The Living History of Cumberland Island
Tour, camp or hike your way around Georgia’s primitive island once inhabited by the Carnegies.
by Judy Garrison
Once upon a time, just before the turn of the 20th century, a man grew tired of the cold Pittsburgh winters and traveled South with his wife. Many considered it a primitive world, but it was one that offered the warmth of climate and the future of prosperity. He also followed in another’s footsteps who, decades earlier, made a pilgrimage to this barrier island just off the Southern tip of Georgia. This is just the beginning of the history of Cumberland Island.
It was 1785 when Revolutionary War hero General Nathanael Greene and his wife, Catherine, received land on Cumberland Island as a repayment for his personal financial war contributions and began construction on a four-story tabby Dungeness. James Oglethorpe was first to build on the island and had named his hunting lodge Dungeness, so Greene and his wife picked up the name for their home. However, the sweltering summer heat of Georgia got the best of the 44-year-old General, and he died at his Savannah Mulberry Grove plantation. His wife, Caty (as she was affectionately called), was left to finish the immense project. With help from the children’s tutor-turned- stepfather, Phinneas Miller and Caty completed the structure and began one of the most impressive plantation models of the time period.
During the remaining years of Caty’s life, she attempted to rid her name of debt and harvested oaks, staying one step ahead of marauding pirates crossing the Florida-Georgia line to smuggle the gargantuan live oaks. Once Phinneas got lockjaw and died, Caty and her children were on their own until her death in 1814. She was buried, as tradition dictated, in the closest cemetery – the Greene-Miller – where Phinneas lies in an unmarked grave.
Born on the island in 1790, Robert Stafford’s story picks up as the Greene saga fades. Having worked for Caty’s daughter, Louisa Shaw, Stafford learned the prosperity of plantation life, cultivating crops of citrus, rice and olives, with his most productive being Sea Island cotton. By the early 1800s, he owned most of the island, as well as 348 slaves at the height of his empire. Never married, Stafford took a mulatto common law slave wife, Zabette, who bore him six children. As the Civil War edged toward the island, the people fled North, including Zabette and the children, but not Stafford. Although the well-educated and accomplished children never returned, Zabette did, finding aging Stafford with another mulatto slave and two daughters. The stalwart, brazen Stafford died at age 87 in 1877, leaving nothing to Zabette or his six children.
By the late 1800s, the island was very different. Greene’s Dungeness, used as a garrison for the Union soldiers, had burned, and Stafford’s empire was simply a ruin known as “The Chimneys,” a series of hearth and chimney structures representing endless slave quarters.
The story of Dungeness begins again in the next century.
As the 19th century faded, the 20th century rose as The Gilded Age, an explosion of wealth and excess. Pittsburgh’s Thomas (brother to steel magnate Andrew) and Lucy Carnegie decided on Cumberland Island as their winter home. Built in an even grander style than the original structure a century earlier, the 59-room, turreted Scottish castle, also called Dungeness, was completed with 40 additional buildings that included a staff of 200. Although Thomas died in 1886 and didn’t live to see its completion, Lucy and her nine children made Dungeness their permanent residence. She would eventually own over 90 percent of the island, building homes for her children, including Stafford Mansion, Plum Orchard and Greyfield. Lucy died in 1913 and, in 1959, a fire destroyed the deserted castle, some say by poachers hell-bent on destroying “this forbidden land” flourishing with game and modern conveniences. Seen from as far away as St. Marys, Dungeness burned for three days.
There are more twists and turns in the history of Cumberland Island and the Greene-Stafford-Carnegie memoirs than in the labyrinth of live oaks that still provide a canopy for the island’s wilderness. Famed historical figures like Eli Whitney and Robert E. Lee left their influence on the island, while the Carnegie Trust, which only expires upon the death of the last Carnegie descendant, provides for the heirs today. But it is the National Park Service that serves as the island protector, and, at some point, will be its sole owner.
Although few visit, many have experienced Cumberland vicariously through the romantic tales of wild horses roaming free and endless, white sandy beaches, both of which are true. But, those that make the arduous trip, hear these tales and discover the gravity of the island’s back story. The romantic lore holds little significance in comparison to the history that exists along the Grand Avenue or amidst the ruins of Dungeness or the wharf remains near High Point. Characterizing a moment in history when opulence and extravagance guided this provincial existence, Cumberland stands as a testament to those who want to preserve nature in its grandest composition.
It’s these stories that visitors hear as they tour the island, rest underneath the web of live oak limbs, stroll through servant’s quarters at Plum Orchard and examine the remnants of lives and dreams that now live on as Cumberland Island.
Travel Notes for Cumberland Island
*all distances measured from Sea Camp Dock
- Gateway: St. Marys, Georgia, located about 10 miles off Interstate 95. There are restaurants, B&Bs and hotels in this quaint seaside town.
- Accessibility: The island is only accessible by boat or ferry. Book with the Cumberland Queen at 912-882-4335; arrive 30 minutes prior to departure. There are fees to ride the ferry and to camp, and the two docks are Sea Camp and Dungeness.
- Lodging: Greyfield Inn is owned and operated by Middy Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant. Access to the only accommodations on the island is by way of Fernandina Beach, Florida. Rates start at $525 a night.
- Camping: The other way to spend the night on the island is by camping. Camp sites are: Sea Camp with 18 sites, limited to 60 persons per night, running water, toilets, cold showers, fire rings and food cages; Stafford Beach with fire rings and flush toilets (*3.5 miles); Backcountry – Hickory Hill (*5.5 miles); Yankee Paradise (*7.5 miles); and Brick Hill Bluff (*10.6 miles).
