Blackbeard Island was acquired by the U.S. Navy at public auction in 1800 as a source of live oak timber for shipbuilding. A Presidential Proclamation in 1940 changed its designation from Blackbeard Island Reservation to Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge. In 1975, over half of the refuge was designated as National Wilderness. The primary purpose of the refuge is to maintain and enhance habitat for migratory birds, nesting sea turtles, and other wildlife, and to preserve and protect this unique barrier island. Over half of the refuge is comprised of wetlands including both saltwater and freshwater marsh. Refuge uplands include maritime forest and miles of pristine sand beaches which attract hundreds of nesting loggerhead sea turtles every summer. Blackbeard Island NWR is one of seven refuges administered by the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex which is headquartered at the Savannah NWR Visitor Center in Hardeeville, South Carolina.
Blackbeard Island, as part of the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex, will protect a unique network of bottomland hardwood forests, wetlands, grasslands, beaches, and aquatic habitats. In the midst of a rapidly developing coastal environment, the refuge will lead the way in protection and management of highly diverse habitats. The refuge will contribute to the long-term conservation of migratory and native wildlife populations, and the recovery of endangered and threatened species.
When compatible, the refuge will offer quality, wildlife-dependent recreational activities. In collaboration with partners, a wide range of interpretive and environmental education programs and activities will be provided to diverse audiences. Visitors will leave with an understanding that this place of incredible biodiversity and ecological importance is part of a larger network of protected lands within the National Wildlife Refuge System, set aside specifically for wildlife.
Each unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System is established to serve a statutory purpose that targets the conservation of native species dependent on its lands and waters. All activities on those acres are reviewed for compatibility with this statutory purpose. The purpose(s) of this unit is. . . “for use as a bird refuge and as an experiment station for acclimatization of certain foreign game birds” (Executive Order 4512, September 20, 1926); and, “for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other management purpose for migratory birds” (16 U.S.C. 715d, Migratory Bird Conservation Act)
1800: Blackbeard Island was acquired by the the U.S. Navy at public auction as a source of live oak timber for ship building.
1880 – 1910: Blackbeard Island served as a yellow fever quarantine station, managed first by the National Board of Health, then by the U.S. Marine Hospital Service.
1924: U.S. Navy transferred Blackbeard Island to the Bureau of Biological Survey (predecessor to the Fish and Wildlife Service) by Executive Order 4512 to establish a bird refuge.
1940: A presidential proclamation changed its designation from Blackbeard Island Reservation to Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge.
1975: 3,000 acres of the refuge were set aside as National Wilderness by Public Law 93-632.
Blackbeard Island has been in continuous Federal ownership since 1800 when the 5,618-acre island was acquired by the Navy Department as a source of live oak timber for ship building. From 1880 and 1910, the island served as a yellow fever quarantine station, managed first by the National Board of Health, then by the U.S. Marine Hospital Service.
Yellow fever epidemics were prevalent along the coast from New York to St. Augustine during the late 1700’s until 1900, when Walter C. Reed confirmed that the disease was transmitted by a certain mosquito species. Application of mosquito control measures dramatically reduced the spread of the disease. Prior to the time, the fever was feared by coastal residents. Savannah experienced major epidemics in 1820, 1854, and 1876.
It was in this climate of looming epidemics that the quarantine station was activated. The facility included a hospital and general offices placed on the southern end of the island because of the absence of standing water. Dockage and storage facilities were on the north end, some eight miles from the hospital. A steam-powered boat, the Gypsy, cruising at 10 mph, provided the communication link between the north and south-end stations. Ships suspected of harboring the disease were anchored off the north end of the island while passengers and crew disembarked. The ill were transported to the hospital, and the healthy were quartered separately and examined daily for symptoms. Sulfur gas was used to disinfect the quarantine station crew and the ships after all the cargo was removed. Fumigation extended to the entire vessel and its furnishings. The onlyremaining from the quarantine facility is a crematorium located at the former north station site. Despite extensive research, historians have failed to determine if the crematorium was ever used.
Other colorful notes relating to the history of Blackbeard deal with the island’s namesake, Edward Teach, alias Blackbeard the Pirate. Legends tell of his murderous and plunderous activities along the coast and his periodic retreats to the island for “banking” purposes. Rumors of Blackbeard’s buried treasure still flourish, however, not a single doubloon has ever been discovered as evidence of the pirate’s presence. The last serious hunt for the Blackbeard trove was launched in the 1880’s by a party equipped with a map pinpointing the treasure at a burial site on the north end of the island (unfortunately, much of this area was lost to erosion). The hunters were unsuccessful despite the use of maps and a divining rod, and no future attempts-authorized-have been made to find Blackbeard’s treasure. Refuge visitors are reminded that artifact hunting is a federal violation.
The island’s history as a refuge began in 1924 when Blackbeard was placed under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Biological Survey (forerunner to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to be maintained as a preserve and breeding ground for native wildlife and migratory birds. In 1941, by Presidential Proclamation, Blackbeard Island was designated a National Wildlife Refuge.
The Blackbeard bow hunt is the oldest annually managed archery hunt of any within the refuge system. The first hunt was held in 1947, when 15 hunters failed to remove a single deer. The hunts are vital for management of the island’s deer herd and wildlife habitat.
Other Facilities in this Complex
A National Wildlife Refuge Complex is an administrative grouping of two or more refuges, wildlife management areas or other refuge conservation areas that are primarily managed from a central office location. Refuges are grouped into a complexbecause they occur in a similar ecological region, such as a watershed or specific habitat type, and have a related purpose and management needs. Typically, a project leader or complex manager oversees the general management of all refuges within the complex and refuge managers are responsible for operations at specific refuges. Supporting staff, composed of administrative, law enforcement, refuge manager, biological, fire, visitor services, and maintenance professionals, are centrally located and support all refuges within the complex.
The refuges within the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex span a 100-mile stretch of coastline and total nearly 60,000 acres. The Complex headquarters is located within the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center at 694 Beech Hill Lane, Hardeeville, South Carolina, 29927.