History of Blackbeard Island

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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 only structure remaining 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.