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Lying twenty miles south of Savannah, Ossabaw, the principal barrier island of the upper Georgia coast (11,800 upland acres) and the third largest of Georgia's Sea Islands, is rich in archaeological diversity. Extensive yields of prehistoric deposits of shell mounds and artifacts on this remote and undeveloped island provide indications of human occupation dating to 2,000 B.C. Native Americans utilized the island extensively, and evidence based on Spanish records indicates that a Guale Indian village called Asapo was probably located on Ossabaw.
The first European contact with the Guale on Ossabaw Island was probably in 1568, when Spanish officials based at St. Augustine, Florida, began establishing a system of missions, led first by Jesuits and later by Franciscans, along the coast that would become Georgia. There was no permanent mission on Ossabaw, but Franciscan friars interacted with the Guale at the island village of Asapo until its destruction by the Spanish in 1579 as part of retaliatory actions taken against rebellious Indians along the coast.
Ossabaw was among English colonial lands involved in claims to ownership by the Reverend Thomas Bosomworth and his wife, Mary Musgrove, the mixed-race interpreter for James Oglethorpe. The English courts disputed the Bosomworths' claims and in 1760, after lengthy legal maneuvering, awarded them St. Catherines Island, immediately south of Ossabaw. Ossabaw was then placed on public auction. John Morel, a Savannah merchant, purchased half of Ossabaw in 1760 and the other half in 1763. Morel began agricultural and live oak timber-cutting operations there and also introduced the first slaves to the island. His death in 1777 resulted in Ossabaw's division into several different sections of ownership.
During the antebellum period Ossabaw Island was the scene of extensive farming operations, particularly in the staple crop of Sea Island cotton. Four families owned slaves and cultivated crops on Ossabaw.
The Morel family retained the northern part of the island and farmed the tract until its sale to James M. Waterbury, a leading sportsman of the era and a founder of the New York Yacht Club, in 1886. At North End was a plantation residence, as well as several tabby slave dwellings. Three of the slave quarters still stand. Middle Place was a Morel family property until 1806. It eventually became an active farm tract owned by Alexander McDonald, who in 1843 began cultivating Sea Island cotton. According to the U.S. agricultural census of 1860, McDonald had sixty-nine slaves residing in seventeen dwellings at Middle Place.
George Jones Kollock owned the southern part of Ossabaw Island during the antebellum period. Kollock lived on the mainland at Coffee Bluff, near Savannah, but he was the most active planter on Ossabaw before the Civil War (1861-65), with seventy-two slaves working in fields that produced up to 20,000 pounds of cotton during the years 1850-60. South End is the best documented of Ossabaw's antebellum plantations, because many of the account books and ledgers kept by Kollock's overseers have survived. The fourth division of Ossabaw was the Buckhead tract, which was planted on a small scale by Nathaniel G. Rutherford.
After the Civil War there was a small freedmen's settlement on Ossabaw. By 1878 this community had established an African Baptist church on the island to serve its approximately 160 black residents. In 1896 the prominent archaeologist C. B. Moore conducted extensive investigations of Ossabaw's Indian burial mounds as part of his research along the Georgia coast. Severe hurricanes in 1896 and 1898 caused Ossabaw's black population to move to the mainland, where they settled in the tidewater community of Pinpoint, south of Savannah.
During the postbellum period much of Ossabaw was owned by Waterbury. Later the island was acquired by Philadelphians John Wanamaker and his son, Thomas B. Wanamaker, owners of one of the nation's largest department-store chains. The Wanamakers built the clubhouse on the north end of the island, a structure that still stands. In 1907 Henry D. Weed of Savannah acquired 9,416 upland acres on Ossabaw, including North End, Middle Place, and South End. When Weed added Buckhead to his holdings in 1916, all of Ossabaw Island was under ownership of a single individual for the first time since the death of John Morel in 1777. The 1920 census counted twenty-three persons living on Ossabaw, most engaged in subsistence farming.
The most prominent twentieth-century family associated with Ossabaw Island was the Torrey family of Detroit. In 1924 Dr. Henry Norton Torrey and his wife, Nell Ford Torrey, purchased Ossabaw. In 1926 construction was completed on the large Spanish Mediterranean–style Main House near Torrey Landing on the northern end of the island. The Torreys also developed roads, hunting lodges, and a beach house. Formal gardens were laid out at the Main House. A number of prominent visitors came to Ossabaw as guests of the Torreys from 1926 to 1945. Some of these included automotive pioneer Henry Ford, who had his winter home on the adjacent mainland at Richmond Hill; Howard Coffin and Richard J. Reynolds Jr., successive owners of nearby Sapelo Island; banker and philanthropist Mills B. Lane of Savannah and Atlanta; and Alvan Macauley, who founded the Packard Motor Company.
In 1961 the Torreys' daughter, Eleanor Torrey West, and her husband, Clifford B. West, instituted the Ossabaw Project, a successful outreach program conducted over the next twenty years. Qualified individuals chosen from a variety of disciplines, including the arts, humanities, and sciences, were invited to come to the island for study and research. One of the most successful ventures was the Genesis Project, begun in 1970, in which persons interested in ecology, botany, and environmental studies came to Ossabaw for research in a shared wilderness-community experience. Participants in the project constructed their own residential buildings at Middle Place.
In 1978 the state of Georgia acquired Ossabaw Island through the efforts of Eleanor Torrey West, and it became the state's first heritage preserve, for scientific and cultural research and environmental preservation. It came under the management of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, but Eleanor West retained a twenty-four-acre life estate on the island. In 2003 a new state policy took effect, giving more of the public a chance to visit and tour the island. Some environmentalists are worried that increased human presence could endanger habitats for such rare species as the American oystercatcher and the federally protected loggerhead turtle.