Cumberland Island History
(unincorporated county)

Boat: Cumberland PrincessAll photos were taken by me [Tara Fields] during my trip to Cumberland Island on 5 February 2000 with my friend, Jean Manning.  All images are in medium quality jpegs.  That just means the originals are better but some quality was sacrificed for a quicker loading time.  Even so, the page may take a while to fully load. :-)

One of the boats that serves Cumberland Island:  The Cumberland Princess.  The other boat (not pictured) is the Cumberland Queen. 2001.

Cumberland Sound SeagullLeaving the dock at St. Marys aboard the Cumberland Queen, the first thing I notice are all the seagulls flying overhead.  Clearly, they are accustomed to feasting behind the boats.  The motors from the boats churn up the water and the birds feed in the wake.  They fly high overhead, chasing the boat, passing it, and circling it.  Jean and I take photos of the seagulls, prepared to quickly drop our faces and cover our lenses in case of a seagull "sneak attack!"

We arrive at our destination safely - and free of bird droppings.  The entire trip over Jean and I giggled like kids, and took photo after photo of the birds and the mainland.  As we approached the island we both became excited.  It had been years for both of us since we last stepped foot here - and we couldn't wait!

View from Dungeness Dock - ShorelineUnfortunately, we did wait.  Jean had to stalk a bird that was on the water side of the boat.  (Just ribbin' ya, Jeano!)  Finally, she got her picture and we made our way over the gang plank.

Jean and I made our way over the island.  We started down the path before the main body of the tour group could get their bearings.  We were hoping to stay ahead of them so we could take photos without humans in them.

No matter how far inland you may go on the mainland, chances are you will not find a place more beautiful or peaceful.  A few minutes after reaching Cumberland Island, after the shock of the beauty has left me with a slight feeling of numbness, I realize that something is different.  Then I figure it out:  there is little noise.  Little human noise, that is.  I do not hear the background rumble of cars on interstates (that I did not even notice was so overwhelming until it has gone), there is no yelling, no loud music.  All I hear is nature.  The only sounds of man you might hear are other visitors and the rare plane passing overhead.

Oak Lined LaneCumberland Island is teaming with life.  I noticed right off the boat all the giant mounds of horse poop in the middle of the roads left by the over 200 wild horses that roam the island!  The bugs can be awful during summer and fall months; however, some good bug repellant is enough to protect you.  Our trip was made during our warm winter months.  It was cool in the shade but warm in the sun.  The biting bugs were no where to be seen (or felt)!

Cumberland Island is about 18 miles long and 3 miles wide at the widest.  The Cumberland River and the Cumberland Sound separate it from the mainland.  Both are portions of the Intracoastal Waterway.  Cumberland, and the other islands that string up the coastline, make up a barrier island chain between the mainland and the Atlantic ocean resulting in calmer weather for us here on shore.

Cumberland Island has had many names.  The first, and most common, Indian name was "Tacatacoru" (the St. Marys River went by the same name) and the less common Indian name was "Misso" or "Wisso" which meant "sassafras."  During the early explorations in the 16th century, the Spanish named it "San Pedro."  In 1587 a large Spanish mission by the same name was established there.  This mission was the center for all the Spanish missions ranging up the Georgia coast.  In the same year, Menendez of Spanish Florida established Fort San Pedro as protection against the French.  The Spanish maintained the fort for more then 100 years.

It was later, in 1736 after the Spanish left the island, that an Indian, named Toonahowie, traveling with General Oglethorpe named it after the Duke of Cumberland William AugustusAugustus was a kind, 15-year-old prince whom Toonahowie had met on a visit to England.

Oglethorpe was himself enraptured by the natural beauty of the island and also saw it as a strategic place to set up defenses against the Spanish (ironic, isn't it?)

Under Oglethorpe, Fort St. Andrew was then constructed on the north end of the island.  Although the Fort had held against a much larger force of attacking Spaniards in 1737, it was maintained only until 1742.  During the fort's heyday, the small town of Barrimack had grown up.  Eventually Barrimack disappeared after the troops were pulled from the fort and sent to reinforce Fort St. Williams.  Fort St. Williams had been built in 1740 on the southern end of the island.

Between 1755-1775, English grants were given to settlers on Cumberland Island to eight men.  As early as 1770, the Island was up for sale and by 1787 a substantial number of homes had been built.  While legend states that Oglethorpe himself had built a hunting lodge on the south end of the island near Fort St. Williams, there is no proof to this statement.

