Marshland: Mythmaking in the Georgia Tidewater

Residents on St. Simons Island, Georgia, decorated a tree on East Beach for the Christmas season
Photos by Jackie Bufkin.

We are island people. From the time I could walk, I knew this, even though I grew up in the city. Or what counts as city in the South – a brick neighborhood be-speckled with dogwood trees and divided between plots of green lawn and hot tarmac. I may have been born in an Atlanta hospital and played in a park fenced in by glass-shuttered skyscrapers, but my family belonged to the saltwater marshes of St. Simon’s, an island about the size of Manhattan off the Georgia coast. Three generations of boys grew to men on the clam-rich mudflats of that barrier island, and two generations were now buried beneath its live oaks at Christ Church.

I was the first grandchild; the marsh, too, was my birthright. Long weekends, month-long summer binges, holidays — we escaped from the city when we could, equipped with sunscreen and towels, bathing suits and an empty cooler for hauling fresh shrimp back north. On rainy days, my grandmother reared me on stories of her boys’ exploits in and out of the saltwater creeks and swampland that made the island their own. Your dad snuck away to tramp across the marsh one afternoon after church, she told me. He lost one of his good Sunday shoes. The mud swallowed it whole. My family history took shape against the backdrop of the Georgia tidewater. Here on East Beach, Granddad saved a boy from drowning in the riptide. There in the oaks across from the elementary school, Dad crashed his dirt bike and broke his foot. That was before the island had paved many of the roads. Here, the dock where the boys caught blue crabs with pieces of raw chicken tied to a net. There, the creek where your uncle tried to float his makeshift raft and capsized.

I knew I was Southern because I shucked oysters at low country boils and ate boiled peanuts from the stand by the airport. Because, on the island, people recognized my last name.

The family lore and the afternoons spent cosseted by seawater left their mark: St. Simon’s came to signify the parts of me and mine that were Southern. I knew I was Southern because I shucked oysters at low country boils and ate boiled peanuts from the stand by the airport. Because, on the island, people recognized my last name. For me, the marsh represented something distinctively Southern over and against the urbanity of in-town Atlanta with its concrete walks and manicured greens. Down on the island, the air was different. Soft and thick, salty with brine. Here, the land felt unkempt, untouched, wild. Moss hung in long tangles from the oak trees, and the insects gave no quarter. Chiggers, mosquitos, biting black flies – our skin knew them all. At the high-water mark, only cordgrass and a few dock pilings stood above the tangle of sea-fed creeks crisscrossing the marsh. When the tide fled, it left bare oyster beds and mudflats. Its only constants were the horizon, the rhymthic rise and fall of the tide, the chorus of cicadas on hot summer nights. Unlike the places that framed my Atlanta childhood, the marsh refused human efforts to remake or contain it, and that harsh restlessness drew me, moth to flame.  

* * *

The Georgia lowcountry is a place of exception. Its distinctiveness is irrevocably tethered to its marshland geography, which fragments and isolates community from community, town from town. Since colonial times, its tidal waterways have both connected and held apart: first a borderland, then a safe haven for fugitives, then a series of plantation-Era fiefdoms, then a neglected and let-alone backcountry where local traditions could continue unhindered, then suddenly a resort locale for the wealthiest of the wealthy. Only in the last few decades have islands like St. Simon’s have moved closer to Georgia’s social and cultural center, drawn in by the surge of coastal development dredging up its wetlands and building up its infrastructure. As in every story about development, the resurgence of interest in Georgia’s barrier islands brings nostalgia, both real and romanticized, for what local particularities are being swept out with the tide of vacation housing.

Georgia stood apart from its northern neighbors from the outset. Whereas the Carolina colonies depended upon sprawling plantations to drive their economic engines –systems made possible by slavery and racial hierarchy – Georgia’s founders had a more utopian vision in mind. By sending James Oglethorpe south to establish a new settlement on the bluffs of the Savannah River, they would create a new society for England’s poor, one in which those poor could correct their past wrongs and better themselves through honest work. To allow Black slavery in Georgia, they reasoned, would corrupt their people by robbing them of a sense of industry. And so for the first two decades of its precarious existence, Georgia was the only British colony in the Americas to forego a slave-based economic model. (Notably, Georgia’s founders were concerned about the impact that slavery as an institution had on Whites, not on the huge physical, emotional and psychological toll that the forced removal and lifetime of labor had on blacks.)

