of the peace, and no doubt tired of the fruitless and costly sallies against the rather barren mainland (not to mention the sallies of Mrs. Clark), the British withdrew in February, 1815.

Three years later a hoary figure from out of the American Revolution made a deseent on Cumberland. This was none other than Henry “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, the implacable old soldier and friend of both Washington and General Greene. He arrived in ill health, set ashore with nothing but a dilapidated hair trunk and a cask of Madeira. Phineas Miller Nightingale, a nephew of Louisa’s, was playing near the Dungeness wharf when he saw the old gentleman being rowed ashore from a schooner out in the channel. Lee told the boy to go inform Louisa that “an old friend and companion of General Greene has come to die in the arms of his daughter.” The old man was true to his word. He died at Dungeness, apparently in some agony, on March 25, 1818. He was buried with full military honors provided by an American fleet stationed near the St. Marys. For many years his body rested in the same little cemetery with that of Catherine Greene, but in 1913 his remains were removed to Lcxington, Virginia, the site of Washington and Lee University, and interred beside those of his son, Robert E. Lee. If local whites in Camden County remember anything about the history of Cumberland, it is that Robert K. Lee came three times to visit the grave of his father, the last time in 1870, when he himself was a tired, sick old man.

It is almost impossible to believe, roaming through Cumberland’s dense, dark forests, where some live oaks measure three or four feet in diameter, that the island has been inhabited for so long. Not only that, but in ante-bellum days Cumberland was almost cleared to accommodate hundreds of acres of seaisland cotton. In addition to Dungeness, there were several other cotton plantations flourishing on the island before the Civil War. The largest and most successful of these belonged to a man named Robert Stafford, the son of one of Cumberland’s first settlers after the Revolution. Eventually Stafford’s holdings eame to include much of the property that had once belonged to General Greene. Stafford actually had two plantations on Cumberland, and in order to produce superior crops, he encouraged rivalry between the plantations, each of which was managed separately. Hundreds of slaves toiled in the carefully manicured fields. Stafford Place cotton was of excellent quality, and Robert Stafford became an extremely successful planter. He had a summer home in the North, plenty of cash to invest, and daughters travelling all over Europe. But after the war he never planted on Cumberland again. There is a local story that when the war was over, Stafford drove away all his former slaves, saying he had no more use for them or they for him. Then he burned their cabins to the ground. Today, you can still sec the chimneys and foundations of the cabins, almost reclaimed by the wild tangle of vegetation except for the cleared spots where archaeologists have dug.

Stafford must have loved the island, because he chose to live out his days at his plantation home, dying there in 1877 at the age of eightyseven. A few Negro families, some of whom may number among the descendants of the Stafford slaves, still live on the northern end of the island. The old Stafford home, an enormous, beautifully proportioned plantation residence, was standing in the 1880’s when members of the Carnegie family first visited the island. It burned in 1901.

Louisa Greene Shaw died childless in 1831, leaving Dungeness to Phineas Miller Nightingale, the young boy who had met Light-Horse Harry Lee on the wharf. The Nightingale family operated Dungeness plantation until the start of the Civil War, retiring to the mainland like the other island families during hostilities. Northern officers used the grand old mansion as a headquarters after 1862, and when they left, they stripped the house of even its marble mantels and its books. I n 1866 Dungcness went up in flames and was never rebuilt. Only one of the Nightingales’ tabby buildings, a few scattered olive trees, and the little cemetery remain to remind us of the era of Kitty Greene.

In 1881, when Thomas Morrison Carnegie Andrew’s brother—and his wile Lucy first visited Cumberland, the ruined walls of Dungcness were still standing. The Carnegies were so struck by the beauty and charm of the island that they decided to build a winter home there. Though Thomas Carnegie died suddenly in 1886, his remarkable wife, Lucy Coleman Carnegie, like Kitty Greene a century earlier, erected a monumental home almost on the site of the ruins of the old Dungeness. The third Dungcness Mrs. Carnegie retained the name was a truly elephantine édifice said to have had a hundred rooms and to have cost two hundred thousand dollars. It was built, of course, before the days of income taxes, and Mrs. Carnegie had each stone for the mansion transported from Baltimore by water. When it was finished, its colossal, Gothic bulk and rather formal, wallcd-in gardens dominated the south end of the island.

