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Whose Island Is It Anyway | A History & Guide To Cumberland Island

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Photo taken of a section of South End Trail in Cumberland Island National Seashore.
“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, A tale of a fateful trip . . .” (Photo taken of a section of South End Trail in Cumberland Island National Seashore. Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Cumberland Island lies off the coast of Georgia. It’s a place where nature and history come together to tell a most unusual story.

It’s Georgia’s largest and southernmost barrier island, full of pristine maritime forests, undeveloped beaches, and wide marshes. It totals 36,415 acres, of which 16,850 are marsh, mud flats, and tidal creeks.

It is also one of Georgia’s premiere vacation destinations.

The island is best known for its sea turtles, wild turkeys, wild horses, armadillos, abundant shore birds, dune fields, maritime forests, salt marshes, and historic structures. Nothing unusual so far, but let’s keep going…

Is There A Curse

“Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful island . . .” Only it’s not Gilligan’s Island this time. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What Cumberland’s less known for are its legal battles, power struggles, squabbling residents, and a curse which may have ended some lives prematurely.

This incredible story features heroes and villains. It’s a part of More Than Just Parks Environmental Heroes series.

Cumberland Island, A History

water, cumberland island, sunset-2593860.jpg
Cumberland Island at sunset

Welcome to Cumberland Island! A place which has attracted the rich and the famous. Ambitious men came to die unnatural deaths. Strong-willed women came to remake the island in their images.

It’s been fought over by nations and by individuals. It’s been fought over for many, many years. It continues to be fought over today. It’s an island with quite a history.

And possibly even a curse.

Cumberland Island-Is there a curse?
Is there a Cumberland Island Curse? (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Whose Island Is It Anyway?

Welcome to Cumberland Island.  This is no fanstasy.
Welcome to the island! But be forewarned: This is no fantasy! (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

So, whose island is it anyway? Is it a playground for the rich? Or, is it a place for the rest of us?

Does it belong to those who want it for themselves, those who want it to enrich themselves or those who want it for everyone?

This island has spawned hopes and dashed dreams. It’s been home to triumphs as well as tragedies. It’s a story with heroes and villains, but sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who.

An Island With An Unusual Story To Tell | Cumberland Island

treasure, treasure chest, geocaching-161753.jpg
This island may not contain any buried treasure, but that doesn’t mean that it hasn’t attracted its share of fortune-hunters

Cumberland doesn’t contain any hidden treasures. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t made some folks rich.

It’s not likely to appear on The History Channel, but that doesn’t mean there’s no curse.

A story of greed and ambition. A story of altruism and sacrifice. It’s ultimately a story about an island which has brought out the best in some and the worst in others.

The Natives & The Spaniards | Cumberland Island

On Cumberland Island, Timucua Indians
On Cumberland Island, Timucua Indians meet the new neighbors. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Let’s start our story with a time when it was occupied by the island’s native inhabitants. Mary R. Bullard is an independent scholar specializing in Sea Island history. She wrote an authoritative work titled, Cumberland Island: A History.

Mary’s interest was more than just professional however. In 1884, Thomas Carnegie, Mary Bullard’s great grandfather and Andrew Carnegie’s brother, bought a large portion of Cumberland Island.

The Carnegies played an important role in the island’s history, which is why great grand-daughter Mary did a deep dive into its past. But let’s not get ahead of our story.

sunset, sun, silhouette-5544293.jpg
Beware of Europeans bearing gifts

Long before the arrival of the Carnegies, the first Europeans came. They were greeted by the Timucua Indians. These indigenous peoples occupied a small portion of Southeastern Georgia where Cumberland Island is situated.

The Timucuans came bearing gifts. Their new neighbors came bearing death and destruction.

The “Gift” Europeans Brought With Them

Europeans transformed the New World and decimated the Native American population in the process. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Lary M. Dilsaver, a professor of geography at the University of South Alabama and an expert on the national park system, wrote Cumberland Island: A History Of Conservation Conflict. In it, Dilsaver discusses the “gift” Europeans brought with them.

“The arrival of the Spanish in North America,” writes Dilsaver, “initiated processes that forever changed the region. The Native American population underwent extensive decline and redistribution.

European diseases decimated the tribes of coastal Georgia as they did Native Americans throughout the continent. This catastrophic population decline radically altered their interaction with and impact on the natural environment.

Then the hard, dry Spaniards came exploring, greedy and realistic, and their greed was for gold or God. They collected souls as they collected jewels. They gathered mountains and valleys, rivers and whole horizons, the way a man might now gain title to building lots.

-John Steinbeck, East Of Eden

Their Population Was Decimated

Uncovering a Timucuan canoe on Cumberland Island | Courtesy of the National Park Service

First their population was decimated. Then those lucky enough to survive were taught how to be good Christians. How wonderful!

Spain planted the flag of Christianity wherever it went. Dominican Friars taught Native Americans how to read and write. But the Spanish were not alone. Soon they found themselves in competition with the English.

Like the Spaniards, the English grasped the profit potential of the New World. A competition emerged for control of North America. It involved the English, the French and the Spanish. There goes the neighborhood!

The British Are Coming

Spanish missions were built throughout the New World.
Spanish Missions Were Established Throughout The Americas. (Courtesy Of Carol M. Highsmith, Wikimedia Creative Commons).

Cumberland Island’s history would be written in blood. The English quickly learned from Spain’s example. They established their own Native American alliances.

