As part of the Ossabest Program, I spent three days on the magical (if itchy) Ossabaw Island, a large (26,000 acres) barrier island 20 miles south of Savannah off the coast of Georgia.
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Evidence of human presence extends for at least 4,000 years based on pottery shards unearthed from the island's numerous oyster shell middens. It was inhabited by the Guale Indians at the time of the Spanish exploration of the Georgia coast in the early 1500s. Throughout the Spanish mission period the Guale alternately supplied and fought with the Spanish. When English occupation of the area replaced the Spanish in the 1730s, the Guale had moved inland possibly in response to disease and coastal marauding under the Spanish. The earliest English treaties reserved the island as hunting and fishing grounds for the Creek Indians.
In 1758 a group of Creek leaders was persuaded to convey the island to King George II of England. In 1760 the island passed into private ownership and was farmed and timbered with slave labor and was eventually divided into four plantations. After the American Civil War the island was farmed on a small scale by several owners and tenant farmers until the early 20th century. After 1916 it was used as a hunting retreat while owned by a group of wealthy businessman until it was purchased in 1924 by Dr. Henry Norton Torrey and his wife Nell Ford Torrey of Detroit, Michigan.
In 1961 The Ossabaw Foundation created by Eleanor Torrey West and Clifford B. West launched the Ossabaw Island Project as an artistic and scholarly retreat. Over the years the island's solitude and natural beauty served as the setting for such luminaries as: composers Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber; writers Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Olive Ann Burns, and Margaret Atwood ; sculptor Harry Bertoia; and scientist Eugene Odum among many others. The Ossabaw Foundation was also host to The Genesis Project, scientific research and public use and education programs on the island.
In 1978, no longer able to subsidize the artistic, educational, and scientific activity on the island, and eschewing lucrative offers of resort development, Mrs. West and her brother's children chose to sell the island to the State of Georgia as a Heritage Preserve with the understanding that Ossabaw would "be used for natural, scientific and cultural study, research and education, and environmentally sound preservation, conservation and management of the Island’s ecosystem.”