The Story of Harris Neck


The history of Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge is as rich and diverse as the wildlife and habitat resources protected there today.

 12,000 – 5,000 years ago 

Between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago, the Pleistocene glacial period, or “Ice Age,” ended. As the climate warmed, ice sheets that covered much of Canada and the northern United States melted. Sea level began to rise. By approximately 5,000 years ago, sea level along the Georgia coast had nearly reached its present level.   

5,000 – 3,000 years ago 

Late Archaic Indians hunted, fished, and gathered plants throughout the land, rivers and estuaries of the Atlantic Coast. They harvested deer, fish, crabs, oysters, and nuts. This culture, known as Stallings Island or St. Simons, used soapstone bowls, plain and decorated pottery, and bone tools. They often lived on or near oyster or clam shell rings.

3,000 – 1,000 years ago 

Woodland Indians lived in semi-permanent villages near saltmarshes and oak hammocks (small islands). They hunted and tended large gardens with sunflowers, gourds, squash, and native plants. Seafood was a less important part of the diet. 

1000 – 1500 A.D. 

Indians lived in palisaded (defensive fenced) villages. These often included scattered shell heaps, platform mounds, or mortuary structures. Decoration on pottery included incising, burnishing, and stamped designs. They hunted game in woodlands, fished in tidal waters; gathered oysters, clams, plants, and nuts, and cultivated maize, squash, beans, sunflowers, and starchy-seeded plants. 

1500 – 1715 A.D. 

Guale (sounds like “gwa-lee”) Indians lived in villages and traded along the Georgia coast and barrier islands. In the mid-1500s, the Spanish established missions along the Georgia coast. In the 1660s, raids by the Chichimeca Indians and the English forced the Guale, Mocama, and Yemassee Indians to flee south to St. Augustine, Florida. The Guale withdrew to Cuba in 1763.  

1750s – 1780s 

Daniel Demetre acquired land on the north end of Dickinson’s Neck, later known as Harris Neck, and established Bethany Plantation. Ann Harris, widow of William Harris, married Demetre in 1752. William Thomas Harris, stepson of Demetre, inherited Bethany Plantation in 1759. Livestock production and lumbering were the primary agricultural activities. Sea Island cotton cultivation began in the 1780s. 

1816 - 1870 

The Thomas family acquired much of the land owned by the Demetre-Harris family, and established the Peru Plantation. This site produced sizeable Sea Island cotton crops. The Civil War ended the plantation era on Harris Neck.

1870 - 1890 

The Thomas family subdivided Peru Plantation into parcels and lots for sale to recently freed slaves. These subsistence farmers and commercial watermen developed a rural community that preserved much of their native African culture (now known as Gullah-Geechee). The First African Baptist Church and Gould Cemetery were established around 1882. McIntosh County established a school for African-American children on Harris Neck.


Pierre Lorillard, Lily Livingston, and Eleanor Van Brunt Clapp purchased tracts of land from the Thomas family. Lorillard, whose family founded the oldest operating tobacco company in the U.S., constructed a large mansion, formal gardens, and a deep-water dock.  


A Civil Aeronautics Authority Landing Field was built near Gould’s Landing to serve the Jacksonville-Richmond Airway as an emergency strip. Captain Augustus Oemler established an oyster cannery on the Barbour River in 1926.  L.P. Maggioni & Company, a well-known oyster cannery throughout the southeast, acquired it after Oemler’s death in 1928. 


The U.S. Government filed condemnation proceedings for tracts on the north end of Harris Neck to establish an Army Airfield. The site served as a gunnery training facility for World War II fighter pilots serving in Europe. After the war, the War Assets Administration transferred 2,686.94 acres to McIntosh County.


The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service established Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge on the former Army Airfield.  The land had been previously reverted back to federal ownership following years of local mismanagement.  

1980– 2001 

With the help of The Nature Conservancy, additional lands were acquired, bringing the refuge to its current size of 2,824 acres.