England challenged Spanish control of Georgia and Florida. In the process, the ultimate losers were not the Spaniards, but the indigenous peoples who had welcomed them.

As Bullard writes, “Mission Indians became victims of both sides. The Creeks joined the British interests in burning and destroying all traces of Spanish civilization, including the island missions.”

Cumberland Island would be controlled by the British after the defeat of the Spanish.
There was no beautiful day in this neighborhood. And, it would be King George II, not King Friday, who would establish Georgia as a crown colony. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Ah, as long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last but when the piles of gold begin to grow. . .that’s when the trouble starts.

-Walter Huston, Treasure Of The Sierra Madre
Cumberland Island Would Not Be Spared
The Europeans brought Devastation & Destruction in their wake. Cumberland Island was not spared. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Pirates

pirate, seafarer, captain-2750279.jpg

Before the English conquest, Spain built a fort on Cumberland Island. It was called the Fort of San Pedro. Unfortunately for them, it was not pirate-proof!

The British triumphed in Georgia, but it was the pirates who removed the Spanish from Cumberland Island. These profiteers would have made Jack Sparrow proud.

They launched a series of successive raids against the Fort of San Pedro during a span of eighteen months from 1683-1684.

Their attacks forced Spain to relinquish its control of Cumberland Island. Subsequent defeats forced them to relinquish all of their holdings in North America. Arrrgh!

Pirate raids forced the Spanish off of Cumberland Island.
Pirates were the curse which drove Spain from Cumberland Island. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

You Say You Want A Revolution

You say you want a revolution?
You say you want a revolution? The founding fathers had a few tricks up their sleeves for the British though I’m not sure personal computers were available back then. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

The English were triumphant, but be careful what you wish for. They wouldn’t have much time to savor their victory before a group of angry colonists decided that taxation without representation wasn’t such a good idea after all.

It Wasn’t A Good Time To Be On The Losing Side

Cumberland Island is known for its wild horses.
Cumberland Island is known for its wild horses. This one appears to be giving its rider quite a ride. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

With the onset of the American Revolution, all settlement and commercial activity on Cumberland ceased. It wasn’t a good time to be on the losing side. Is it ever?

With the contest in doubt for several years, however, it was difficult to tell which side was winning. This would be a recurrent theme on Cumberland Island.

Looking To Unload Some Property

Revolutions are terrible for real estate owners. At this point, Cumberland’s principal landowners were Thomas Lynch and Alexander Rose. Both men, unsettled by the conflict raging around them, we’re looking for a bailout. And, fortunately for one of them, it was coming.

A Revolutionary War hero emerged who decided that owning land on Cumberland Island was a safer bet than battling the British. So, after the war was won, he purchased a sizeable stake. After all, having survived the British, what was the worst that could happen to him?

Enter [And Exit] Nathanael Greene | Cumberland Island

Cumberland Island would be Nathanael Greene's undoing
Revolutionary War Hero Nathaniel Greene Would Find Cumberland Island To Be His Undoing. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Nathanael Greene was best known as one of the most respected generals of the Revolutionary War. Did he win any battles? No. But how many battles did George Washington actually win? Fewer than he lost.

Greene had served Washington as commander of the Southern Department of the Continental Army. He was there until the end. Having fought on the winning side, it was time for him to cash in his chips. And, that’s exactly what poor Greene did though not in the way he expected.

I am determined to defend my rights and maintain my freedom or sell my life in the attempt.

-Nathanael Greene

Burdened By Debts

Cumberland Island would be a tough adversary
For Nathanael Greene, Cumberland Island Proved To Be A Tougher Adversary Than The British. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Nathanael Greene emerged from the war burdened by debts. Seeking a way out, he purchased a sizeable stake on Cumberland Island from Alexander Rose. Greene believed he could sell the island’s timber and its land thereby satisfying his creditors. If only life were that easy.

A Cumberland Curse?

Eli Whitney became a part of the Cumberland Island story
Eli Whitney, Inventor Of The Cotton Gin, Became A Part Of The Cumberland Story. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Given the stress of trying to keep his creditors at bay while figuring out how to make his holdings on Cumberland profitable, Greene died unexpectedly. His would be the first, but not the last unexpected death on the island. Could there be a Cumberland Curse?

With Greene’s passing, the island was introduced to its first in a succession of strong-willed women who would remake it in their own images.

Enter The Merry Widow

General Anthony Wayne Was Rumored To Have Had An Affair With Catherine Greene.
(Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Catherine Greene became a part of Cumberland Story. Will Harlan, author of the best-seller, Untamed, provides us with some details into her intriguing past.

“A New England debutante, Caty was accustomed to the swirling social balls and wanton eyes of handsome men at fancy festivities. She became entangled with another war hero, General ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne, a longtime friend of Nathanael.

Anthony and Caty rode horses together, and rumors swirled that Anthony made late night visits to her manor. There were even whispers that Caty planned to murder her husband with a butcher knife and blame it on fugitive slaves.”

I told you it was an unusual story. And, it gets even more interesting.

Survivor Meets The Dating Game

Cumberland Island had its own version of the dating game and Phineas Miller was the winner.  Or was he?
In history’s version of Cumberland Island meets the Dating Game, prospective suitors, Wayne included, jockeyed to win Catherine Miller’s fair hand. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Greene’s unexpected death spared Catherine having to decide what her next move would be. With Greene out of the way, his “grieving” widow went on to build her dream house.

