Ossabaw Island

The Ossabaw Island historical marker was dedicated on September 20, 2003.  View the Ossabaw Island historical marker listing.


Historical Background

Created by SCAD student Collin Richard as part of his SCAD art history department coursework, with guidance from art history professor Holly Goldstein, Ph.D., 2014.

Native American Occupation (2400 B.C.E. – 1733 C.E.)

The history of Ossabaw Island is a story that has been founded on the dichotomies of the extraction of natural resources, the exploitation of non-European cultures, and a symbiosis between the island and the local community that it sustains. The island exist as one of the most bountiful sea islands on the Georgia Coast and has supported human life since around 2,000 B.C.E., when migratory Native American tribes stayed on the island for short periods of time to hunt and fish.[i] At its earliest time of human occupation, Ossabaw represented the bounty of nature’s gifts in the form of the vast oyster beds that inhabited the salt marshes and creeks that surround and purge the island. Remnants of this early Native American settlement can be seen on Ossabaw and throughout the Lowcountry region in the form of shell-middens, mounds of discarded oyster shells that would usually border a temporary settlement. Agriculture was first introduced to the island around 500 C.E., when the Mississippian cultures began to inhabit the island and settle in small villages, extracting their sustenance from the fertile soils of Ossabaw’s higher ground. The Spanish never settled the island in their conquest of Eastern Florida, but instead traded pottery with the Native Americans as early as 1568 C.E. and established a village somewhere near the mouth of the Savannah River.[ii] Further evidence of Spanish contact can be evinced from the population of feral hogs that freely roam the island.[iii] Before the Spaniards retreated from the Georgia coast, they burnt the Native American village of Asopa to the ground in 1579 C.E.[iv]

Trustee/Colonial Period (1733 C.E. – 1776 C.E.)

During the Trustee period of Colonial Savannah in the mid 1700s, the island was given to the Yamacraw translator Mary Muskgrove and her husband Thomas Bosomworth and set aside as a Creek hunting reserve. However, the island was quickly given back to the British in 1760, after which point the island changed ownership several times before being bought by John Morel in 1763.

Morel introduced African slave laborers to the island in the hopes of extracting wealth by timbering the live oak population and setting up plantations for the farming of rice and indigo (figs. 1-2). In 1770, Morel sold some of his live oak timber to John Wand, who exploited the labor of at least 30 African slaves to build the 84-foot haul Elizabeth. The Elizabeth eventually sailed to Rotterdam, St. Petersburg and London and competed in the Atlantic trade.[v]

Antebellum Period and the Freedmen’s Bureau (1776 – Late 1890s)

By 1802, there were a total of four plantations on the island, producing mainly cotton and indigo and owned by various descendants of John Morel Sr. All of the plantations were sustained by large amounts of African slaves who lived in small, tabbey cabins (figs. 3-4). According to an 1812 slave inventory from the island, there were 159 slaves living and working on one of the island’s plantations; the slaves were worth a total of $48,850 and ranged in age from 5 months old to approximately 60 years old (fig. 5).[vi] The plantation owners enforced task labor systems, which allowed the slaves to complete their tasks for the day and afterward work at their own endeavors. This practice allowed the slaves to be able to save aspects of their African heritage—hidden out of sight from the plantation owners—and sustain their families by planting their own plots of rice and corn and hunting the wild game that thrived on the island.[vii] While the slave owners extracted their riches from slave labor, the slaves themselves extracted their only wealth from the land that they lived and worked on, in a state of symbiosis.

By the end of the Civil War, Ossabaw came under control of the Freedmen’s Bureau after 377 U.S. troops from the 47th New York Infantry vacated the island to return north.[viii] The Freedmen’s Bureau redistributed the island to African Americans. Many were soldiers for the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who had not lived on the island before the war. These soldiers took their land from the freed slaves who had been displaced from the island during the war. Eventually disputes arose between the slaves who had worked on the island, the USCT veterans, and supervisors of the US Freedman’s Bureau. These disputes eventually escalated to several armed confrontations in 1866.[ix] However, by 1867, the land was taken away from the freed African Americans and given back to its original white plantation owners after they had taken “an oath against slavery”.[x] The freed African Americans nevertheless stayed on the island and eventually established the Hinder Me Not Baptist Church at Middle Place Plantation in 1878. In the 1890s, several large hurricanes hit the island, decimating the farmland and creating the dunes that can now be seen at Bradley Point (figs. 6-7). A majority of the African Americans on the island relocated to a community they established on the mainland called Pin Point, where they continued to support their lifestyles from the salt marshes that teemed with oysters.

