By Dorinda Dallmeyer

We may give a name to an island but we are defined by the imprint it leaves on us.

Humans have been part of the Ossabaw landscape for over 5,000 years. As they did on many other Georgia barrier islands, native peoples left behind evidence of their occupation in the form of shell middens, mounds constructed largely of oyster shell left over from seasonal feasting. These mounds also served as burial sites for their kin; in four Ossabaw mounds dated at 1100-1300 C.E., archaeologists found dogs interred there as well. Although much of the shell material later was mined to build tabby structures and to surface sandy roads, in places you still can stand on the remains of a midden bordering a tidal creek and contemplate a landscape across the centuries. Often there’s a clump of red buckeye growing close by; it’s not a coincidence. The native peoples used buckeye sap to stun fish so they were easy to harvest in these calm backwaters.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, coastal natives would have seen French sailing ships mapping the Georgia islands and naming its rivers after those of their homeland. Likewise, the Spanish continued to explore the islands of “La Florida.” Although they established a mission on St. Catherines Island to the south, on Ossabaw the Spanish seemed to be just passing through. So far, only a few pottery fragments from broken olive jars reveal their presence there.

Once the English settled their boundary wars with Spain, Ossabaw’s natural resources became a magnet for a series of landowners. Its live oaks were cut for valuable ship timbers; a few ships were even built on Ossabaw, right next to the lumber supply. Forests growing on the rich soils in the island’s interior were cleared first for indigo culture, a blue dyestuff highly prized by the British. Then, in the 1800s, four plantations switched crops to grow the pride of the Georgia coast: long-staple Sea Island cotton. Whatever the crop, plantation owners relied on the labor and skills of enslaved Africans. Today the restored slave dwellings at the North End site bear witness to the presence of the enslaved on the land.

During the Civil War, everyone abandoned Ossabaw for the relative security of the mainland. Once emancipated, the freedmen established their own mainland communities at Pinpoint and Sandfly, while a few returned to live and work on the island as Ossabaw changed hands many more times. Finally, in 1924, the entire island’s 26,000 acres were purchased for $150,000 to serve as a winter home for the Torrey family. While the fate of Ossabaw has lain in human hands for centuries, its conservation from 1959 well into the 21st century was guided and inspired by Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, who died on January 17, 2021 — on her 108th birthday.

In a conversation I had with her in 2003, Sandy said that at first, she hated Ossabaw. Each year, her family left Michigan to spend the winters at their home near Thunderbolt. Following a disastrous house fire, however, her parents bought Ossabaw and moved the family there. Sandy resented being separated from her Savannah friends so much that at the conclusion of the storm-tossed move aboard a dangerously listing boat, the 11-year-old spat on the ground as soon as her feet touched shore. Fortunately, after only a week or so, in her rambles with her brother, Sandy came to realize that she had found her place.

The Torrey-West family clearly was committed to conservation at Ossabaw. Spearheaded by Sandy, their philanthropic support was legendary in fostering interdisciplinary connections between art and science at this island retreat. In the mid-1970s, however, all that came under threat. Chatham County dramatically reappraised the island’s value, resulting in a proposed astronomical increase in property taxes. With the leadership of Governors Jimmy Carter and George Busbee, in 1978 the Georgia legislature created a new designation for protecting Georgia’s cultural and natural history: the State Heritage Preserve. At Ossabaw, the state took ownership of all 26,000 acres, while Sandy retained a life estate in the family home and the 23 acres immediately surrounding it. Sold by the Torrey-West family to the state for $8 million dollars — half its assessed value — Ossabaw was the first of today’s 122 State Heritage Preserves encompassing 335,000 acres across Georgia.

Under the umbrella of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), the island is managed primarily by its Wildlife Resources Division. Ossabaw’s pristine shoreline plays a particularly important role in DNR’s Sea Turtle Conservation Program as illustrated by the 537 turtle nests counted there in 2020. Another major part of DNR’s role is the control of non-native species, specifically the Sisyphean task of reducing the population of wild hogs which severely disrupt both flora and fauna.