In history’s version of “Survivor meets the Dating Game,” prospective suitors, Wayne included, now jockeyed to win the merry widow’s fair hand. Greene had had five children with her now deceased husband. Phineas Miller was their tutor.

If you’re trying to win the hand of a lovely lady, it always helps if you’re able to help the kids with their homework. Doing the dishes doesn’t hurt either. The tribe had spoken! Miller emerged victorious and married the merry widow.

The Brains Behind The Cotton Plantation

Cotton comes to Cumberland Island.
Cotton Comes To Cumberland Island. Cumberland First Matriarch Establishes A Cotton Plantation.
(Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Together, Catherine and Phineas started a sea island cotton plantation. Catherine Miller served as the brains behind the cotton plantation. When the couple discovered they were losing money, she turned to one of her husband’s friends for help.

This collaboration turned out to have major ramifications, not only for Cumberland Island, but the entire country.

So Who Really Invented The Cotton Gin?

Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eli Whitney attended Yale University with Phineas Miller. He traveled to Cumberland to help his old college chum. As Will Harlan writes in Untamed,

“Eli went to work on a machine that duplicated the manual process. He watched the hand movements of the slaves cleaning cotton, and after a few months of tinkering, Eli presented a working model of his cotton engine (“gin”) to Caty, Phineas, and a few friends.

He placed the machine on a mahogany table in the parlor of their mansion in Savannah, dropped some fluffy cotton balls in the hopper, and cranked the handle. Seeds came out one side and clean white cotton fiber on the other. The audience was astonished.”

RELATED: 10+ AMAZING Georgia National Parks-Everything To Know

The cotton gin made it possible to grow cotton commercially, which led to the spread of the cotton plantation from a small coastal area to most of the South. As cotton planting expanded, so did slavery, and slavery’s becoming the central institution of the Southern economy was the central precondition of the Civil War. 

-Nicholas Lemann

Catherine Miller Lends A Hand

William L. Sheppard’s First Use Of The Cotton Gin. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia Commons)

As Harlan points out, however, it was too early to celebrate.

“But there was still a problem, Eli pointed out. After a few cranks, the machine’s teeth became clogged with cotton fibers. ‘Why Mr. Whitney, you want a comb,’ Caty said, and handed him her hair brush. ‘Madam, you have completed the cotton gin,’ he said.”

So, who really invented the cotton gin? Was it Eli? Caty? Or both?

Whitney's Cotton Gin developed on Cumberland Island.  If only Caty hadn't brought her comb.
Whitney’s cotton gin revolutionized the industry which was great news for cotton planters, but terrible news for slaves who were now in ever increasing demand. If only Caty hadn’t brought her comb..
(Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Is There A Cumberland Curse?

Phineas Miller and his wife had high hopes. They built a mansion named Dungeness after James Oglethorpe’s hunting lodge of the same name. Like Nathanael Greene before him, however, Phineas did not live to see the fruits of his labors.

Less than a year after Dungeness was completed, he pricked his finger on a thorn, contracted lockjaw and died. Maybe he shouldn’t have taken that tutoring job after all.

Caty, undeterred, continued to manage her estate, throw lavish parties and find other ways to let everyone know she was once again the “Merry Widow of Cumberland Island.”

Enter Louisa Miller | Cumberland Island

Poor Light Horse Harry Lee.  Cumberland Island turned out to be his final destination.
Is this the home of Louisa Miller or Norman Bates? For Light Horse Harry Lee, it didn’t really matter. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

The “Merry Widow of Cumberland Island” died at the age of sixty having lived life her way. Control of Catherine Miller’s estate passed to her daughter Louisa.

Louisa didn’t invent anything or marry anyone who died an unnatural death, but her life was not without some notoriety.

Louisa’s deceased father had served with George Washington. She received a visit from another of Washington’s former generals.

In February of 1818, while sailing home, Light Horse Harry Lee asked to be let off his boat near the home of his former friend General Nathanael Greene. Too bad he didn’t check with Greene or Phineas Miller before making his reservation.

Another One Bites The Dust

Robert E. Lee visited Cumberland Island, but didn't stay long.
Photo Of Robert E. Lee Taken By Mathew Brady. Lee Visited Cumberland Island To Put Flowers On His Father’s Grave. He didn’t stay long, but can you really blame him? (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Light Horse Harry Lee, who was the father of famed Civil War General Robert E. Lee, arrived at Louisa’s dock broke. She took him in. Like Nathaniel Greene and Phineas Miller before him, Light Horse Harry would never leave the island alive.

He died and was buried there. Years later, his son came to pay homage to his illustrious father. And, as I understand it, got off of the island as quickly as possible.

Enter Robert Stafford | Cumberland Island

Robert Stafford courtesy of the National Park Service

Louisa passed from the scene in 1831. The next interesting character in the Cumberland Story would be Robert Stafford. His story was sufficiently intriguing that Mary Bullard wrote about it in a book titled, Robert Stafford of Cumberland Island: Growth of a Planter.

In it, Bullock would give her readers a rare glimpse into the life and times of a nineteenth-century planter on one of Georgia’s Sea Islands. Stafford, as Bullard noted, became the leading planter on the island with an estate of more than 8,000 acres and 350 slaves.

Stafford, by all appearances, was a typical planter of the antebellum period. This was Cumberland Island, however, so appearances were deceiving.

