History and Archaeology
No period in Ossabaw’s history had a more profound impact on the island’s ecosystem than the plantation era. At one time, the island was divided into four different plantations, all owned by members of the Morel family. Most of the forests on the western portion of the island are second growth from this time and some open fields remain. Remnants of this era still evident on the island include an oak alley, granite mile markers, and slave cabins. During the early 1900’s, the island was used almost solely for hunting and passed through a number of owners. In 1924, Dr. Henry Norton Torrey (1880-1945) and his wife, Nell Ford Torrey, of Detroit, Michigan, purchased Ossabaw Island. After Dr. Torrey’s death in 1945, his widow continued to visit the island, but only sparingly. By the 1950’s their son, William Ford Torrey, had returned to live there and conduct various farming, timbering and pine tree planting operations. In 1961, Clifford and Eleanor Torrey West established The Ossabaw Foundation, a private foundation which conducted and sponsored several programs and activities on the island from the 1960’s through the early 1980’s. The programs and activities included the Ossabaw Island Project, Genesis Project, professional research, and public use and education.
Archaeological research on the island extends back over 100 years. As early as 1871, reports document more than 150 sites, ranging in time from 4,000 years ago to European occupation.
Ossabaw Island preserves traces of most of the people who have lived there for 4,000 years. To date, researchers on Ossabaw have recorded over 230 archaeological sites. The vast majority of known sites are prehistoric in age and marked by shell middens containing pottery chards and other cultural materials. Additionally, there are over a dozen known burial mounds on the island, that demand specific and sensitive management considerations. Most archaeological research on the island is directed at prehistoric settlement systems and subsistence patterns.
The only standing, historic structures remain at the North End and the nearby Main House complex. The North End contains the Clubhouse (c. 1876), a two-story frame house, a one-story tabby building adjacent to the clubhouse (the tabby “oyster house”), a frame barn, and three tabby slave/tenant houses with central chimneys. In a state that once had thousands of slave houses, relatively few remain today; less than two dozen are believed to be listed in the National Register at this time. Tabby is an indigenous form of concreting using shells as an aggregate. Found along the southeastern coast of the United States, it was a popular building material and technique during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
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