Another arm of management on the island is The Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF). Established in 1994, the Foundation was created to manage programming and facilities on the island and to serve as the steward of the Heritage Preserve. A challenge for raising public interest in the island is that getting to Ossabaw still takes an extended boat trip. To engage the public in their efforts, the Foundation provides a wide variety of programs to attract visitors, whether for a day trip or an overnight stay in the restored club-house. Restoration of the slave cabins has renewed connections between the Black community at Pinpoint and the island where their forebears lived. In keeping with Sandy West’s interest in the intersection of arts and conservation, TOIF offers writers’ retreats, nature study trips, workshops where people participate in the alchemy of creating indigo dye, and opportunities for artists to be inspired and create new works on-site.

Challenges still arise in maintaining the protected status of Ossabaw and other State Heritage Preserves. In the 2020 Georgia legislative session, an ill-conceived bill was introduced that would have permitted the state to subdivide and sell to any private individual or corporation up to 15 acres and structures for development in any Heritage Preserve. Unlike the 1978 Act, the proposed bill eliminated review of the transfer by the General Assembly and provided little opportunity for notice to the public. After an onslaught of phone calls, emails, news stories, and editorials, the bill failed when those promoting it could not find even one legislator willing to sponsor it in the State Senate. Without a doubt, good stewardship of Georgia’s Heritage Preserves has a statewide constituency who will respond in time of need.

In the wake of Sandy West’s passing, her home and 23 acres became part of the Heritage Preserve. Under a five-year renewable agreement between the state and TOIF, the Foundation now is coordinating and leading the management of the Torrey-West House and surrounding acreage. To support the maintenance and renovation of the house, several years ago TOIF created the Torrey-West Fund which continues to accept donations, especially memorial donations to honor Sandy West. In addition to grant support, TOIF hosts its signature fundraiser, the annual Ossabaw Island Pig Roast. Another popular opportunity for donors is the Adopt-an-Ossabaw-Donkey campaign. For many years the Sicilian donkeys on the island were an Ossabaw fixture. But from a herd of 11 introduced as pets for Sandy’s son, over time their numbers swelled to 150. To reduce the donkeys’ impact on the island’s vegetation, all but two have been re-homed on the mainland. But you still can “adopt” one, by making a donation to support conservation of the island’s natural environment.

In the words of TOIF’s executive director Elizabeth DuBose, “Sandy wanted Ossabaw’s visitors to be transformed by the island, not vice versa.” I experienced Ossabaw’s transformative power before I even met Sandy.

On my first visit, I came upon a weather-beaten but still majestic live oak. Although it had lost its crown, two great branches seemed to reach out like welcoming arms. Despite the passage of nearly a century since Sandy West’s arrival, the oak stands there in a pose both of praise and of summoning, asking our help to continue the stewardship of the only home it has ever known.

American Oystercatcher by Tim Keyes

New Outreach Programs Protect Critical Shorebird Habitats

By Abby Sterling, Ph.D.
Director of Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative

As you make your way to Ossabaw Island through winding tidal creeks, you pass shell rakes lining the marshes and sand bars and mudflats that are exposed at lower tides. Without an experienced boat captain some of these features can make the trip very difficult. But these obstacles that make navigation a challenge are critical habitats for shorebirds. At this time of year, we see our nesting species like American Oystercatchers incubating eggs or raising chicks on shell rakes. Migratory species like Red Knots and other sandpipers feed on horseshoe crab eggs and invertebrates that will become fuel to carry them to their Arctic nesting grounds. One way that we can protect these sensitive remote habitats is through engaging the specific audiences that access them.

Many of these remote places are sensitive to negative impacts when people, often unintentionally, disturb the shorebirds that rely on them. A primary goal of Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative is to reduce negative impacts for human recreational disturbance, and an effective way to do this is through targeted education and outreach. Over the last year and a half, we at Manomet have worked with partners including Katie Higgins of UGA Marine Extension and Georgia Sea Grant to develop and launch the CARE program, which is an educational certification to share information with ecotourism groups on the Georgia Coast. Our primary goal is to reduce disturbance at remote places where guides might be taking groups. We completed the first year of the CARE course with 17 participants in the first cohort. Guides and owners of ecotourism outfits from Savannah to Brunswick participated in an online learning platform, weekly live lectures, and an in-person field day component to earn their certification.