Recreational Use/The Torrey Family (1890s – Present Day)

Various people owned the island after 1886, mainly using it as a recreational area and seasonal retreat. A standing relic from this period is the clubhouse, built in the 1890s as a hunting lodge (figs. 8-10). In 1924, after their original house in Savannah had burned to the ground, the Torrey family from Michigan bought the entire island to relocate their winter house. The last African Americans left the island permanently in the 1950s to seek work at communities in Pin Point and Sandfly. In 1959, Eleanor Torrey West inherited the island and started the Ossabaw Island Foundation in 1961. In 1970, the island was the site of the Genesis Project, an interdisciplinary program that involved college students from around the country living in a communistic environment with no electricity or running water.[xi] The students learned to live harmoniously with the fertile land of Ossabaw while continuing their own research and studies. The island was bought by the State of Georgia in 1978 and established as the state’s first heritage preserve, with the intention of carrying on Ossabaw’s history of extraction and symbiosis. Eleanor West was granted life-residency on the island in her family’s 1920s Spanish Revival style villa (figs. 11-13). Meanwhile, visitors to the island extract knowledge of the island’s important history and ecology, and artists and scientists are allowed to live symbiotically with the sustained natural environment to pursue their occupations (fig. 14). Ossabaw continues to be managed by the DNR and the Ossabaw Island Foundation, which collectively plan public educational trips to the island throughout the year.


[i] “Chronology of Ownership and Occupancy,” Ossabaw Island Foundation.  http://www.ossabawisland.org/ (accessed April 24, 2014).

[ii] Savannah Morning News Magazine, April 23, 1961. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey family papers, MS 1326.

[iii] “Ossabaw Island Hogs,” Oklahoma State University Breeds of Livestock. http://www.ansi.okstate.edu/breeds/swine/ossabawisland/ (accessed May 11, 2014).

[iv] “Chronology of Ownership and Occupancy.”

[v] Paul Pressly, On the Rim of The Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013).

[vi] Slave Inventory 1812. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey family papers, MS 1326.

[vii] Phillip Morgan, African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: the Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

[viii] Newspaper of the Grand Army of the Republic, July 25, 1907. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey family papers, MS 1326.

[ix] Morgan, African American Life.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jane Brown Gillete. “Enchanted Isle,” Historic Preservation, November/December, 1995.

1. The live oak on the beach at Bradley Point, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

2. Live oaks at Torrey Landing, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

3. Slave cabins built of tabby, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

4.Photograph of tabby cabins, 1923. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960, MS 1360.

5. Photograph of 1812 slave inventory. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey family papers, MS 1326.

6. Sand dunes at Bradley Point, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

7. The dunes and beach at Bradley Point. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

8. The Clubhouse and historical marker, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

9. The Clubhouse porch, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

10. Interior of the Clubhouse, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

11. The gate to the Torrey family villa, 2014. Courtesy of Collin Richard.

12. Photograph of the Torrey family villa, 1923. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960, MS 1360.

13. Photograph of the Torrey family villa, 1923. From the Foltz Photography Studio (Savannah, Ga.), photographs, 1899-1960, MS 1360.

14. Photograph of Ossabaw Island [Ga], 1925. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey Family Papers, MS 1326.


Further Reading

Jane Brown Gillete. “Enchanted Isle.” Historic Preservation, November/December, 1995.

Phillip Morgan. African American Life in the Georgia Lowcountry: the Atlantic World and the Gullah Geechee. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2010).

“Chronology of Ownership and Occupancy,” Ossabaw Island Foundation. http://www.ossabawisland.org/  (accessed April 24th, 2014).

Paul Pressly. On the Rim of The Caribbean: Colonial Georgia and the British Atlantic World. (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013).

Savannah Morning News Magazine, April 23, 1961. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey family papers, MS 1326.

Slave Inventory 1812. From the Ossabaw Island and Torrey family papers, MS 1326.

Buddy Sullivan. “Ossabaw Island,” New Georgia Encyclopedia.