Enter Zabette | Cumberland Island

Robert Stafford became a part of the Cumberland Island Story.
Stafford Plantation, Playhouse, Saint Mary’s, Camden County. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Stafford never married, but fathered six children by Elizabeth Bernardey, a mulatto slave nurse.  Elizabeth, known as Zabette, lived in separate quarters adjacent to Stafford’s house.

Under Georgia law, female slaves were forbidden from living under the same roof as their masters. Nevertheless, judging by Stafford’s progeny, they did find a way to spend some quality time together.

A Slaveowner With A Conscience?

Cumberland Island would not be spared from civil war
Slavery Divided A Nation. Cumberland Island Was Not Spared From This Upheaval.
(Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Stafford was not the first planter to father children with one of his slaves. Multiple lines of evidence, including DNA analysis, indicate that Thomas Jefferson also fathered six children with a young woman named Sally Hemings who happened to be one of Jefferson’s slaves.

What made Stafford unusual was that he arranged to send his six children to Connecticut where they were considered free. He also paid for their education while there and built a house for them to live in.

So, is this guy a villain or a hero? Before you decide, allow me to confuse you further.

Things are seldom what they seem.

-W.S. Gilbert

Who Are The Good Guys?

Well, if you’re confused, you’re not alone. Keep reading and we’ll try to sort things out for you. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

At the outset of the Civil War, Zabette joined her six children in Connecticut. And what of Stafford you might ask? He was the only white man to remain on Cumberland Island during the war.

Three hundred and fifty of Stafford’s slaves, armed by Union forces, were not too thrilled with Stafford’s career advancement plan. They overran his estate.

Ironically, the “good guys” who armed those slaves also turned out to be the “bad guys” who rescued Stafford so he could exact his vengeance. He did this by burning down their cabins after the war.

What Happened To Stafford?

According to Lary Dilsaver, “Stafford lived on until 1877, an impoverished and bitter old man. After his death and subsequent litigation among his heirs, his land passed to two nephews, John Tomkins and Thomas D. Hawkins.

Stafford’s six children by his slave did not receive any land on Cumberland.”

How the planters, having lost the war for slavery, sought to begin again where they left off in 1860, merely substituting for the individual ownership of slaves, a new state serfdom of black folk.

-W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction In America

What happened To Zabette?

Life After The Civil War Was Difficult For African Americans Throughout The South. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

And what of Zabette you might ask? Sorry, no happy ending for her either. Her children wanted nothing to do with their mother.

Will Harlan writes, “She moved to a squatters’ field on Cumberland’s north end to live the rest of her life in a dirt-floored hut. No one knows where she is buried.”

How two theories of the future of America clashed and blended just after the Civil War: the one was abolition-democracy based on freedom, intelligence and power for all men; the other was industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power.

The uncomprehending resistance of the South, and the pressure of black folk, made these two thoughts uneasy and temporary allies.

― W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction In America 1860-1880 

Another Strange Death–Hey, It’s Cumberland Island

The island doesn’t take too kindly to generals. Just ask Nathanael Greene, Light Horse Harry Lee or William George Mackay Davis. Davis was the cousin of CSA President Jefferson Davis. He became a part of the Cumberland Island Story. Too bad General Lee didn’t warn him. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Is there a “Cumberland Curse?” The next bizarre death to add fuel to this fire would involve General William George Mackay Davis, a Confederate general and cousin of CSA President Jefferson Davis.

Davis was planning to build a resort on Cumberland Island after the war. Like other ambitious men before him, however, his plans ended in tragedy.

His son, Bernard, moved to Cumberland to help his father with the project. While out hunting one day, Bernard accidentally shot and killed his five-year-old son.  A grief stricken Bernard committed suicide a few months later. 

Following Bernard’s death, a devastated and grief-stricken General Davis sold his property. And, this brings us to our next notable resident. Or should I say victim?

(Source: Travel World International Magazine, Winter 2018 Issue)

Enter Thomas Carnegie | Cumberland Island

Thomas Carnegie Courtesy Of Wikimedia.

Thomas Carnegie figures prominently in the next chapter of the Cumberland Island story. He was the brother of Andrew Carnegie.

He was also the next one to tempt the fates. What we’ve learned so far is that distinguished men, and the occasional tutor, don’t fare too well on this island. Will Thomas be any luckier? Stay tuned.

The Robber Barons | Cumberland Island

The Men Who Built America Built The Most Exclusive Club In America–For Themselves, Their Families & Their Friends. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

After the Civil War, America entered the Industrial Age. Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and other titans of industry became the most powerful men in America. As a recent History Channel documentary proclaimed, these were the “Men Who Built America.”

Jekyll Island

Andrew Carnegie-One Of The Titans Of Industry (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

These wealthy titans worked hard and played hard. They pooled their resources and purchased, just one mile north of Cumberland, Jekyll Island.

There they created the most exclusive club in America. It would be called the Jekyll Island Club. For six decades, no uninvited person, including presidents of the United States, would set foot on its exclusive shore.

The Carnegies Come To The Island | Cumberland Island

Hotel Cumberland | Courtesy of the National Park Service

And what of the other Carnegies? Thomas Carnegie, jealous of the most exclusive club in America, decided to start his own exclusive club.

He had his eye on a private island off of the coast of Georgia, which could serve as a vacation spot for the “other” Carnegies. You guessed it! Cumberland Island.

