Owned and operated by Georgia as a heritage and wildlife preserve, the island was a gift to the state in 1978 from Eleanor Torrey-West and family, who still retain some property on the island. All public use of the island is managed by the Ossabaw Island Foundation (www.ossabawisland.net).
The 12,000-acre island is much older than Wassaw Island to its north, and so has traces of human habitation back to 2000 B.C. The island’s name comes from an old Muskogean word referring to yaupon holly, found in abundance on Ossabaw Island and used by Native Americans in purification rituals to induce vomiting. Wading birds and predators such as bald eagles make their homes on the island, as do feral horses and a transient population of loggerhead turtles, who lay eggs in the dunes during the summer. There are several tabby ruins on Ossabaw Island , along with many miles of walking trails.
Unlike the much-younger Wassaw Island, Ossabaw Island was not only timbered extensively but hosted several rice and cotton plantations, particularly on the north end. The first property transfer in Georgia involved Ossabaw, St. Catherine’s, and Sapelo Islands, which were ceded to the Yamacraws in exchange for the English getting the coastal region. The Yamacraws then granted those islands to Mary Musgrove, who began the modern era on the island by planting and introducing livestock.
Descendants of the island’s slaves moved to the Savannah area after the Civil War, founding the community of Pin Point. Similarly to Jekyll Island to the south, Ossabaw was a hunting preserve for wealthy families in the Roaring Twenties. Even today hunting is an important activity on the island, with lotteries choosing who gets a chance to pursue its overly large populations of deer and wild hog, the latter of which are descended from pigs brought by the Spanish.
Now reserved exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, the island is accessible only by boat. Georgia law provides public access to all beaches up to the high-tide mark—which simply means that the public can ride out to Ossabaw and go on the beach for day-use, but any travel to the interior is restricted and you must have permission first. Contact the Ossabaw Island Foundation at info [at] ossabawisland [dot] org for information.
Getting to Ossabaw Island
For day trips, charters and schedule trips are available from Captain Walt’s Charters (Thunderbolt Marina, 912/507-3811), the Bull River Marina (8005 E. Hwy. 80, 912/897-7300), Delegal Marina (912/598-0023), Capt. Joe Dobbs (912/598-0090), and Isle of Hope Marina (912/354-8187).
© Jim Morekis from Moon Charleston & Savannah, 4th Edition