General Nathanael Greene (image left) built his summer home, which he named Dungeness.  Some stories say that Dungeness was named after a country home belonging to the Duke of Cumberland in Kent, England.  Unfortunately, before actual construction of his home began, he died of sunstroke in 1786 on his plantation near Savannah, Mulberry Grove.  His widow, Catharine Littlefield Greene, had the tabby house built as planned.  In 1803-1804, the house was completed.  General Greene was originally buried in Colonial Park Cemetery in Savannah.  His remains, and those of his young son, were moved to Greene Square in Savannah.  A soaring monument marks his grave.  (The image to the left came from that monument.)

The home was described in 1880 as being 4 stories above the basement with 4 chimneys and 16 fireplaces.  The walls were of made of tabby.  They were 6 feet wide at the base and 4 feet wide above ground level.  The second story contained the main rooms - a drawing room, dining room, a school, and a Gardener's Housesewing room.  The third story held the bedrooms.  It was said to have been quite beautiful both inside and out.  It was surrounded by 12 acres of cultivated flowers and tropical fruits.  The Greenes also cultivated olive trees, fig, date palms, coffee, guava, lime, and pomegranate.  It was the most beautiful home on the coast at that time.  Today, there is nothing left of Greene's Dungeness except this tabby Gardener's House.  Built around 1800, it's the oldest building on Cumberland.  During the Carnegie era (1900) it served as administrative offices for the estate.

In 1796, Mrs. Greene married her children's tutor, Phineas Miller.  They lived, along with her children's families, on Cumberland for many years.

Headstone of Lighthorse Harry LeeDuring the War of 1812, a large British force under Admiral Cockburn, the same person who had burned Washington, D.C., occupied Dungeness.  During this time, the families living there were banished to the upper floors while the ground and basement floors were used as Admiral Cockburn's headquarters.  The invaders seized slaves and cotton, then proceeded to destroy the carefully planted fruit trees.  In January of 1815, the English invaded St. Marys, destroyed the fort at Point Peter, and then withdrew to Cumberland.  This was two weeks AFTER the peace treaty between the newly formed United States of America and England had been signed.  Admiral Cockburn had not yet received written word of the peace treaty.  He had, however, received verbal word, but continued on his spree until he received official word.

Shortly after the British withdrew, General "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, father of General Robert E. Lee, visited the estate of Dungeness for awhile.  At the time he was ailing, and despite loving care by the Greene family, he died little more than a month later on 25 March 1818.  Lee was buried in the Greene family plot where his headstone still stands.  His remains were moved in 1913 to rest besides his sons in the Chapel of Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.

In 1806, Phineas Miller died of lockjaw after pricking his finger on a thorn.  Mrs. Greene Miller died in 1814 at only 59 years of age.  Shortly after Lee's remains were moved, the house burned down for reasons I do not know.  Phineas Miller lies in an unmarked grave, as do a few others.  But his wife, and her kin, lie under marked slabs in the Dungeness, or Miller / Greene, Cemetery.

Although the lands of Cumberland tended to change hands often, the plantations established there continued to flourish.  The French couple Peter and Margaret Bernardy settled at Plum Orchard.  Brick Hill had burned during the Civil War when the owner, Mrs. Downes, went to the mainland to seek refuge.  The Springs Plantation was deeded in 1825 to William and Mary Craig of Camden.  Greyfield is now an Inn open to the public.

One of the largest landowners was Robert Stafford.  His holdings included Longwood Plantation, acquired in 1832.  The area he owned is known today as Stafford Place.  He grew the profitable, but difficult, long-staple cotton.

According to records, the slaves on the island lived as comfortably as can be expected.  By some accounts, they ate well and had suitable shelter.  They had areas of land that they could use as private gardens.  Any extra food they grew they were allowed to take to the mainland to sell.  They were allowed to keep the profit.  During the Civil War, many residents fled the island, some never to return.  Their plantations fell to ruin.  Many areas remained idle until 1881 when Mr. Thomas Carnegie bought much of Cumberland Island.Carnegie Dungeness at Prime

Jean and I made our way directly to the ruins of the Carnegie Dungeness Mansion.  All that's left of this grand old building is an empty shell - but they are still impressive.  The walls are high and the fountain still stands in the back.  The Carnegie family built their own Dungeness on the foundation of the Greene mansion.  The house was absolutely huge.  The grounds of Dungeness Mansion included a large fountain in the backyard and extensive gardens.  The family thrived and in the following years they built several more mansions for the families of their children.  At one point, employees for the Carnegies numbered as many as 300.  At their peak the Carnegies owned approximately 90% of the island.

Ruins of Grand Entrance to DungenessThe photo to the left is the grand entrance to the grounds of Dungeness as it stands today.  The ruins can be seen in the background.  Above this photo is Dungeness is its heyday.