Let The Buyer Beware

In the case of Cumberland Island, it pays to do one’s homework. Let the buyer beware! You may be left holding more than just the bag. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1882, after the deaths of his grandson and son, a grief stricken General Davis sold his property to Thomas Carnegie. It’s too bad Thomas didn’t do his homework on the life expectancies of the previous male residents.

What he did do was purchase, in total, twelve thousand acres of Cumberland Island, including Caty’s Dungeness and all of Stafford’s old property, for $75,000. He would give all of this to his wife, Lucy, as a present. You know where this one is headed, don’t you?

Here We Go Again | Cumberland Island

Is this becoming a bad horror movie? (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Lucy Carnegie, following in the footsteps of Catherine Miller, put her own stamp on the island. If Caty could build a mansion named Dungeness then Lucy could build an even bigger and better mansion of the same name.

Now, if you remember, less than a year after the original Dungeness was built, Phineas Miller suffered a freak accident and died. You also remember what they say about history repeating itself?

A year after Lucy built her new and improved Dungeness, Thomas Carnegie died too.

Is there a Cumberland Curse?

A Curse By Any Other Name Is Still A Curse

Lucy Carnegie ruled Cumberland Island
Lucy Carnegie Was The Second Strong-Willed Woman To Rule The Cumberland Island Roost. She was not the last. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Well, before you rush to any conclusions, I might point out that Thomas Carnegie died of pneumonia at forty-three. A history of alcoholism and the stress of being Andrew Carnegie’s brother may have been his real curse.

That having been said, his unexpected death does add weight to this idea that perhaps there is a curse on those men who attempt to bend Cumberland Island to their own will. And, Carnegie’s death would not be the last one.

The Queen Of Cumberland

Dungeness on Cumberland Island
Lucy Carnegie’s Dungeness Estate On Cumberland Island. In 1959, Dungeness Was Destroyed In A Fire. Arson Was Suspected. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

After the death of Thomas Carnegie, Lucy spent the next thirty years as the “Queen of Cumberland.” As Will Harlan writes,

“In her towering fifty-nine room mansion, she hosted exquisite dinner parties and lavish galas that were attended by industry chiefs, politicians and celebrities.

Guests in elegant topcoats and evening gowns sipped mint juleps on the veranda and waltzed the night away in Gatsbyesque grandeur.

In the smoke-filled parlor, cocky young heirs in silk-collared tuxedos loosened their ascots and wagered staggering sums in poker.”

And I like large parties. They’re so intimate. At small parties there isn’t any privacy.

-F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

A Living Curse?

Lucy Carnegie’s reign as “Queen Of Cumberland” would be reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby.
(Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

If there’s a “Cumberland Curse” then perhaps it’s a living curse too. Consider the lives of the Carnegie heirs. As the powerful matriarch, Lucy set the rules.

This left her children with nothing to do, but “hunt and fish, drink too much, and chase after what women could provide,” according to Lucy’s grandson James Rockefeller Jr.

Money can’t buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.

-Spike Milligan

Keep Your Friends Close And Your Family Closer

Life on Cumberland Island for the Carnegie clan would be a series of lavish parties.
Life for the Carnegie Clan would be a grand affair reminiscent of a bygone era. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Lucy spent the remainder of her life on the island. And why not? No woman had died an unexpected death on Cumberland. At least not yet.

To encourage her children to do likewise, she offered to build each of her nine a beautiful home. Four accepted her offer.

As Lary Dilsaver writes, “The beauty of Cumberland Island and the lavish lifestyle of the Carnegies became a source of constant interest and envy to the mainland neighbors in poverty-stricken Camden County, Georgia.”

A Time To Plunder | Cumberland Island

Hog races on Cumberland Island, c. 1903 | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Lucy Carnegie exited the Cumberland Story. She passed away in her sleep in 1916. A nice way to go especially when you consider what happened to Nathanael Greene, Phineas Miller, Light Horse Harry Lee, etc.

Before she died, however, Lucy had the foresight to draft a will forbidding the sale of any land or property on the island without the express consent of all of her children.

Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.

-Erich Fromm

Cash Strapped Carnegies

Glidden planned to destroy half of Cumberland Island.
Strip Mining Can Leave Deep Scars In The Environment. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Fast forward to the next generation. The Carnegie heirs, having lived life in the fast lane, were cash strapped. They decided it was time to liquidate their island holdings.

Glidden, a company which planned to strip mine the island for titanium, made the heirs to Lucy’s fortune an offer they couldn’t refuse; namely, $4.25 million in royalties in return for destroying up to 7,000 acres or roughly half of the island.

Just Say No

Freedman cabin on Cumberland Island | Courtesy of the National Park Service

Fortunately, as it turned out, one of those heirs did refuse. Nancy Carnegie Rockefeller, who was a member of not one, but two of the most famous business and philanthropic families in the United States, did not approve of the sale.

She knew how much Lucy had loved Cumberland Island. “I had to stop it,” Nancy said. “Mining the island would have desecrated it.”

Enter Retta Wright | Cumberland Island

Nancy Carnegie Rockefeller, who was related to Andrew Carnegie, married into the family of John D. Rockefeller. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Cumberland Island is a story of unlucky males and strong-willed females. Since the males, from Nathanael Greene to Thomas Carnegie, were dying off so quickly, one needs to appreciate the actions taken by strong-willed and independently-minded women beginning with Catherine Miller.

After the death of Lucy Carnegie, another of these remarkable ladies emerged. She began the next chapter of the island’s ongoing story.

