- Historic Sites
Private Fastness: Tales Of Wild
CUMBERLAND ISLAND AND HOW MODERN TIMES AT LAST HAVE REACHED IT
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
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.