Ossabaw Island is the third largest barrier island located off the coast of Georgia. Shell middens and artifacts uncovered during archaeological digs suggest that human use of the island dates back to at least 2,000 B.C. Europeans probably first set foot on Ossabaw Island in the 16th century when Spanish friars endeavored to convert the Guale living on the island to Catholicism. In 1760, James Morel purchased Ossabaw Island in a public auction after Mary Musgrove gave up her claim to the land in exchange for the title to St. Catherine’s Island and £2,100.
The first African Americans to live on Ossabaw Island were enslaved peoples brought by James Morel. Leading up to the Civil War, there were several large plantations growing long-staple cotton, indigo, rice, corn, and other crops and harvesting live oak. The enslaved peoples living on Ossabaw Island developed a unique culture that combined their West African traditions with their experiences in the new world. Those practicing this distinctive way of life are known as the Gullah-Geechee people.
After the Civil War, many African-American’s left the island to fulfill their desire to own land after the promise of Special Field Orders No. 15 was revoked and land on Ossabaw Island was returned to its previous owners. Others chose to stay on the island that had become their home. After a series of deadly hurricanes in the 1880s and 1890s, most of the remaining African-American community left for the mainland settling in communities such as Pin Point and Sandfly.
In 1924, the Torrey family from Detroit purchased Ossabaw Island for their personal use as a seasonal retreat and hunting preserve. African Americans continued to live and work on Ossabaw Island as employees of the Torrey family until the 1980s. In 1978 the state of Georgia purchased Ossabaw Island from the Torrey family creating Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve. Today, the island is set aside for natural, scientific, and cultural study, research and education under the management of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. The Ossabaw Island Foundation is responsible for public use and education initiatives on Ossabaw Island.
The Georgia Historical Society is home to the Ossabaw Island and Torrey Family Papers MS 1326. This archival collection contains records related to the management and use of the islands from 1699 to 2007. The earliest original document is the grant from King George II issued in 1760. Some of the most unique and important documents in this collection include slave inventories from 1812 and 1817, historical maps from the 18th century until the 20th century, and extensive scientific research on sea turtles and other topics. All five of the primary sources included in this case study come from the Ossabaw Island and Torrey Family Papers MS 1326.