For in the 1700s, Georgia was the frontier. Its settlements marked the borders between the “civilized” towns of British expats, the acres of swampland that was Spanish Florida and the “dark” interior of the country, to the west, that had been home to the Creek communities for centuries. As such, St. Simon’s was at the edge of the British world; the island was the final outpost before a ship would run into Spanish waters.

Indeed in 1742 it fell to an outgunned and outmanned contingent of British soldiers on St. Simon to push back an invading Spanish force, which they accomplished by ambushing them between the forest edge and the marsh. The Battle of Bloody Marsh, as the Georgia Historical Marker still reads today, is so called because the tidal water ran red with Spanish blood. Or so the myth goes. One thing is sure: afterwards, the Spaniards didn’t attempt to take over the British (soon to be independent) colonies on the eastern seaboard.

* * *

But Spain continued to loom large in the Georgian imagination: To Whites, Florida remained a hostile power breathing just outside the gates. For black African and Caribbean transplants, the Spanish promised salvation for anyone fortunate enough to cross into their holdings and thus win their freedom. By 1751, Georgia too had turned towards the plantation system after colonists discovered that its barrier islands and marshlands were suitable for rice cultivation. What had begun as an experiment in raising up the poor had devolved into another British colony that welcomed the institution of slavery and the material wealth that it provided. Georgia’s wetlands made possible a particular form of plantation slavery, as much as they also set its limits. In the late 1700s, White plantation owners began to strip St. Simon’s its native oak trees to make room for cotton fields and rice paddies. (The prized hardwood, in turn, went to build many of the U.S. naval ships of the era, including the famous U.S.S. Constitution, or Old Ironsides.) But no matter how the plantations attempted to reshape it, the tidewater refused to yield entirely. Malaria and other diseases ran rampant through the rice fields, leading most plantation owners to decamp for the safer, more urban settlements along the Savannah River. Many Georgian plantations were managed from afar, with an overseer on hand to keep the slaves in line.

When oral historians from the Federal Writers’ Project turned up on St. Simons Island in the 1930s to record histories from the island’s longstanding Black communities, they heard about Israel who had a prayer mat that he used each day at sunrise and sunset.

But the masters' perennial absences did not herald a plantation system that was any more humane than its counterparts in Virginia and the inland Carolinas. Historian Philip Morgan wrote “No region in the United States had a harsher form of slavery than the lowcountry. A tidewater rice plantation was a ‘huge hydraulic machine,’ a feat of early modern social engineering, making enormous demands of its labor force, and uprooting thousands of Africans to feed its insatiable desire for yet more labor.”

Frances Anne Kemble, a British actress who married a Georgia plantation owner, kept a journal during the months she spent living at her husband’s holdings on Sapelo Island, just north of St. Simon’s. While motivated by a White missionary zeal that patronizes and naturalizes racial differences, her writings document the toll that the serious material deprivation, physical abuse and psychological fettering of plantation slavery had on the people around her. “Scorn, derision, insult, menace—the handcuff, the lash—the tearing away of children from parents, of husbands from wives—the weary trudging in droves along the common highways, the labour of body, the despair of mind, the sickness of heart—these are the realities which belong to the system, and form the rule, rather than the exception, in the slave's experience,” she wrote.

According to Kemble, the overseer could unload 50 lashes on a slave for almost any reason at all. One woman received a whipping just for telling Kemble that they didn’t have enough time in the day to keep their children clean. Who, she asks, is there to oversee the overseer, “for the laws [that constrain his behavior] are a mere pretence.”

* * *

Georgia’s marshes also served as sites of escape. For most of the 1700s, the Spaniards in Florida pursued a strategy of manumission to encourage the crumbling of the British colonies from within. Hundreds of slaves are thought to have fled south through the 18th century to escape their bondage. Until the Spanish ceded control of Florida to the United States in 1821 and Andrew Jackson rode into decimate the local Native American tribes, slaves and other fugitives continued to disappear into the swamps of inland Georgia and north Florida. There, they often joined up with local Native American communities, living and working as free people. Many Creek communities took in escaped fugitive slaves, even allowing them to marry into the tribe. In the swamps of Northern Florida, members of the Creek nation adopted so many Africans and Caribbean escapees that the cultural icon of the “Black Seminole” was born. In fact, in 1835 during the Second Seminole War, the American commander commented on the huge numbers of blacks fighting against his forces, telling the War Department that, "This, you may be assured, is a negro and not an Indian war."

