The Other Side of Jekyll Island

The Sidney Lanier Bridge spans the Brunswick River, connecting the city of Brunswick to Jekyll Island, a vacation paradise that holds some fascinating history.

Georgia’s first brewery, last shipment of slaves and first integrated beach. The first transcontinental phone call. And a clandestine meeting of the wealthy and powerful that laid the groundwork for the Federal Reserve. How did all of this happen on one little island?

This year,  Money Magazine ranked Jekyll Island the #1 U.S. travel destination on its list of “Best Places To Go In 2019,” saying it “packs a lot of action into its small seven-by-two-mile border.” Modern development, while being carefully balanced with environmental conservation, has resulted in a playground that caters to every taste.

Jekyll Island Authority Executive Director Jones Hooks cherishes fond memories of visiting the island as a child, so it excites him to see multigenerational vacationers for whom Jekyll has become a treasured part of life. Folks who came here as children now bring kids of their own, as well as the grandparents who introduced them to Jekyll in the first place. It’s a world that enchants for generations.

“Jekyll Island is inviting and peaceful,” said Hooks. “The stunning natural surroundings allow visitors to relax and recharge, and they forge lifelong connections to the beaches, salt marshes and maritime forests. It’s also an active and adventurous place offering engaging experiences for people of all ages. We love welcoming them back again and again. The unique blend of pristine coastal environment and modern amenities sets Jekyll apart, and is a testament to the blend of conservation, preservation and stewardship to which we are dedicated.” 

Some visitors come for the fine dining, shopping, elegant accommodations and four award-winning golf courses. Others come for the beaches and trails through 1,000 acres of mature maritime forests, and to get an up-close look at the rehabilitation work going on at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center. Still, others come to experience a unique slice of American history at Mosaic, the newly reimagined Jekyll Island museum that opened its doors last April.

“We’ve designed Mosaic to serve as a gateway for island visitors, and to inspire personal explorations of Jekyll by presenting a balance of heritage and ecology,” said Jones Hooks, executive director of the Jekyll Island Authority. “Mosaic’s immersive experiences allow visitors to travel through five eras of the island’s history, from the earliest human habitation thousands of years ago, to the gilded age of the Jekyll Island Club, through the creation of Jekyll Island State Park in the 1940s. Even people who have visited Jekyll many times will be delighted and surprised by the continuing improvements and new things to experience.”

That history, laid out in breathtaking detail at Mosaic, paints a portrait of an island whose history begs deeper exploration.

Along this tattered coast of inlets and islets, history tends to follow a trajectory. Dig into the past of any large sea island and you will find a familiar story, one that Jekyll largely conforms to. Throughout native prehistory, these islands were seasonal fish camps of which only shell middens, flint points, and pottery shards remain. During the 1500s, Spanish, French and British explorers “discovered” them, then squabbled over claims they staked. After enlisting various Indian tribes in their conquests, they later wiped them out. African slaves were brought and the Plantation Era ensued, with fortunes made in rice, indigo and cotton. But following the Civil War things lapsed into sleepy decay, with only Gullah-Geechee folk to scratch out their tough but storied livings in the oyster reefs and garden plots. Eventually, timber interests bought up the land, wealthy Northerners established hunt clubs, and the islands lay ripening for modern rebirth as resorts.

Jekyll Island adds some twists to this standard plot with landmark events found nowhere else along the Southern coast. How did this remote barrier island become the stage on which dramas of national import played out?

The curtain opens in 1510 when Spanish explorers first set foot on Jekyll, naming it Isla de las Ballenas (Island of the Whales.) They didn’t stay, so in 1562 it was claimed by the French, who restyled it Ille de la Somme (Isle of Slumber.) But it was the British who managed to put down roots in the area when General James Oglethorpe founded the Colony of Georgia in 1733. He named Jekyll Island after one of his financial backers in Britain, then granted it to Major William Horton and tasked him with building a plantation outpost to protect and supply Ft. Frederica on neighboring St. Simons Island. Horton got the place up and running with slave labor, and even found time to start Georgia’s first brewery with a “great copper pot” in which he made beer. You can still visit the brewery ruins, just up the road from the old tabby structure of his home, which is one of the oldest surviving buildings in the state.

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