Ossabaw Island

Ossabaw Island is one of Georgia’s barrier islands located off the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, about 20 miles by water from the city of Savannah. It measures around 26,000 acres and is made up of tidal wetlands, maritime forests, and expansive beaches.

Ossabaw Island has been given heritage preserve status, which means that activities in the island and access to it are limited mainly to research, study and education purposes.

The island is co-managed by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF).

History of Ossabaw Island

Research indicates that humans had lived in the island as early as 4,000 years ago. From the time of the Spanish exploration in the 1500s to the English occupation in the 1700s, the island was occupied by Native American Indians, first by the Guale Indians, and then by the Creek Indians.

In the 1700s, the island fell into private ownership and was divided into four plantations. After the Civil War, ownership of the island passed on to different groups of owners, who used the island mostly for farming and hunting. It was purchased in 1924 by Dr. Henry Norton Torrey and his wife Nell Ford Torrey, who built a Spanish Mediterranean-style house on the north side.

In 1961, the Torreys’ daughter, Eleanor Torrey West, and her husband created The Ossabaw Foundation, aimed at preserving the island’s natural features. In 1978, they sold the island to the State of Georgia as a Heritage Preserve, retaining only a 24-acre life estate.

Environmental significance

Ossabaw Island’s significance lies in its unique ecosystems that sustain a rich variety of life forms. These ecosystems are divided into three categories:

  • Beach and dune communities – with around 13 miles of beaches and dune communities, this ecosystem sustains a wide variety of marine-based and marine-dependent plants and animals, including loggerhead turtles, and migrant shorebirds and seabirds.
  • Forest communities – Ossabaw Island’s upland maritime forest is composed of native hardwoods, particularly live oaks that dominate the area. Other thriving plant varieties include saw palmetto, fragrant wax myrtle and red cedar.
  • Saltmarsh and estuary – these areas are the source of food and shelter for a wide variety of animals, including birds, fish, invertebrates and vertebrates. They also help protect the coasts from storms, and act as filters for coastal waters.

Historical and archeological significance

Ossabaw Island’s plantation era, as well as the hunting and timbering activities that went on in later years, had a negative impact on the island’s ecosystem. Today, remnants of those eras are the subject of archeological and historical studies in the island.

The few remaining historical structures here include:

  • The Clubhouse, a pre-fabricated hunting lodge built in the 1880s, now used as lodging for guests and visitors
  • The tabby "oyster house" – a one-story building next to the Clubhouse
  • A frame barn
  • Three tabby houses that housed slaves and tenants
  • The Main House or the Torrey family villa – built by the Torreys in the 1920s

There are also about 230 archeological sites around the island, which had unearthed traces of pre-historic life, including ancient pottery shards and burial mounds.

How to explore Ossabaw Island

While its heritage preserve status limits access to the island, educational tours, academic research, writers’ and artists’ retreats, seasonal deer and feral hog hunting, and limited use of the beach are allowed.

You can access the beach during the day without any permission required. Several tour operators in Savannah and other parts of Georgia offer river cruises and day trips to the island.

Overnight or longer stays for educational, cultural or scientific purposes have to be approved by the Ossabaw Island Foundation. The Foundation also organizes overnight or longer trips that are open to the public. Seasonal hunts are run by the Department of Natural Resources.