Another important way we are seeking to protect the more remote habitats that shorebirds rely on between the mainland and the barrier islands like Ossabaw is to work with recreational boaters who might visit places like Raccoon Key or other sandbars, and who unintentionally disrupt feeding, nesting, and resting shorebirds. In cooperation with Georgia DNR, we are conducting surveys of boaters throughout the summer to learn more about why they visit these sites, what they know about shorebirds, and from where they access the sites. Then, we will launch a steward program to help educate recreational boaters about the needs of shorebirds and other wildlife, and how they can reduce negative impacts to these sensitive species. This is especially important because, for some of the boaters, these remote sand bars and inlets are beloved and traditional places that they come to every weekend, every year throughout the summer. On Memorial Day, we talked to one group who said they’d been coming to their site for 40 years!

While Ossabaw and other beautiful, undeveloped barrier islands provide incredible habitat for shorebirds on quiet beaches and marshes, the busier places in-between are also valuable. By working with the communities that value and depend on these places, we can form alliances and shift the culture to one where increased awareness means more opportunities for wildlife. This, in turn, protects fragile habitat and protects the intrinsic value of our coast and ensures that we will support shorebirds and other wildlife into the future. The next time you’re travelling to one of the islands, take a moment to appreciate all the interesting habitats on the way; these important places deserve our attention, too!


Update from Manomet’s Georgia Bight Shorebird Conservation Initiative: We are pleased to share this film from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology which documents the discovery of the largest known nighttime whimbrel roost just twenty miles south of Charleston, South Carolina. Biologists observed nearly 20,000 whimbrel (half the estimated eastern population of the declining shorebird) stopping at Deveaux Bank along their migration north.  I encourage you to watch the film and to reach out to me at to support our efforts.

Bill Dickinson

Bill Dickinson: Ossabaw Island Ambassador

By Burch Barger

When Bill Dickinson visited Ossabaw Island for the first time in 2012, two things struck him: the island’s unspoiled beauty, and the relatively low bid at the annual pig roast auction that won a naturalist-guided weekend. Bill promised himself that the following year, he would bid generously, and ensure that the Ossabaw Island Foundation got the sort of support the island merited.

It was a promise Bill kept, driving the price of that weekend auction package up 20 to 25 times that 2012 bid. And it’s a price he still considers to be a bargain, given the unparalleled opportunity to experience Ossabaw’s wildlife and pristine beaches, while supporting the work of the Ossabaw Island Foundation. He loves bringing new people along with him on these weekend excursions. Friends from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco never fail to be impressed by their experience, and they go home with stories to tell.

Bill, a retired clinical psychologist and CEO of Wet Willie’s frozen daiquiri chain, was born in upstate New York and spent his formative years on a seventh generation 200-acre family farm inside Adirondack State Park. He returns every year to visit the farm and the conserved land that surrounds it – a landscape he loves. He met his wife, Joe Ann Brandt, a Savannah native, while pursuing post-doctoral studies in Alabama and followed her back to her hometown in 1981. In the following years, they have raised two daughters, pursued successful careers, and volunteered their time in the Savannah community.

After that initial 2012 visit to Ossabaw, Bill – inspired by the legacy of Sandy West – has committed $100,000 to new programs and matching grant opportunities on the island. He has a collection of over 4000 photos of Ossabaw’s wildlife and landscapes and countless memories from navigating the island over the years with naturalist John “Crawfish” Crawford. As a reminder of his special experiences on Ossabaw, Bill has even planted indigo and yaupon holly at his home on Dutch Island.

Of all the visits he has made to Ossabaw, Bill’s favorite was made recently along with his two daughters, sons-in-law, and his two-year-old grandson. Seeing the island through his grandson’s eyes – watching him study his natural surroundings and hearing his questions – made Bill ever more thankful to know that Ossabaw, through the generosity of the Torrey-West family and the ongoing support of “Ossabaw’s army” of donors, will be stewarded for more generations to come.

Stewards Field Trips 2021: Experiencing the Benefits of Land and Wildlife Conservation

By Burch Barger

From St. Simons to Brunswick to Townsend to Darien, Stewards have gathered this year in beautiful, conserved places along the Georgia coast to learn and explore together.  Highlights of our four field trips, described below, included ideal weather, great conversations, and strengthened connections among participants.

In January, Stewards gathered at Cannon’s Point Preserve for a hike guided by Wendy Paulson and St. Simons Land Trust leaders Emily Ellison, Stephanie Knox, and Susan Shipman.  We discussed the natural and cultural histories of Cannon’s Point Preserve, as well as the success of past and current conservation initiatives on the property. We hiked along the eastern side of the 608-acre peninsula with views of salt marsh, old growth maritime forest, tidal creek and river shoreline. Our 5-mile loop included a midway picnic break near historic ruins and with a view of the Altamaha delta.