As the years passed, the families moved to other places and for many years, Dungeness remained empty.  In 1959, it burned.  The ruins can be seen today and, in their own way, are still beautiful to behold.  Nature is slowly reclaiming the building, as well as some of the other buildings that went along with the house, like the Recreation Buildings, shown above.  These buildings housed an indoor pool among other things.  The grass around the buildings is keep cut for the comfort of visitors, but bushes and trees grow throughout the brick structure of Dungeness.

Carnegie Recreation BuildingsIn 1878, at the northern end of Cumberland Island at High Point, the Cumberland Hotel was built.  Cottages were added as well as a bowling alley.  The area prospered until 1920.  It finally had to close - mostly due to the attention St. Simons Island began receiving when resort facilities were built there along with the more convenient causeway to the island.  The Hotel became hunting property then became a private estate.

Jean and I did not venture any future north then the Dungeness area.  We do have plans to explore the island further.  We did, however, make it to the beach.

Cumberland HotelBefore we got as far as the sand dunes Jean and I noticed a couple of horses off to either side of the road grazing.  Clearly, while still wild, they were accustomed to humans.  We did not try to touch them but we did make every attempt to photograph them.  We moved as slowly and quietly as possible.  They kept their eyes on us the entire time but showed no signs of nervousness.  In fact, at one point a horse was walking towards Jean when I had to kneel down to get another roll of film from my backpack.  I believe the horse thought she was going to get a treat as she immediately turned her attention to me and walked over.  I was still kneeling on the ground when the horse began to nuzzle the top of my head.  I was rather nervous as I had no intention of feeding the creature.  I was just hoping it would not get annoyed with me for refusing it!  It continued nuzzling my head and sunglasses for several minutes as Jean furiously took Piggy at the Beachpictures of us saying, "Now look at the horse!  Now make kissy lips at it!"  I was just hoping it wouldn't bite me with those rather large teeth!  One year one man was hurt by a horse - probably after getting to close to it and bothering it.

Eventually, the horse got tired of waiting for me to feed it and joined the other horse in grazing on the side of the road.  I felt flattered that the horse approached me in this manner - and even more grateful that it was so gentle with me!

Jean and I continued on our path towards the beach.  We trudged over the sand dunes chatting and looking our for anything interesting.  I spotted a small grasshopper in the sandy path and Jean stalked it to photograph it.  As the other visitors passed us I'm sure they were wondering why Jean was laying on the ground!  About half-way over the dunes I had my camera to my eye to take a shot of the dunes with the ocean behind them.  Something caught my eye - a wild pig!  I snapped my photo and yelled to Jean, "Pig!! Piggy!!"   [Click on the photo above right to see larger picture--ALH]

Cumberland DunesAs we made our way over the last dune the first site to greet our eyes was a truck tearing up the sand.  I feel it's unfortunate that they have started giving citizens beach-driving permits.  I believe it destroys not only the environment but the calm visitors expect from the island.  Cumberland is not a private island belonging only to those who live there - with visitors like me simply annoying intruders.  While it may seem a world apart it is, in fact, a part of Camden, my home county, and I have every right to not only visit the island but to expect a certain amount of calm in an area that is within the protected park limits.  I believe that the trade-off of being allowed to live there is an agreement that as little harm as possible will be done to the island.  Cars, certainly, aren't harmless in any respect.

Luckily, the truck quickly left and Jean and I were allowed back into the calm of the breezy day.  However, we did not stay long as the sand was blowing onto, and into, my case, as well as into our cameras so we decided we had enough beach pictures.  The seaward side of the island takes quite a beating from severe weather coming off the Atlantic.  Moving inward from the beaches are great, ever-changing sand dunes.  After the sand dunes, in some areas, is a forest of trees gnarled and twisted by the salt water and high winds that sweep through them.  Deeper into the forest the trees straighten out into a stately grove of hard woods.  Much of the island is owned and maintained by the government.  The bulk of the land that is still in private hands lies at the north end.

SeagullOn our way back to the mainland we were once again escorted by the ever-hungry seagulls.  A couple even fed out of our hands (crackers)!  Reminds me of back home in San Francisco - the land of the 100 million seagulls!

I have been to the island only twice.  I hope to return often and with lots of film in an attempt to capture more and better photos of the island.  Below you will find links to other websites with photos and information about Cumberland Island.

Suggested reading material:

  • Marguarite Reddick - "Camden's Challenge" - 1976, 1994
  • Any of the Cumberland books by Mary Miller.
  • Robert Stafford - Growth of a Planter by Mary Bullard
  • Cumberland: A History by Mary Bullard

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