Taking A Stand Against The Developers

Cumberland Island’s next strong-willed woman stood up to an ambitious developer who wanted to turn the island into a high-priced resort community. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Retta Wright was Lucy Carnegie’s granddaughter. As the other Carnegie heirs made their plans to sell to the highest bidder, Retta took a stand against the developers.

Cumberland Island needed a savior who could protect its amazing wildlife, natural wonders and unparalleled beauty for generations yet to come. And Retta found one.

The National Park Service Announced Plans To Create A Network Of National Seashores Which Would Be Protected. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

The National Park Service To The Rescue | Cumberland Island

Secretary Of The Interior Stewart Udall With First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, On A Raft In Grand Teton National Park, 1964. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

In the 1950s, the National Park Service announced plans to create a network of national seashores which would be protected.

Along the Atlantic Seashore, environmental groups ranked Cumberland Island as the second most desirable place to preserve and protect behind only Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

While other members of the Carnegie family were entertaining an ambitious proposal by a determined developer, Retta invited President Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to tour the island.

Udall liked what he saw and the National Park Service became interested in the future of Cumberland Island.

We have, I fear, confused power with greatness.

Plans to protect air and water, wilderness and wildlife are in fact plans to protect man.

-Stewart Udall

Charles Fraser Versus The Park Service | Cumberland Island

Charles Fraser Wanted To Develop Cumberland Island The Same Way He Had Developed Hilton Head. Hilton Head Island Resort Courtesy Of Wikimedia Creative Commons

As Mary Bullard writes, “In 1968, an energetic new player appeared. Short, unsmiling real estate developer Charles E. Fraser of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. The first bridge to Hilton Head was constructed in 1956, and the island became nationally known as a resort for the affluent, winning numerous awards for excellence in land use.”

Whereas Retta Wright believed Cumberland Island ought to be enjoyed by all of the people, Charles Fraser believed it ought to be enjoyed by all of the “right” people.

Fraser’s projected development would include rental apartments, marinas, a hospital, airstrips, helicopter pads, shopping facilities, athletic and amusement facilities. Everything, it would seem, except a statue to Charles Fraser himself.

How often the process of construction starts with destruction.

― Cynan Jones, Stillicide

Overplaying His Hand

Charles Fraser overplayed his hand on Cumberland Island.
An ambitious Charles Fraser would overplay his hand on Cumberland Island. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

While it appeared Charles Fraser held the winning hand, he would overplay that hand. Will Harlan writes, “They [the Carnegie heirs] were growing increasingly hostile toward Fraser, especially after a Carnegie heir married one of Fraser’s junior executives.

The wedding was held at Plum Orchard mansion, and Fraser arrived at the reception carrying a large suitcase of maps.”

Don’t Bring Blueprints To A Wedding

Charles Fraser Enraged The Carnegies By Trying To Promote His Development At A Wedding Held At Plum Orchard. Plum Orchard Courtesy of Wikimedia.

To the Carnegies’ horror, he [Charles Fraser] unrolled his blueprints while the newlyweds danced, and he touted his eco-sensitive development plans in between toasts.

The Carnegies’ disdain for the obnoxious, new-money developer soon soured into outright revulsion. They decided not to sell Fraser any more land and joined Retta in negotiations with the National Park Service.”

I think a silverware set would have made a much better wedding gift than blueprints for an expensive resort community.

A Sweetheart Deal | Cumberland Island

Let’s Make A Deal! And, the Carnegies most certainly did! (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

The National Park Service made the Carnegies an incredible offer. They agreed to pay the families millions for selling their land. And, the Carnegies would get to continue living on Cumberland Island for the rest of their lives.

Each of the landowners were additionally permitted to live, drive and recreate within the national park itself. And, the deal gets even better than that!

Remember how, in the introduction to our story, I told you that Cumberland Island would make some folks rich? Perhaps I should have said richer.

The rich become richer and the poor become poorer is a cry heard throughout the whole civilized world.

-Friedrich Schiller

No Millionaires Left Behind

packs, pile, money-163497.jpg

The National Park Service would maintain all of their roads, haul away all of their trash and build boat docks for the private use of the Carnegies and their friends. And, as if that wasn’t enough, they were even given permission to lease their properties.

The National Park Service also agreed to keep their lands separate so they would not have to mingle with the masses. Who wants to do that!

Imagine a deal where you receive millions for a property which you continue to enjoy for the rest of your life while the government is paying all of the bills to maintain and protect that property.

And, if you don’t have enough money, you can earn additional income leasing your property to someone else. No millionaires left behind?

Cumberland Island Brought Out The Best In Some People

Cumberland Island seashore
The Cumberland Island National Seashore. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Retta Wright’s altruism led her to sell her property for significantly less than its market value. She also donated her Plum Orchard Estate to the government as well. Cumberland Island brought out the best in some people.

And then there’s the other Carnegie heirs. They secured top dollar for their holdings while insisting their lifetime rights be passed along to their unborn grandchildren, which has to leave one wondering: Whose island is it anyway?

Another Strong-Willed Lucy | Cumberland Island

The Carnegie Heirs would prove more adept at the “Art Of The Deal” than a businessman turned politician who wrote a best-selling book by the same name. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

While the dust settled on the Carnegies lucrative deal with the federal government, there was still one heir left who had refused to sell. Lucy Ferguson was heir to the Greyfield Estate. She opposed creation of the national seashore and almost prevented it from happening.

This strong-willed Lucy viewed the National Park Service as intruders who were no better than the developers who had tried to defile her beloved island.

