Wassaw's recorded history began with Anthony Odingsell who owned Little Wassaw Island during the early 1800s. Odingsell was a black planter who listed eleven slaves among his possessions. In 1846, in an attempt to escape a cholera epidemic, 300 slaves from Liberty County, Georgia were brought to Wassaw only to suffer and die in isolation. According to the records, all were buried on the big island, but the locations of the burial sites are unknown.
During the Civil War, the islands were successively occupied by Confederate and Union troops. Blowing sand once revealed the unmarked grave of a soldier, bones intact, along with a 56-caliber bullet and a uniform button of the First Georgia Regiment. Cannon balls were found the full lenth of the northern end of the island indicating heavy shelling, possibly by Union troops.
In 1866, the islands, were purchased by George Parsons, a wealthy businessman who dealt in railroads, banks, real estate and cotton. During the following years, he built the existing housing compound as a private hideaway for his family and friends. These houses reflect the New England background of the Parsons and are filled with memorabilia of the family including a family log which recalls the island's colorful history.
In October 1969, after 103 years of Parsons' family ownership, the islands were sold (except for a 180-acre inholding) to The Nature Conservancy for one million dollars. The Conservancy, in turn, for the sum of one dollar, deeded the land to the U.S. Department of the Interior to be managed as a wildlife refuge. The primary purpose of the refuge is to maintain and enhance habitat for migratory birds, the loggerhead sea turtle, other resident and non-resident wildlife, and to protect and preserve this unique barrier island.