Private Fastness: Tales Of Wild

PrintPrintEmailEmail

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.