Another Cumberland Island Queen

The Greyfield Estate became the historic Greyfield Inn (Courtesy Of Lecrosby, Wikimedia Creative Commons)

Like Lucy Carnegie, Lucy Ferguson saw herself as the “Queen of Cumberland Island.” Will Harlan writes, “Lucy viewed the entire island as her own, including the animals. She laid claim to the entire population of cattle and hogs that freely roamed the island.

Also hers were the sea turtles–and their eggs, which she liked to use in her cakes. Even the humans were part of her island empire.”

Lucy was notorious for ordering park service officials about as if they were her private staff. Is there anyone she didn’t boss around?

Historic Preservation Versus Wilderness Protection | Cumberland Island

Gogo Ferguson Wanted To Build A Performing Arts Center On Cumberland Island. While Not As Large As The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion In Los Angeles, Her Plans Left Environmental Groups Concerned For The Island’s Future Nonetheless. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

The next generation produced two strong-willed women with different visions for Cumberland Island. One was Janet Ferguson, Lucy Ferguson’s granddaughter. Nicknamed, “Gogo,” she spearheaded an effort to create a Carnegie-Cook Center for the Performing Arts.

Nature Takes A Backseat To Historic Preservation

Gogo’s vision for Cumberland Island is one where nature takes a backseat to historic preservation. Her dream is to transform the Plum Orchard Estate into a retreat attracting artists and scholars from across the globe.

Of course, facilities would have to be constructed to support these gatherings, but Gogo believes these events would justify their costs.

Lucy Meet Carol

The Heirs Of Coca Cola’s Asa Candler Would Join The Heirs Of Thomas Carnegie On Cumberland Island.
(Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

This vision brought her into conflict with another strong-willed woman. Arguably, she is the most unusual person to ever set foot on the island. Her name is Carol Ruckdeschel.

Carol came to the island in the 1970s. She went to work for the Candler Family and lived on their property at High Point. These Candlers were the descendants of Asa Candler who made his fortune building Coca-Cola into one of the most successful corporations in the world.

A billion hours ago, human life appeared on earth. A billion minutes ago, Christianity emerged. A billion seconds ago, the Beatles changed music. A billion Coca-Colas ago was yesterday morning.

-Roberto Goizueta

The Strange Tale Of Louis McKee | Cumberland Island

Elements Of Carol Ruckdeschel’s Life Story Could Have Sprung From A Hollywood Movie.
(Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

The Candlers dispensed with Carol’s services. She managed to remain on the island, however, by purchasing a small parcel of land from the descendants of slaves who had once worked on Cumberland.

Shortly afterwards, Carol became romantically involved with a land surveyor and speculator named Louis McKee. McKee made Carol co-owner of some of his lands and heir to his estate.

It Could Have Sprung From A Hollywood Movie

Cumberland Island meets Alfred Hitchcock. The story takes another strange turn with the death of Real Estate Developer Louis McKee. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Elements of Carol’s life story could have sprung from a Hollywood movie. And, just when you thought we were finished with the Cumberland Curse, guess what?

“On April 17, 1980, Ruckdeschel was in her home with a visiting hiker, Peter DiLorenzo.  According to Ruckdeschel’s statement, collaborated by DiLorenzo, McKee began to pound on her home’s door and demand entry. 

Ruckdeschel stated that she feared for her life.

When McKee tried to break down the door, she shot him in the chest, ironically, with an illegal sawed off shotgun that McKee had given her for protection. “

(Source: Travel World International Magazine, Winter 2018 Issue)

Cleared Without Charges

Is There A “Cumberland Curse?” (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

“When the rangers responded to her phone call, McKee was dead. The Camden County Sheriff and park rangers took Ruckdeschel’s and DiLorenzo’s statements at the sheriff’s office in Woodbine.  The next day, a coroner’s jury cleared her without charges.”

(Source: Travel World International Magazine, Winter 2018 Issue)

Is there a “Cumberland Curse?”

The Rest Of The Ruckdeschel Story | Cumberland Island

Carol Ruckdeschel

There’s more to Carol’s story than what happened on that April night in 1980.

Six years earlier, she was the subject of John McPhee’s celebrated New Yorker story about “The Wild Woman From Georgia” who ate roadkill and convinced then Governor Jimmy Carter to protect the Chattahoochee River after she took him on a canoe trip and showed him the pollution pouring into it.

Carol built her cabin in the wilderness for many of the same reasons as Thoreau, who went to the woods “to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could learn what it had to teach, and not, when I come to die, discover that I had not lived.

― Will Harlan, Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island

jimmy carter greatest conservationist president
Jimmy Carter Became Friends With Carol Ruckdeschel. He Visited Her During His Outings To Cumberland Island. (Courtesy Of The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)

RELATED: No, Theodore Roosevelt Was Not The Greatest Conservation President. It Was Jimmy Carter.

If there is ever a conflict [between environmental quality and economic growth], I will go for beauty, clean air, water, and landscape.

-Jimmy Carter

The Wildest Woman In America

Untamed by Will Harlan

Will Harlan first met Carol while working as a park ranger on Cumberland Island years later. He described her as follows, “Carol forged her wild identity on the outskirts of Atlanta.

The wildness of Cumberland called to Ruckdeschel, and she claimed it as her right, moving a mile inland deep into the woods near the alligator swamps and hog paths, becoming “almost feral” in her quest for helping the island “evolve into a wilder place.”

