Where the Wild Thing are

 

It has been said that Royce Hayes is the king of Monkey Island. The lone year-round resident of St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia—sometimes referred to as “Monkey Island” by locals—Hayes has lived and worked in near-solitude for thirty-two years. There are no kings in this country, but the island is certainly his domain, so he might as well be its sovereign.

“It’s hard to sit down and explain this island,” says Hayes, as his white, late-model pickup truck bumps over the dirt road that snakes across the nearly 15,000 acre island, passing under the thick forest canopy, past briar patches and the dense palmetto thicket that covers it. He understands that people are rightly fascinated by the idea that “monkeys” may indeed roam wild on “Monkey Island,” though he seeks to dispel much of the mythology that surrounds it; curiosity killed the cat, and Hayes aims to ensure none of the creatures that scurry across this wilderness, or swing from its branches, meet the same fate at the hands of trespassing humans.

 

​St. Catherine’s Island, found halfway between Savannah and Brunswick and snugly lodged between Ossabaw and Sapelo Islands in the string of Georgia’s lush barrier islands, is operated by the nonprofit St. Catherine’s Island Foundation and used by an assortment of institutions of higher learning as a campus for various educational and research projects. Most of its neighboring barrier islands are accessible only by boat, but St. Catherine’s is closed off to the public altogether (save the beach, which by law is open to the public up to the high-tide line), thereby perpetuling a Sendak-esque chimera of what lies within the forests of this overgrown jewel of the Georgia coast.

Once upon a time, the Bronx Zoo utilized a large animal preserve on St. Catherine’s Island to study and observe such endangered species as lemurs, hartebeests, zebras, gazelles and a host of exotic reptiles and birds. In 2004, the zoo’s outpost shut its doors and most of the 435 animals—rep- resenting 46 species altogether—were relocated to other zoos around the country. In a statement, the zoo’s general director of living institutions, Richard L. Lattis, said: “For 30 years, studies at St. Catherine’s Island have helped us break new ground in the care and conservation of important species.” Nearly four years later, the island’s archaeological, anthropological, biological and zoological studies remain, along with some of the original critters first introduced by the Bronx Zoo.

“We’re not affiliated with the Bronx Zoo any- more, but we do have endangered animals that they left here,” Hayes reveals. One species in particular, the ring-tailed lemur that makes up a large part of the lore emanating from “Monkey Island,” has flourished. “The reason they wanted to leave the lemurs is that these were released animals, quite a few generations from the original release, and they have all the wild characteristics,” Hayes explains. “They exhibit all the behavior of wild lemurs, so you can study them up close here—really better than you can in [the lemur’s indigenous] Madagascar. There is [human] overpopulation there and the lemurs are under great stress because of it. Here, they can go their full range undisturbed.” Hayes points his pickup deeper into the forest, passing the occasional road sign that reads “Lemur Crossing.”

 

​In this age of rapid growth and perhaps short- sighted coastal over-development, the preservation of many of these barrier islands is a remarkable feat to say the least. Through the hard work of various individuals and foundations over the years, St. Catherine’s Island—by all estimates—looks today pretty much like it did when the Guale Indians were calling it home 500 years ago. St. Catherine’s human history, however, dates much farther
back than that.

Researchers in various fields, working regularly on the island since the mid-1970s, have unearthed many pre-contact sites (that’s prior to contact with Europeans) and date the first human presence
on St. Catherine’s to somewhere around 4,500 years ago.

Royce Hayes pulls out a laminated map of the island, across which a series of thick, black horizon- tal bars—each representing 100 meters—have been drawn. This systematic transect survey was used by field workers to make the first serious archaeological survey of the island. Archaeologists began on the western side of the island, in the wide, boggy marshland, and walked toward the lapping Atlantic on the Eastern coast. The people involved in the survey were told, “If you find something cultural, dig a test pit,” Hayes explains. “I asked, ‘what do you mean by cultural?’ And they said, if you find an oyster shell, an animal might have brought it there, but if you find a pile of oyster shells, then that prob- ably means somebody put them there.” They spent three years and surveyed 20% of the island in this manner. The results were astounding.

“[Archaeologists] found 130 – 140 archaeologi- cal sites this way, undisturbed sites, which means we have about 700 on the island—mostly pre-contact,” Hayes explains. “I can take you into the woods and show you at least four Indian villages that I know of. They haven’t been bothered, haven’t been plowed over, since people left them. You don’t see any houses, but you see garbage piles (oyster shells) and the way the vegetation changes. There used to be one place that I could not figure out, because the vegetation changed so abruptly. The archaeologists did a survey and noticed the pH of the soil changed because of all the oyster shells and seafood there. I didn’t realize that I was looking at a village.”

He directs his truck toward an open field con taining a row of planted palm trees, under which sit some newly erected wooden benches: “It was in this area here that they found some Spanish artifacts.”