- Guided Tours: Offered by Footsteps (ranger-guided hour tour through Dungeness District daily for free) and Lands and Legacies (5-6 hour motorized tour of northern end of the island for $15 & $12); six managed hunts a year of deer and feral hogs are also offered (Georgia state hunting license required).
- What to See: Dungeness ruins (south end, *1 mile), Plum Orchard Mansion (*8 miles) and First African Baptist Church (site of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette’s wedding; *17 miles).
- How to Get Around: Once on the ferry docks, it’s all by foot. There are a few bikes for rental at Sea Camp, but only while the ferry is at dock. Bikes are not permitted on trails or at wilderness sites (Brick Hill, Yankee Paradise, Hickory Hill).
- Day Trip: Arrive at Sea Camp, tour the Dungeness Ruins and enjoy the beach.
- Weekend Trip: Camp at Sea Camp, Stafford, Hickory Hill or Yankee Paradise (relative to hiking ability). Tour Dungeness and Plum Orchard. Enjoy the beach.
- Prohibited: Pets, motorized equipment, wheeled carts, portable motors or campfires in the backcountry or on the beach
- Plan Ahead: The best advice given by the National Park Service is to plan ahead. Currently, reservations are being taken for November. Don’t expect to walk up to the ferry office in St. Marys and get onboard. There is a limit of 300 persons on the island at any given time, as well as restrictions placed on numbers at camp sites. The best time to visit is mid-March through early June, thus avoiding the heat and the bugs. Numbers fall off during the summer due to extreme heat.
Photo Credits: Circa 1900s picture of Dungeness and the Carnegie family courtesy of the National Park Service; Grand Avenue, wild horses, Dungeness as it stands today and Plum Orchard by Full Circle Fotography.
See more photos of Cumberland Island in our gallery.
Having grown up in the North Georgia mountains, Judy Garrison swears by all things Southern. As full-time editor of Georgia Connector magazine and a freelance travel and lifestyle writer, Judy strives to stay true to her Southern voice. She and her husband, Len, travel the South and beyond, recording their stories and images on www.fullcirclefotography.com. She and her husband are currently working on their seeing southern project, recording life stories of those who grew up or lived in the South. They are at home in Farmington, Georgia, within a stone’s throw of Athens, on a farm with horses, dogs and a 21-pound cat, Bear. Contact Judy at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @JudyHGarrison.
Pingback:Cumberland Island Guide | Julianna Thomas | Multimedia Portfolio / August 3, 2014
Tara Ray / November 10, 2014
This was the most amazing vacation I have ever been on! It is very beautiful, romantic, and really cheap! One of the best days ever!
Pingback:Cumberland Island Guide | Julianna Thomas / March 24, 2015
RapGod / February 5, 2016
the vacation was bland and really stupid. it had none of the things that this website said it would have. It was just plain out boring
Len / March 10, 2016
I’m not sure what Island you visited but everything in this article is certainly available to see and discover on Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia.
Kari / March 9, 2016
Omg!!! I could barely wait to leave this highly exaggerated island!!!! And wild horses with hooves trimmed better than my toes…wassup with that??!
M B Saunders / May 12, 2016
We took the Land & Legends tour and had a very good tour guide. We also took the National Park tour of Plum Orchard. Both were very interesting, and we plan to return to the island to do some camping, before the heat of summer sets in, with family. The cottage church that JFK Jr and Caroline Bessett were married in is a “must see” for all those who love him. This article is concise but very professionally written and the vintage pictures are a bonus!
Lanora Goldy / September 18, 2016
Having lived in SE GA for more that 20 years and growing up just across the river from the island, it was a no brainer that one of my first part-time jobs was running the ferry from St. Marys, The Cumberland Queen, as a deck hand. Even though I have taken the tours what seem like billions of times and have walked just about every square mile possible, I never get tired of hearing about this majestic place and visiting it from time to time. I have never known of a more beautiful and graceful place as Cumberland Island. For anyone who has never been, this is a must see and should be on everyone’s bucket list!!
Jasmyne / September 22, 2016
Before the National Parks Services took over the Island, my grandfather was great friends and the caretaker of the late Doc Jenkins (I never knew his real name). He owned a private residence on the island along with a guest cabin that was located right off the marsh . Some of my most cherished memories are visits to Cumberland. My grandparents, parents, siblings and myself would stay in the cabin on weekends during the summer. I loved waking up early and waiting for the horses to stroll through our backyard. We would use Doc Jenkins truck that he owned and kept on the island, to drive on the beach. We would spend the majority of our Saturdays and Sundays on the beach while our papa and daddy fished off of the Jetties.
Cumberland Island will always be one of my favorite places to visit. It’s a very beautiful place and one of the only places in our area that is still natural and hasn’t been touched by the common world.
Pingback:St. Marys, Georgia | Swedish Fish - Clay's Sailing Blog / April 9, 2017
Cyndi Gilbert / May 4, 2018
The information about Staffford leaving nothing to his children is false. I don’t know how this rumor continues to be perpetuated. There are plenty of scholarly papers available that prove otherwise.
god / April 29, 2019
U did not talk about the native americans that lived on the island.
Joel / October 19, 2021
Can you provide a legitimate website that provides documentation about Native American habitation on the island? I’d love to learn more about this.
Tara / July 8, 2020
Is this island for all including those of color
Erin Z. Bass / July 8, 2020
Yes, anyone can ride the ferry to visit the island.
Joel / October 19, 2021
What kind of ridiculous question is this? It’s the 21st century. Leave your politics out of this website/comment section. It’s about appreciating the history and natural beauty preserved for all who come to visit.