Cane Patch and Buckhead Creeks pierce a portion of Ossabaw Island and allow mariners a fleeting look at this privately owned, historic Sea Island. Ossabaw Island was the site of the first great plantation empire on the Georgia coast. After early ownership by the Bosomworths (who will be discussed at greater length in the section on St. Catherines Island history), the entire island was acquired by John Morel in 1760. Morel was an experienced planter who had settled along South Carolina’s Ashley River in 1730.
Soon, Morel’s slaves cleared many fields on Ossabaw Island and planted vast quantities of indigo. It wasn’t long before indigo began to yield vast sums to the Morel coffers. As Burnette Vanstory comments in his unforgettable book, “Georgia’s Land of the Golden Isles,” `Ossabaw became one of the first great island empires of the Georgia Coast.’
During the Revolution, the Morel family took an ardent stand in favor of American independence. During the long British occupation of Savannah, endangered patriots would slip away to Ossabaw Island, where they were invariably provided with secret sanctuary.
Following the war, timbering became a great Ossabaw Island industry, and more fields were cleared for the growth of other agricultural products. Morel Plantation became a kind of self-supporting state, producing everything needed for its sustenance. Late in his life, John Morel divided his island into three plantations, which were eventually inherited by his three sons.
By the early 1800s, Sea Island cotton had been introduced to Ossabaw Island, and as Vanstory comments, `Ossabaw fields were white with cotton, her wharves busy with barges, schooners and boats of happy groups for house parties and hunting parties as the Morels pursued their business and social affairs’¦In those days when the coastal planters had ‘˜company for breakfast, dinner, tea and supper, and drawing rooms were lighted by whole dozens of spermaceti candles high blazing from glass chandeliers,’ a beautiful custom in the Morel family was the molding of the candles of Ossabaw.’
By the early 1850s, much of Ossabaw Island had passed out of the Morel family’s ownership, bringing to a close the island’s most colorful era. During the Civil War, it was evacuated. For a short while, a Union battery was located on the isle’s northern tip.
During the early 1900s, Ossabaw Island was used as a hunting preserve by the Wanamaker family of Philadelphia. The old plantation homes were quickly being reclaimed by the forest, and fields that had once waved proudly in Sea Island cotton were overgrown and rank with weeds.
In 1924, Ossabaw Island was acquired by Dr. H. N. Torrey of Michigan. He rounded up the wild cattle and hogs running free on the island and soon began construction of a grand homeplace. Three generations of his family entertained honored guests at this island home, which still stands.
Ossabaw Island finally passed into the hands of Eleanor Torrey West. In 1961, West formed the Ossabaw Foundation, which soon undertook the ambitious Ossabaw Island Project. This effort sponsored several artistic and environmental-research communities on the island. Eventually, the state of Georgia took over the island’s management. At one time, students from more than 20 colleges and universities were participating in the foundation’s various projects.
Sad to say, most of the Ossabaw Island Project’s important ecological work was abandoned during the 1980s due to lack of funds. However, as stated in the Georgia Conservancy’s Guide to the Georgia Coast, `Ossabaw offers a lesson in how preservation of significant natural areas can be accomplished through a cooperative effort between private landowners, state agencies and private conservation organizations . . . As a Heritage Preserve, Ossabaw is only to be used for natural, scientific and cultural purposes based on environmentally sound practices. . . . Future use will be managed by the Department of Natural Resources . . . Ossabaw Foundation projects are based on the premise that people must understand their relationship to the environment, and they should ‘˜look at everything before disturbing anything.’ ‘ This writer wishes the foundation the very best in its future efforts.
At the present time, special permission is required for a visit to Ossabaw Island’s interior sections. But there is nothing to keep cruisers from viewing the isle’s shoreline (from the water, that is). Should you find yourself ensconced in a cozy anchorage on Cane Patch Creek, take a moment to gaze upon the lands to the east and ponder all that has gone before you.