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Life on Cumberland Island, the largest, southernmost barrier island on the Georgia coast, has always had a magical energy of its own and attracted an extraordinary mix of peoples: aboriginal natives, missionaries, Revolutionary war figures, freed African American slaves and members of the wealthy Carnegie family have all found Cumberland to be a singular place of solace and transformation.

Today, the Island is known for its beautiful, unspoiled beaches, and as an area rich in history, architecture and amazing natural habitats. For those who have spent time on Cumberland, it’s no surprise that the evocative settings have inspired a profound appreciation of nature as well as the creation of art, evidenced as early as 2000 B.C.

Inhabited by the Timucuan Indians for thousands of years, Spanish missionaries and soldiers first came to the Island in the 1500s. (These explorers brought horses with them, the ancestors of the wild horses who roam Cumberland’s dunes, marshes and abandoned estate lawns today.)

The French and British both had a presence on the idyllic, remote Island by the 1730s. After the American Revolution, notable families including general Nathaniel Greene sought out the Cumberland’s abundant natural resources and wild beauty. Greene built a grand mansion on the Island, Dungeness, the first example of “civilized”  grandeur set against an exquisite backdrop of natural splendor.

During the 1800s, Cumberland housed small farms and fifteen plantations of sea island cotton and other crops, all cultivated by slave labor. (Today, a row of hearth and chimney structures is all that’s left to remind us of the area’s many slave quarters.)

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The end of the Civil War brought about a settlement for freed slaves on the Island, and the First African American Baptist Church, built by descendents. (This small church was where designer Gogo Ferguson arranged a  private wedding for family friends John F. Kennedy, Jr. and Caroline Bessette.)

At the end of the 19th century, Pittsburgh’s Thomas Carnegie, iron and steel magnate Andrew’s brother, and his wife Lucy purchased most of the Island to use as a winter retreat. During America’s “Gilded-Age,” they built large and lavish estates for family vacations and entertaining. Homes included the expansive Plum Orchard (which still stands) and a castle on the site of Dungeness. (Greene’s home served as a garrison for Union soldiers during the Civil War, and subsequently burned. In 1959, the second incarnation of Dungeness also burned, but ruins remain.)

Visitors to Cumberland were astonished by the primitive maritime forests and incredible sunsets over untouched marshes; guests hunted bear, deer and other game, and enjoyed feasting on oysters, crabs and fish ready to be plucked from the sea.

The Carnegie family spent decades living large on the Cumberland Island, all the while deepening their connection to the land which was now part of their bloodline. In particular, Thomas Carnegie’s granddaughter Lucy R. Ferguson was passionate about the Island, as well as the creatures she shared it with and the gifts of nature she said it bestowed upon her and all who visited. In 1962, Lucy turned her childhood home into the Greyfield Inn. (Today, this is a romantic, luxury hotel operated by family members.)

A woman ahead of her time, “Miss Lucy” was a fierce naturalist who established herself as a free-spirited force on Cumberland during the 1960s and 1970s. She passed on her unbridled love of and respect for nature to her own granddaughter, Gogo Ferguson, who grew up spending every summer and holiday on the Island with her beloved grandmother.

In 1972, the Carnegies and a few other landowners sold or gave most of their property to the National Park Service to ensure the area would not be developed. As a result, the Island now boasts the unrivalled Cumberland Island National Seashore and over 9,800 acres of Congressionally designated Wilderness.

Yet Cumberland is still home to over 30 residents, most of them Carnegie descendants.