 

In studying Georgia’s history there is a great deal of talk about how General James Oglethorpe arrived here by way of England on the good ship Anne in 1733. He docked his boat at what is now the Hyatt hotel and established what is now Savannah. That’s the short and neat script. What gets lost in the walking-tour-and-Cliff ’s-Notes version of Georgia’s wild history is that Oglethorpe was far from the first European to poke his nose up the Savannah River and bother the locals. The Spanish were already busy doing just that all over Southern Georgia—building missions to convert the indigenous heathens and establishing trade with a vast net- work of tribes—some 200 years before Oglethorpe paced off what would become Savannah’s first square.

There is good evidence that in 1526 Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón established a failed colony with “500 men and women, including African slaves and Dominican friars…somewhere along the Georgia coast,” according to the book St. Catherine’s: An Island in Time by Dr. David Hurst Thomas, curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, whose decades of field work on St. Catherine’s Island revealed much of what is now known about the island’s history. If this theory is the correct, Ayllón’s would have been the first European colony in the New World, predating Pedro Menendez de Aviles’ town of St. Augustine (which was the first successful European colony established in what is now the United States) by almost 40 years. This was also 60 years before the last doomed English colonist from Sir Walter Raleigh’s Roanoke Island outpost omi- nously carved “croatoan” on a tree and disappeared forever into the mist of early American history. The Spanish and their monks beat the Mayflower’s pil- grims by almost 100 years.

Over the courses of the ensuing decades the Georgia coast was swimming in Spanish and Guale blood, as a series of nasty local revolts transpired. In 1597, two Franciscan friars lost their lives defend- ing the converted at the island’s Mission. They are now known as the “Georgia Martyrs,” and there is a concerted effort in Catholic circles to have these men declared Saints by the Vatican.

Though a good deal of Georgia’s Spanish past gets glossed over in the Anglocentric re-telling of Georgia’s story, there are those who have not for- gotten. Kevin Boland, the Catholic bishop in Savannah, recently led a pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Island to present a mass at the site where Hayes says many of the Spanish artifacts were found.

Trudging across a tract of tangled and unruly flora, Hayes points to a patch of earth that is surrounded by a landscaped, rectangular perimeter of planted palms. “More religious paraphernalia from that time was found right here than in all the Spanish missions in the New World put together, over 70,000 gold beads. It’s a trove,” he says. “There were even two beads found here that we know sailed with Columbus’ third voyage. And we know he didn’t come [to St. Catherine’s], so how did they get here?” The supposition is put out that Ayllón himself brought them to St. Catherine’s, as he would surely have made contact with Columbus in Hispañola, where he grew sugar.

 

​The history of St. Catherine’s Island could fill a TV mini-series with a cast of Georgia’s who’s who playing major roles: Mary Musgrove—the “Queen of the Creeks” who was the daughter of a white trader and an Indian princess—lived, died and is buried here, though no one knows where. Button Gwinnett, a Georgia signer of the Declaration of Independence, operated a plantation on the island that survived until the end of the Civil War. Its sand and soil has sustained a long line of explorers, Charles Town slavers, modern researchers and stu- dents. These days, it is home to only a handful of part-time residents, Hayes being the one exception. It is now strictly a place for science, and there is a lot of that going on.

“St Catherine’s Island is in the unique position— probably along with Sapelo Island, but the archae- ology is different there—to look at climate change over the last 5,000 years, and the kinds of things that we have been collecting data on for 30 years will help us monitor this current climate change,” Hayes says. “We have a way of looking at climate change and its effects on people, really over the last 5,000 years, in a way that no other place in the country can.”

Joyce Parga, a professor and researcher based at the University of Toronto, is currently living on St. Catherine’s while she studies the mating habits of the ring-tailed lemur. These primates—descendants of an original shipment of lemurs that were brought to the island in 1985—are totally free ranging, but have access to shelter sites where food and water is distributed for them daily. Parga con- firms Hayes’ assertion that the lemurs’ presence has given the island a mysterious and almost mytholog- ical tenor. “Local people do know they are here,” she says. “I have heard many people make that joke about it being like The Island of Dr. Moreau.”

Royce Hayes pulls his truck up to his house, nudging the brake and easing to a halt. His two- story home, wrapped at the waist by a porch lit- tered with possessions, sits near the dock that serves as the island’s main access point. He is often inundated with requests to visit St. Catherine’s Island from inquisitive civilians whose senses of curiosity and adventure have been piqued by local folklore. Yes, troops of lemurs often scurry across the island and sit atop the boughs of its ancient trees; ever so rarely, you might catch a glimpse of

an elusive, antelope-like hartebeest through the dense vegetation, but this isn’t a sinister H.G. Wells laboratory, and Hayes is certainly no Dr. Moreau.

As he moves toward his isolated home, rattling off a laundry list of projects for which he and the St. Catherine’s Island Foundation are responsible, it’s clear that his island paradise is one of research, science and conservation, rather than idle leisure and garish, feather-brained tourism. “In most places, you have archaeologists who study archaeol- ogy and geologists who study geology; here you have geologists who are working with sea turtles and archaeologists who are working with climate change,” he says. “It’s because this island is a perfect living laboratory.”