Shrimp trawlers docked in the St. Simons waterways

And so, compared to the well-protected towns and firm racial divide that characterized South Carolina, Georgia remained a site of cultural, ethnic and racial intermixing. “There is no better site than Georgia lowcountry to tell significant stories about multiracial and multiethnic encounters,” Morgan writes. Even in 1760, the state’s 13,000 Creek inhabitants outnumbered white settlers two to one and the enslaved black population by nearly four to one, and fugitive slaves and renegade whites mixed with the local Native American inhabitants to form maroon communities in the marshes.

Even for the thousands of slaves who could not make the journey to freedom, the marshes provided them with a certain degree of cultural autonomy that allowed them to hold tighter to their traditions and rituals.

For the first few decades, Georgia colonists did not have the capital to import large shipments of slaves directly from Africa, but instead drew slaves from the Caribbean. By the 1790s and early 1800s, however, most of the slaves bought and sold in Georgia hailed from West Africa, generally from what is present-day Senegal, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Liberia. West Africans from the Igbo and Mende communities were especially prized because they knew how to design, build and manage the complex irrigation systems required to grow rice in marshlands — skills that white plantation owners usually lacked. Out of these groups of Caribbean and West African slaves arose a distinctive cultural community, known as the Gullah in South Carolina and the Geechee in Georgia. The Gullah and Geechee peoples mixed elements of their cultural heritages with the English language and other social forms borrowed from white society. Whereas the African diaspora throughout the American South was largely characterized by fragmentation and assimilation, the Geechee would retain a sense of distinctive culture that endured past the trials of slavery, the economic exploitation of Jim Crow and the continued neglect of Georgia’s white society at large.

A number of the slaves brought to Georgia before the end of the transatlantic slave trade were Muslims who continued to practice their religion in captivity. When oral historians from the Federal Writers’ Project turned up on St. Simon’s Island in the 1930s to record histories from the island’s longstanding black communities, they heard about Israel who had a prayer mat that he used each day at sunrise and sunset. And also about Old Man Okra, who built himself a hut modeled off of those in Africa with sides like basket weaving covered in clay plaster. “But Massah make im pull it down,” one St. Simon’s island resident told the FWP volunteers. “He say he ain whan no African hut on he place.”

* * *

When I was 11, my uncle and my father took me out to Ivanhoe, a hunting club on the mainland that the Bufkins have a stake in, alongside nine other families. Ivanhoe consisted of little more than a four-bedroom clubhouse, set upon acres of dense wilderness along the banks of the Satilla River. Granddad used to go fishing on the river, drinking beer and passing time in an old pontoon boat. I refused to go hunting, but I did take Uncle Peter up on his offer to take me out on the four-wheeler around the property.

Half an hour later, he killed the engine and pointed off the dirt track into a grove of oaks. Check out what's over there, he told me. Hot and itchy with mosquito bites, I clambered over to a series of thin stone blocks, poking out of the ground like a bunch of ragged teeth. These are the slave graves from the old plantation, Peter said. He pointed to the incomprehensible squiggles and lines marring their surfaces. Most slaves couldn't read or write, but they wanted to mark their dead somewhere.

Up until that moment at age 11, it had never occurred to me that the land I walked had once worked as a plantation, exploiting and violating black bodies. (The lateness of this revelation for me is a shameful but clear sign of how easily centuries of slavery can be shunted to the margins of a White understanding of American history as an unfortunate accident. Or as a terrible mistake, yes, but one for which we are not responsible nowadays and so can forget about.) But here, on the land my family now partially owned, Cotton had been King and disease had killed thousands in the rice paddies. Even the fierce tangle of swampland that to my childhood eyes seemed to broker no human influence bore the imprint of that history. Nature, after all, is never wholly natural, as much as we pretend. To take a swath of brute, untouched space and name it a place is already to begin to mythologize it. We construct places the way we would compose images, focusing on the details that seem meaningful and letting the rest fall away.

