Submitted by Jody Duffy
Twenty members of Friends of Historic Jekyll Island, or FOHJI, recently enjoyed trekking around St. Catherine’s Island, near Midway. The excursion began with a scenic boat trip from the mainland to St. Catherine’s, where the group then transferred to two open-air trucks to travel the length of the 11-mile long barrier island.
The group learned that archaeologists from the American Museum of Natural History and the State of Georgia have returned to St. Catherine’s numerous times, conducting research and excavations. Evidence indicates that the first inhabitants of the island were aboriginal foragers, who arrived soon after the island separated from the mainland, around 3000 B.C.E. By 800 C.E., they had organized into tribal societies, living in villages. Between 1300 and 1580, St. Catherine’s islanders began cultivation of maize.
When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they named the islanders Guale, for the chiefdom in their main village on the island, and they established the mission of Santa Catalina de Guale, the oldest Catholic church in North America. Research reveals that friars at the mission were killed in a war between two chiefdoms, and the mission was abandoned, and then resettled in the early 17th century, only to be finally abandoned altogether by both the Spanish and the Guale after an attack by the British in 1680. Decades of archaeological excavations have uncovered 2 million artifacts and revealed the location and structure of the mission itself.
FOHJI members saw the site of the mission, as well as the presumed burial mound of Mary Musgrove, who was awarded title to the island in 1760. After Mary Musgrove’s death, her husband sold the island to Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Georgia’s first governor. The day’s events included a tour of Gwinnett’s house and a nearby slave cabin. A ride along the high bluffs above the ocean brought the expedition past lagoons inhabited by alligators and birdlife, as well as forests of longleaf pines.
In addition to learning about the history and ecology of the island, the group was treated to a visit with lemurs in the wild. The gentle creatures boldly approached the visitors, and then scampered up trees. There, to the delight of everyone, the beautiful, long-tailed animals leapt from branch to branch.
According to the St. Catherine’s website, the island is privately owned, with the St. Catherines Island and the Edward J. Noble Foundations (SCIF, EJNF) supporting the conservation of the island’s resources and the extensive research and education.