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  • Ann D. Watson

Cumberland Island History and Genealogy

I recently visited Cumberland Island, the largest barrier island off the coast of Georgia.

Maritime forest on Cumberland Island

I don't pretend to know very much about this island, but it is rich in history. It was home to Timucuan Indians before the Spanish arrived and was the site of forts the British built to defend against the Spanish. Then it was the location of many plantations that used slave labor. The British freed the slaves during the 1812 War, but slavery resumed there and before the Civil War there were up to 500 working the plantations. (1)

After the Civil War, Robert Stafford, owner of the largest plantation, was reportedly greatly surprised when his former slaves refused to work any more because he "took good care of his slaves." (2)

A small settlement of freedmen developed at the north end of Cumberland. Their descendants are buried in a cemetery on the island. The Settlement people built a Baptist church there which can be visited today along with another surviving building. In 2004, descendants of the Settlement inhabitants gathered there, after descendant Pamela Stafford did much genealogical research. (3)

In the 1880s Thomas M. Carnegie purchased two plantations and built a huge mansion. The Carnegies held their property and built several other homes there. In the 1960s and 70s they worked with the National Park Foundation to create Cumberland Island National Seashore Park. (4)

We took a tour of the "Plum Orchard" mansion, now a museum.


In one bathroom, there was a knob that could be turned to add shampoo to the hot and cold running water.

The kitchen had a wonderful room which was just for making pastry. Pie safes on either side of the counter had screen doors instead of solid wood, so as to keep out the flies but allow ventilation. What a great place to bake!

Pastry Kitchen at Plum Orchard

The two Carnegie mansions, Dungeness (in ruins) and Plum Orchard were impressive to look at. I kept thinking about those who built them and worked there to make the luxurious living possible, about the African-Americans who were enslaved on the island, and about the native peoples whose lifestyle was destroyed by the coming of the Europeans — as well as the people who worked together to create a National Park to preserve the island's historic and ecological heritage.

Mary Ricketson Bullard, a scholar and Carnegie descendant, has written a very well-researched history of the island, including a detailed study of slaves and slave owners, as well as of the Carnegies and their descendants who today own and run the Greyfield Inn on the island. The book is Cumberland Island: A History (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2005), and is readily available. It would be an excellent place to start if your genealogical research brings you to the island.

Please write and let me know if I have made any errors in this posting.


1. National Park Service, "Cumberland Island National Seashore, Cumberland Island, Georgia" ( : accessed 26 March 2017), path Discover History > Heritage Travel > Heritage Travel > Discover our Shared Heritage Travel Itineraries > American Latino Heritage > List of Sites > Georgia > Cumberland Island National Seashore.

2. "Slavery on Cumberland Island," National Park Planner ( : accessed 2 April 2017), para. 2, path: Parks by State > Georgia > Cumberland Island National Seashore > Guided Tours > Dungeness Area Tour > Early Inhabitants > The Maritime Forest > Slavery on Cumberland Island.

3. "Descendants of Slaves Gather on Cumberland Island," The Augusta Chronicle online posting ( : accessed 2 April 2017).

4. Mary Bullard, "Cumberland Island," New Georgia Encyclopedia [online]. 9 September 2014 ( : accessed 1 April 2017).

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