What we mark out from the past as worth remembering soon becomes what happened. On St. Simon’s, you can spend an afternoon wandering around the preserved ruins of Fort Frederica and reading the many placards about colonial life in the settlement. Or you can visit the lighthouse museum, which tells you the history of the island’s maritime exploits. There is no historical marker at Igbo, or Ebos, Landing, where some of the last slaves imported from Africa mutinied in 1803. En route from Savannah to the plantations on St. Simon’s, the trapped Igbo people knew what awaited them and rebelled against their white captors, forcing the crew over board. After the ship ran aground on Dunbar Creek, the Africans chose to march into the marshes and drown themselves rather than face lives of servitude. Or, according to some local legends, they grew wings and took flight from the ship like birds. Today, next to Igbo Landing there stands a sewage plant.

* * *

The Georgia mainland from Fancy Bluff Creek and the saltwater marshes.

By the time the Civil War broke out, Georgia’s coastal region was one of the most slave-dependent parts of the American South; the Union targeted it part of what Northern strategists saw as the Confederacy’s soft underbelly. Isolated and outnumbered by their slaves, the white planters fled their holdings on the barrier islands during the war, leaving the Black communities to fend for themselves. Many would join up with the Union Army, hoping that the land they had occupied, irrigated and worked for decades would ultimately be given to them as their birthright.

After the Civil War ended, it appeared that Gullah and Geechee communities might get their wish. General William Tecumsah Sherman—bane of the Old South and its white gentry—promised that the barrier islands and the tidal wetlands would be given to the freedmen and women. In January 1865, his Special Field Order No. 15 saw it was done, confiscating nearly 400,000 acres of Southeastern coastline from South Carolina down to northern Florida and dividing it into 40-acre parcels for freed slaves. But as the North made political compromises with the South’s former white ruling class in pursuit of stability, Black gains were rolled back and white supremacy reestablished. By the fall of 1865, President Andrew Johnson had revoked the special order; most Gullah and Geechee families had to forego land ownership and return to subservience, this time as tenant farmers.

But the old plantations of the barrier islands would never rise again. Without the whip to enforce obedience, African Americans refused to work in the malaria-ridden rice paddies and cotton fields. For decades, these islands and their marshes remained some of the most remote and isolated spots in the state, devoid of public infrastructure, economic activity or outside influences. Opala notes, “The first bridges were not built until the 1920s, and a decade later there were still adults on the islands who had never visited the U.S. mainland.”

In their neglected corners and beaches, the Geechee people continued to get by, passing down collective memories and ways of life from their African heritages. By the time the Federal Writers Project and academics began to pay attention to the Gullah and Geechees in the 1930s, they were amazed by how much had been preserved on these remote island settlements. Their style of basket weaving with sweetgrass drew from similar techniques used by the African communities along the rice-cultivating west coast. The ring shout—a religious ritual that involves call-and-response singing while women move counterclockwise in a circle—harkened back to similar performative rituals from many West African cultures. An African linguist who visited St. Simon’s in the 1930s listened to an island woman sing a rare five-line lament, whose verses she traced back to the Mende community in present-day Sierra Leone. In turn, the Geechee dialect, which many whites had dismissed as a poor and corroded form of English, began to be recognized as a novel and creative language that borrowed heavily from the West African languages of Mende and Krio that informed the community’s slave ancestors.

Long a footnote to Southern history, the Geechee people in the early 2000s began to mobilize for federal recognition of their particular culture and the tidal wetlands that have served as its backdrop for centuries. In 2006, Congress approved a bill that would create the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor and allocate $10 million over ten years for preserving their historic sites. Overseen by the National Parks Service, the corridor aims to conserve Geechee culture, which is increasingly under threat as development moves into the islands and the young members of the community move out to the cities seeking educational and professional advancement. The project also seeks to educate the rest of the region’s new migrants about the communities who lived here before beachfront property became a desired commodity.

But even with the promise of state resources to foster some degree of cultural preservation, the Geechee that remain on the state’s barrier islands face serious obstacles to staying on their land. Most notably, the lack of infrastructure and economic opportunities on the islands provides greater and greater incentives for Geechee youth to move away. In turn, the prosperity that has accompanied the booming industry in vacation homes on other islands has often times been one-sided, with overdevelopment and soaring prices either pushing out or isolating the native communities.