In March, Stewards gathered at Altama Wildlife Management Area for an update on conservation efforts along the Altamaha corridor.  Guided by Eamonn Leonard and Matthew Stoddard from Georgia DNR and Christi Lambert from The Nature Conservancy, we spent the morning learning about the longleaf pine ecosystem and restoration efforts that are being implemented at Altama.  After viewing a gopher tortoise in its burrow, we enjoyed a picnic lunch on site and an afternoon hike through the hardwood floodplain forest along the Altamaha River.

On Earth Day, April 22nd, Stewards gathered for a leisurely 6-mile bike ride at Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge.  Guides for this excursion were Tim Keyes from Georgia DNR, Christi Lambert from The Nature Conservancy, and Kate Tweedy from Little St. Simons Island. We stopped for short walks along the way to discuss conservation projects and to view nesting wood storks at one of the largest wading bird rookeries in the southeastern United States.

Stewards’ final trip of the spring season was an exploration of the Altamaha delta by water and by land. In the morning, we departed by boat from the Champney dock in south McIntosh County and traveled to Little Egg Island Bar. We observed flocks of shorebirds during the height of spring migration.  Abby Sterling and Brad Winn from Manomet led our conversations about shorebird conservation efforts in the Georgia bight and beyond. In the afternoon, we gathered at Butler Island to learn more about its history and recent challenges. Eunice Moore and Megan Desrosiers – representatives of the Coalition to Save Butler Island Plantation and House — shared their vision for future use of the property.

We are planning another slate of coastal excursions for the fall season, and we hope you will plan to join us.  More details will be released via email in the near future.

AMOY Chick Banding by Tim Keyes

Stewards Fund UTV Purchase to Support Shorebird Conservation Efforts

By Burch Barger

As you may recall, Stewards and the Communities of Coastal Georgia Foundation successfully collaborated in 2017 to “crowdfund” the $10,000 purchase of a Kawasaki mule UTV and related equipment for Georgia DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section to use on Cumberland Island. For four years, that vehicle transported field technicians on regular patrols to monitor nesting American Oystercatchers and Least Terns on the Cumberland beaches. It also enabled volunteers to increase their survey rate for Piping Plovers from 3-5 per year to 12 per year. Hundreds of Piping Plovers were documented, and many were banded — greatly expanding our understanding of the importance of the Georgia coast to this endangered species during migration and winter.

After four years of service and many miles of exposure to sand and salt air, the 2017 mule has been retired.  But, thanks to the generosity of Stewards Jon and Janine Weller, that’s not the end of the story! Jon connected this spring with Tim Keyes, coastal bird biologist with Georgia DNR, on the Stewards field trip to Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge. On that trip, Jon learned that the Wildlife Conservation Section of the Georgia DNR relies heavily on private philanthropic support for their mission to conserve plant and animal species. Shortly after Jon returned home and spotted DNR’s request for a replacement Kawasaki mule on the Coastal Conservation Project List, Jon and Janine graciously offered to fund the purchase.

Thanks to the generosity of the Stewards network both in 2017 and 2021, Cumberland Island shorebird research efforts are equipped for continued success.

The Lasting Impact of William Bartram’s Writings and Illustrations

The Lasting Impact of William Bartram’s Writings and Illustrations

By Burch Barger

On your next visit to St. Simons Land Trust’s Guale Preserve, be sure to check out the new interpretive signage posted along Polly’s Trail.  Coastal naturalist Christa F. Hayes used observations from William Bartram’s 18th century explorations of the British colonies in North America as a unifying theme for the signs, which contain interesting facts about St. Simons and its diverse flora and fauna.

In her opening words posted on the trail, Christa notes “the writings and illustrations of William Bartram, along with the work of other early naturalists, reveal some of what we have lost, but also illuminate the rich biodiversity that remains in our care. Their legacy helps us identify goals for natural community restoration today.”

On a related note, readers may remember this 2016 Shoreline story about the Kickstarter campaign to fund the documentary film Cultivating The Wild: William Bartram’s Travels. Co-produced by Eric Breitenbach and Dorinda Dallmeyer, the film presents a scholarly examination of the scientist’s life and work as well as a meditation on what has come to pass in the more than two hundred and twenty years since Bartram traversed the pre-Colonial South. The film is available here for online viewing.