At Dungeness Mrs. Carnegie lived in rustic but baronial splendor, entertaining a multitude of family friends from Pittsburgh who came to hunt and fish or to ride around the island on horseback or in one of the innumerable touring cars now rusting in the mansion garage. The guests might also go for a swim in the indoor swimming pool in the enormous, 150-foot-long casino, specially built for Mrs. Carnegie and complete with dressing rooms, gymnastic equipment, a billiard parlor, and a number of apartments. Not satisfied with a landlubber’s life, Mrs. Carnegie, an avid sportswoman and the first of her sex admitted to membership in the New York Yacht Club, built a lavish yacht, also called Dungeness , for sailing in the sea islands. She later erected several palatial homes near Dungeness for her children.

Although the great mansion burned in 1959 and many of the outbuildings have fallen into disrepair, the island retains an atmosphere of only slightly decayed elegance. A patina of the Jazz Age clings to the brooding hulk of the ruined mansion and to the sections of the island where a few Carnegie “heirs” still live. Such is the spell of the place—the loom of the old buildings, the grownover, private eighteen-hole golf course now used as a landing strip, the once-flashy automobiles rusting in the dark garage, the yellowing photographs in the old family album —that one would not be surprised to see Jay Gatsby pull up the drive at Greyfield, one of the Carnegie homes, dismount from his Fierce-Arrow, and ask if anyone wished to go for a midnight swim in the casino.

Most of the members of the Carnegie family with property on Cumberland have become fiercely attached to the island, particularly Mrs. Lucy Ferguson, the handsome granddaughter of Thomas and Lucy Carnegie. “Mrs. Lucy,” as she is called, has spent a considerable part of her life protecting the natural environment and the wildlife on the island, and she probably feels more keenly than any other person the encroachment of the outside world. Her son O. Ricketson “Rick” Ferguson lives at Greyfield, which he operates as an exclusive inn. When Charles Fraser managed to buy more than three thousand acres on the island in 1968, Mrs. Ferguson and Rick determined that they would prefer to see their island become a national park rather than a vacation suburb. All the Cumberland landowners, including the Candlers on the north end of the island, were concerned that Eraser’s development would mean the construction of a causeway from the mainland to the island, and this, they knew, would result in incredible damage to the fecund but fragile ecology of the marshlands and, eventually, to the island itself. When Fraser’s proposed development came to the attention of conservationists, he was treated to a storm of public protests that rang all the way from the state capitol in Atlanta to the university in Athens.


Fraser, who did not get rich through fighting impossible battles, backed off and agreed to sell his share of the island to the National Park Foundation, which plans eventually to purchase all the land on Cumberland in parcels and then convey the island to the Department of the Interior. It was a narrow escape and a great victory for conservationists in Georgia and the Southeast, and possibly Eraser’s defeat may establish a precedent for the future development of the entire coast.

As for Cumberland, the National Park Service does not know exactly when the island will be opened to the public. It may take as long as two years to complete the purchase of the land; the price is steep, said to approach ten million dollars for the entire island. Plans now call for utilization of existing buildings as visitor centers and the gradual development of trails, boat decks, picnic areas, and primitive camping facilities. Of course, no causeway will be constructed, and visitors will be taken to the island by ferry.

The island will be a haven for nature lovers: it is situated on the edge of the Atlantic fly way, and thousands of ducks flock to the island lakes in the winter. There is also excellent fishing for channel bass, mackerel, snapper, pompano, bluefish, and sea trout. But most people, doubtless, will find the island’s magnificent beach the main attraction.

It is to be fervently prayed, of course, that the public will show as much respect and appreciation for the natural resources of the island as have the past owners. It is also to be hoped that the island’s past will be remembered. For the Cumberland National Seashore will be one of the few areas in the National Park lands in which each epoch of American history is clearly traceable.

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