"This part of the South used to be too hot for anybody to care about before mosquito control, before bridges and air conditioning," Emory Campbell told National Geographic in 2014. Campbell grew up a Gullah on South Carolina’s Hilton Head Island and remembers when the causeway opened his ancestral home to the golf-course set in the 1950s. He continued, "We were the ones that endured, and ironically, it is us who is now suffering.”

* * *

For the other side of the Georgia marshland’s story in the 20th century involves the region’s rediscovery and redefinition as a resort locale for the leisure classes. The movement to remake the islands over into beachfront property began with the class of billionaire families who made their fortunes off America’s Industrial Revolution around the turn of the century. The Rockefellers, the Morgans, the Vanderbilts — they all came down to the Jekyll Island Clubhouse during the winter to relax, hunt, and drink stiff cocktails underneath the magnolia trees. They fiercely protected its exclusivity by capping memberships at 100, and big-name guests included President William McKinley. In November 1910, Rhode Island Sen. Nelson Aldrich met with leading bankers at the Clubhouse to draw up the draft legislation for the Federal Reserve, laying the groundwork for today’s financial system.

The historic Clubhouse still stands in the island’s 200-acre historic district. The white porticoed and turreted building is a hotel now for those tourists down to see the island’s beautiful oak trees and marshland birds. You can get tea there, or get married, if you can spare the reservation fee. Most of Jekyll Island has been saved from development since the club sold the island to the state in 1947. But that could soon change: Developers have long lobbied the legislature to recalculate the proportion of the island’s acreage that is conserved under state law. In 2014, lawmakers voted to change the 1971 law that had governed Jekyll’s development, opening a further 78 acres to development.  

The Sea Island Beach Club after its 2006 facelift

Starting in the 1920s, St. Simon’s also found favor with the leisure class – for its beaches and its promise of a relaxed island life, albeit with a more local version of the upper crust than Jekyll’s. Tourism to the island skyrocketed, and people began to move out their families out from Brunswick and other towns once the state built a causeway across the marsh in 1924. Some 5,500 cars traveled the Torras Causeway on its opening day, heralding the immense traffic the island would see in the decades to come from Atlanta families looking to get away for the weekend.

The marshes I know are a pocket of landscape mapped in memories: low country boils, beach days, checking the crab traps as the tide races in and the sun sinks over the tall grasses. But that composition... leaves out so much of what has happened here.

The local population on St. Simon’s grew quickly from the 1940s onward, drawing families like mine. As the numbers grew, so did the island’s infrastructure. In 1944, the first elementary school opened. In the 1980s, the state expanded the Torras Causeway from two lanes to four. My father has not taken well to the explosion of high-end development. It has remade his childhood home into a series of fenced mega-mansions surrounded by too-green lawns and planned palm trees. When Dad was a child mucking about on St. Simon’s, the island was home to only a few thousand residents. He rode his bike around the island helter-skelter on dirt roads, and most people knew his name. Now St. Simon’s finally has its first Starbucks – and a drive-through, no less – and the transformation from small town to overpopulated weekend getaway seems complete. Since 1980, the island’s population has more than doubled, and today, the community is more than 90 percent white.

The burgeoning population in the state’s coastal counties has put increased pressure on the region’s freshwater and saltwater wetlands. When colonial settlers encountered the marshes near the barrier islands and boggy forests inland, they saw the wetlands as obstacles to be removed. Thomas Dahl from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that Georgia has ceded 23 percent of its wetlands since white settlers first began moving into its coastal plains in the 1700s. The vast majority of that damage has been inflicted on the freshwater wetlands that spill out along the sides of rivers and across floodplains. As successive generations of Georgians tried to remake the wetlands into suitable farmland and commercial forests for harvest, they continued to drain and dredge, destroying natural habitats and disrupting wildlife corridors.

But what is striking about Georgia is that so much of the state continues to be dominated by these habitats caught between land and sea: according to the U.S. Geological Survey estimates in a 1996 report, the state is home to 7.7 million acres of wetland, which constitutes more than one fifth of its surface area. Of that expanse, some 95 percent belongs to freshwater sources whereas the saltwater marshes only make up four percent and have emerged from centuries of American settlement mostly unscathed.

