Jekyll Island’s hidden past

Submitted by Ray Crook (rcrook@westga.edu)

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Portrayal of Native American life on Jekyll Island (original painting by Melissa Crawford, Art Major at the University of West Georgia).

People have called the small barrier island now known as Jekyll home for many centuries, but only the most obvious and recent reminders of that history are usually recognized today. Each year thousands of visitors are introduced to the splendid “cottages” and manicured landscapes of the Jekyll Island Club and their connection with the rich and famous industry giants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many also see the ruins of tabby structures that stand as silent memorials to English colonization of the Georgia coast during the 18th century and to the later plantation endeavors of the French owners of the island, the DuBignon family.

As important as these historic resources are, they represent only part of the total cultural heritage of Jekyll Island. What now stands above the ground is a fraction of the fragile evidence that marks this island’s remarkable past. Much more survives below the ground as archaeological evidence—the buried structural elements, landscape features, artifacts and food remains from the day to day lives of people over the millennia. At least 95 percent of the total patrimony of the island preceded British interests here. This place was the home of Native Americans for more than 4000 years before the first European arrived. Their history is Jekyll Island’s hidden cultural heritage, a past marked by traces of oyster shell on the ground surface and the buried archaeological remains left behind by countless generations.

Archaeological research has been undertaken from time to time on Jekyll Island for over 50 years, providing a basic sketch of the island’s cultural history. Dozens of archaeological sites have been recorded through survey efforts and limited excavations on the island and its nearby hammocks. The best-known historic sites—Horton House and Millionaire’s Village—were also the locations of major prehistoric sites, indicating that these high-ground areas that are easily accessible by water have remained prime real estate for many centuries. Other, mostly smaller, prehistoric settlements are located elsewhere on the island where good access was offered to important food resources.

The earliest known Native American occupation of Jekyll Island was by an early foraging culture associated with the St. Simons phase. Dating to as early as 2400 BC, these people may have lived in permanent settlements used as central bases for collecting estuarine, riverine, and oak-forest food resources during a time of rising sea levels and evolving ecosystems. Overall population density was low all along the coast, with groups living on the barrier islands in settlements atop and around shell rings (large ring-shaped mounds of oyster shells and other food refuse) and along freshwater rivers on top of large shell mounds (which also were deposits shell and other refuse). Occupation was concentrated on the northern end of Jekyll Island at this time, perhaps the result of short-term visits by foraging groups from large nearby sites on St. Simons Island. However, the possibility exists that a shell ring may have been located along the northern edge of Jekyll Island in an area that now has been submerged by rising sea level and eroded by tidal actions and currents.

When sea level dropped to a temporary low-stand around 1000 BC, there were dramatic changes in the coastal ecosystem and St. Simons phase settlements were disrupted and their populations dispersed. An archaeological culture known as the Refuge phase then developed along the coast, perhaps representing descendents of the St. Simons phase groups, but no sites of this period have been recorded on Jekyll Island.

Occupation resumed on Jekyll Island sometime between roughly 500 BC and AD 700. Probably the first to resettle the island were small bands of semi-nomadic hunters-fishers-gatherers who were seasonal visitors to the island during the Deptford phase. These people overlapped with others of a different cultural tradition known as Swift Creek, marked by groups who immigrated to the coast from inland areas of Georgia. The largest identified Swift Creek settlement was located in the interior of the island and contained an earthen burial mound.

Sporadic occupation on the island occurred during the following Wilmington phase, beginning about AD 700 and continuing for some 300 years. Very little is known about the genesis of this culture and its adaptive patterns anywhere along the Georgia coast. It is suspected that small residential groups visited the island intermittently during this time for hunting, fishing, and gathering purposes.

Intensive Native American settlement occurred on Jekyll Island during the Savannah phase, beginning about AD 1000 and perhaps continuing until Spanish contact. This was associated with large populations who lived in permanent villages and had a mixed economy based upon horticulture (growing maize, beans, and squash) along with substantial reliance on estuarine and oak forest resources. A central adaptive characteristic of this socially and politically complex culture was the periodic movement of family groups from their villages during the year to harvest seasonally available resources in other areas. The prehistoric archaeological sites at the Horton House and Millionaires Village date primarily to the Savannah phase and, although severely disturbed in places by historical construction activities, they are two of the largest and most complex Native American settlements on Jekyll Island.

Little information is available about Native American occupation on Jekyll Island during the early historic period. The island was known to the Spaniards as the Isla de Ballenas (Island of Whales) and while 17th-century Franciscan missions among the Mocama natives evidently were located to the north on St. Simons Island and to the south on Cumberland Island, none were reported on Jekyll Island. However, archaeological evidence indicates there was a native presence on the island during the 16th and 17th centuries. Irene phase and Mission period native pottery types, more common at sites associated with the Guale in areas north of Jekyll Island, are rare but present at some of Jekyll’s archaeological sites. Pottery vessels associated with the Mocama in more southern areas of the Georgia coast appear to be very similar to earlier Savannah phase wares, suggesting the possibility that some sites on Jekyll Island now assigned to the late prehistoric period may contain materials that actually reflect Native American occupations during the Spanish Mission period.

Only the barest of details about Jekyll Island’s Native American past are known and much remains to be learned about this heritage. Archaeologists now have many more questions than they do answers. Buried beneath the feet of visitors to Jekyll Island is a complex and multidimensional puzzle of archaeological evidence, each piece an irreplaceable clue about the lives of people in the distant past who once called this island their home. As archaeological methods and scientific techniques advance, more and more will be learned about this hidden past and our lives in the present will be enriched by a better understanding of that heritage. However, the pieces of our puzzle are fragile and once destroyed are forever lost. In recognition of their importance to current and future generations, archaeological sites of Jekyll Island are protected under Georgia laws and Federal statutes, with civil and criminal penalties for their destruction or disturbance.

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An artifact of Jekyll Island’s history of tourism.

Jekyll Island, owned by the people of Georgia and managed on their behalf by the Jekyll Island Authority, is a natural and cultural treasure to be both enjoyed and protected. Visitors to our remarkable island should be aware of the past hidden beneath their feet, marvel at its mysteries and untold stories, always act to sustain rather than disturb it, and walk away as advocates for archaeological preservation. The past is present on Jekyll Island and its legacies precious.

Where to find it