An Impressive Resume

Carol’s research on sea turtles demonstrated the dangers posed to their existence by human activities. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Carol also happens to be an internationally acclaimed biologist, naturalist, environmental activist and author. Her research on sea turtles demonstrated the dangers posed to their existence by human activities.

Vilified by her opponents and lionized by her supporters, Carol Ruckdeschel has made the preservation and protection of Cumberland’s wildlife her own life’s mission.

So Many Questions

Is Carol a hero or a villain? What about Lucy? Which Lucy? What about the other Carnegies? Which other Carnegies? The National Park Service? So many questions.

 So let’s leave it alone, cause we can’t see eye to eye,

There ain’t no good guy, there ain’t no bad guy,

There’s only you and me and we just disagree.

-We Just Disagree, lyrics by Dave Mason

Historic Preservation Versus Wilderness Protection

The debate between GoGo and Carol reflects the larger debate over the limits to profit-making when it comes to our nation’s public lands. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

Just as John Muir and Gifford Pinchot differed over preservation versus conservation, Gogo Ferguson and Carol Ruckdeschel differ over whether historic preservation or wilderness protection ought be the number one priority on Cumberland Island.

Today the National Park Service finds itself caught in their crossfire.

The Future Of Cumberland Island

The Candlers, like the Carnegies, struck a lucrative deal with the federal government.

Lary Dilshaver writes, “Eventually the agency agreed to a complex package of retained rights including a 38-acre estate, exclusive rights to adjacent docks, roads, and beach access, the right to post ‘No Trespassing’ signs at the compound, and a price of $9.6 million.”

This deal was completed in 1982.

Nothing in life worth having comes easy.

That is unless you are rich.

-R.J. Intindola

The Opening Round Of A Much Bigger Fight

On Cumberland Island, the rich got richer courtesy of the rest of us.
On Cumberland Island, the rich got richer courtesy of the rest of us. This image is courtesy of Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century. The Candler family filed a lawsuit claiming the National Park Service was denying them their retained rights. The Candlers lost this battle in court.

The National Park Service successfully invoked the Wilderness Act refusing to allow the Candlers to move or extend a dock. While the court upheld their action, this proved to be the opening round of a much bigger fight.

Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s needs, but not every man’s greed.

― Mahatma Gandhi

Conservation Preservation

The Wilderness Act, Signed By President Lyndon Johnson, Designated 9.1 Million Acres As Wilderness And Laid Out A Long-Term Study Process For Additional Designations. (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

The Candlers want to build on land the National Park Service didn’t buy. Standing in their way is that, since 2002, the land in question has been zoned as “Conservation Preservation.”

And, its more than just the Candlers who have a stake in the outcome of this battle. Others, including Carnegie heirs, still retain land not directly owned by the Park Service.

One of the first conditions of happiness is that the link between man and nature shall not be broken.

—Leo Tolstoy

Changing Alliances

In 2017, journalists Mark Woods and Matt Smith reported on efforts which would allow land on Cumberland Island, adjacent to the main road, to be divided into 10 lots.

The property at issue is owned by a family corporation created by heirs of Coca-Cola founder Asa G. Candler. They want to divide their 87-acre parcel on the south end of the island into 10 separate lots, allowing family members to build their own homes.

So, Who Are The Good Guys? And Who Are The Bad Guys?

The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre Is A Timeless Tale. A Study Of Human Greed Which Led To Human Tragedy. And, What Of Cumberland Island? How Will That Story End? (Courtesy Of Wikimedia)

Hundreds of people wrote Camden County officials to express their opposition. Among their names were Carnegie and Rockefeller.

On the other side was Atlanta lawyer Glenn Warren. Warren is a Candler descendant representing those who want to develop this pristine land. So, who are the good guys? And who are the bad guys?

Two Questions

Cumberland Island National Seashore. (Courtesy OF Wikimedia)

We began with two questions: (1) Is there a Cumberland Curse? and (2) Whose island is it anyway? As for the first question, we may never know the answer.

As for the second question, the history of Cumberland Island shows us both the best and the worst in humankind. Some are sincere in their desire to protect the island from man-made threats. Others want to profit irrespective of the harm it will do.

All one has to do is look at the history of the Carnegie family to see how the battle between preservation and exploitation has shaped the island’s story.

A majority of the Carnegie heirs were prepared to turn Cumberland over to Glidden to be strip mined. It was only through the determined efforts of one family member that this destruction was averted.

Whose island is it anyway? I’m not sure we can answer that question either, but if we can then we’ll know, once and for all, what the future holds in store for one of America’s most beautiful national seashores.

Planning A Trip To Cumberland Island?

Cumberland Island is a wonderful place to spend a few days. If you go then be sure to call ahead to find out what’s open and what’s not. Also, you will need to make reservations if you’re planning to stay overnight. (Courtesy of Wikimedia)

If you’re planning a trip to this beautiful national seashore retreat then your journey will begin in St. Mary’s, Georgia. You will want to take a ferry to the island itself where there is a visitor center, museum and nearby attractions.

Regarding those nearby attractions, they include: Dungeness Ruins, Beach, Plum Orchard Mansion, the First African American Baptist Church where John Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette were married in 1996, and the Sea Camp Ranger Station.

If you’re planning to camp on the island then you must have a reservation. You should check before you go as some of the facilities may be closed.

Tony Pattiz

Tony Pattiz is a retired history teacher currently researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks.

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