At least until now. There are worrying signs that developers have their sights trained on more untamed islands, threatening both the local communities and the fragile wetland ecosystems. As the Georgia coastline has lost its peripheral status as a country backwater, these communities have had to wrestle with questions of place and identity – to whom does the land really belong, and what should be done to preserve the island communities’ heritage and enable their progress?

* * *

Nowhere is this struggle over community heritage and property more apparent today than on Sapelo Island, where a number of Geechee families are trying to maintain their tenuous hold on their land in the face of market interest. In the 1930s, Sapelo Island also had taken a turn as a wealthy mogul’s vacation escape. Drawn in by the warm winters, R.J. Reynolds (of North Carolina tobacco fame) bought the island during the Great Depression. Shortly thereafter, he convinced the Geechee people to consolidate themselves into one community on the island’s swampy interior. Named Hog’s Hammock, the settlement remains on the island to this day, but its numbers have dwindled to a mere 50 residents.

Today, the rest of the island ostensibly belongs to the state of Georgia, which took it off the Reynolds family in 1976. Sapelo was supposed to be off limits to developers like the ones that picked apart St. Simon’s. But that moratorium looks increasingly unstable. With the prices of oceanfront and marsh-front property headed through the roof, some of the Geechee in Hog’s Hammock decided to sell off their land for whopping sums. In 2013, the officials in McIntosh County, where Sapelo Island is located, decided to reevaluate the property values for the Geechee plots in Hog’s Hammock, with disastrous consequences. Claiming the land had been wrongly assessed for years, the county sent property valuations skyrocketing across the board, sending families bills for property taxes that they couldn’t afford. Tax rates went up nearly 540 percent for Annie Watts over the course of 12 months. In 2012, McIntosh County wanted $362 for her tin-roofed house; the next year it was $2,312.

As Kim Severson for The New York Times noted in 2013, it is hard to see how the Geechee are benefiting from the property taxes that they pay to the county faithfully each year. After all, the island is devoid of almost all infrastructure, including trash pick-up, emergency services, paved roads or a post office. The only way on or off Sapelo is by ferry, and the ferry stops running at 5:30 pm, which leaves the island residents high and dry when it comes to working jobs with longer hours on the mainland or participating in afterschool activities. The gas station is only open on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Developers still wait in the wings, hoping that the last few families that call Sapelo home will decide to sell and move to the mainland where life is easier.

Sharron Grovner and her family owned more than four acres of land on the island and owed more than $6,000 in taxes. But they wouldn’t be budged.

“It’s like this,” she told Severson. “People like me don’t sell their property.”

* * *

It is hard not to take pride in your roots. At times, I have said that my sense of place is what makes me most distinctly Southern. But I think now it must be an identity contextualized, an affiliation limited and conditioned by a willingness to question and look past the family myths. Your grandfather was chased up a tree by a wild boar at Ivanhoemy grandmother told me. I cherish that anecdote from his free-limbed youth, but I know too that it is a sign of his privilege—that he had a well-situated banking job that allowed him to treat hunting as a sport, that he could afford to buy a share in a hunting club, that he lived on a barrier island like St. Simon’s that had the sort of infrastructure that would allow him to raise his family and make his fortune, that he possessed the social currency of whiteness that made all of this possible. Not all island folks have been so lucky.

The marshes I know are a pocket of landscape mapped in memories: low country boils, beach days, checking the crab traps as the tide races in and the sun sinks over the tall grasses. But that composition — like the one painted by writer Sidney Lanier in his arguably best poem memorializing the “Marshes of Glynn” — leaves out so much of what has happened here.

“With a step I stand/On the firm-packed sand,/Free/By a world of marsh that borders a world of sea,” wrote Lanier, the 19th century Georgian poet and Confederate. In the poem, Lanier looks out across the expanse of cordgrass with “meshed with a million veins” of seawater and finds a state of transcendence “by the length and breadth and the sweep of the marshes of Glynn.” The verse is beautiful, its rhythms almost tidal. Yet its treatment of the salt marsh exists outside of history, away from the individuals who spent their lives as slaves here and the communities who have subsisted on its margins, unnoticed by white society, for hundreds of years.

Lanier’s marsh is a romanticized one. And so is mine.