About Us

Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1962 and has since served as a premier nesting, foraging, and wintering habitat for many species of wildlife.  Signature species include wood storks, which nest in a large colony on Woody Pond, and the colorful and uncommon painted bunting, which favors nesting habitat in the refuge's maritime scrub areas.  The refuge encompasses six man-made freshwater ponds, as well as extensive salt marsh salt marsh
Salt marshes are found in tidal areas near the coast, where freshwater mixes with saltwater.

Learn more about salt marsh
, open fields, forested wetlands, and mixed hardwood/pine forest.  This diversity of habitat makes the refuge an important resource for migratory birds (342 species of birds have been seen on the refuge and 83 species breed here).

Our Mission

Harris Neck NWR, 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 diversity 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. . .“particular value in carrying out the national migratory bird management program” (16 U.S.C. 667b, An Act Authorizing the Transfer of Certain Real Property for Wildlife, or other purposes); “for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other management purpose, for migratory birds” (16 U.S.C. 715d, Migratory Bird Conservation Act); and, for “the conservation of the wetlands of the Nation in order to maintain the public benefits they provide and to help fulfill international obligations contained in various treaties and conventions” (16 U.S.C. 3901(b), 100 Stat. 3583, Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1986).

Our History

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. Georgia's brief experiment in banning African slavery ended in 1751 with the British House of Commons' passage of the Act of 1751.  Planters, including those at Harris Neck, rushed to transform their work forces to one dominated by African slaves.  By 1775, Georgia's ​enslave​d population expanded from less than 500 to 18,000 individuals who were taken primarily from Angola, Sierra Leone, and Gambia. 

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.

1865 - 1890s 
After the conclusion of the American Civil War, Peru Plantation ​developed into a thriving independent community for emancipated African Americans. The Thomas family subdivided Peru Plantation into lots for sale in 1873. Many of the lots were purchased by the members of Harris Neck's Gullah community. Residents lived off the land and waterways and preserved traces of their native African culture and language, now known as Gullah Geechee. The community ​included churches, cemeteries, a school, lodges, and ​various businesses including the Timmons Oyster Factory, Ethel's Store and E.W Lowes' Store. In the fields and gardens surrounding their houses, individuals grew corn, potatoes, cane, and fruit trees.  Many in the community worked in the commercial fisheries or on farms.  Others were employed as teachers, carpenters, brick masons, seamstresses, servants and/or cooks in private homes, and nurses. 

1867: The First African Baptist Church was founded by Rev. Andrew Neale.  The original congregation consisted of 60 individuals but by 1902 had risen to 300 members.

1889-1890: 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.

1891-1892: Smallpox broke out in Harris Neck leading to a community-wide quarantine and vaccination effort.  Governor Northen requested the assistance of the Marine Hospital Service in containing the outbreak.  The Service established a temporary hospital near the north end of the Neck.  19 houses were either burned or "disinfected" by mid-December 1891.  12 deaths, including several prominent members of the community, were reported.  The temporary hospital was abandoned in early January 1892 shortly after the transfer of its last patient to the South Atlantic Quarantine Station on Blackbeard Island.  

1895: The Friendship Baptist Church was established. The older church was replaced in 1906, and the first monthly service in the new building was overseen by Rev. R.H. Thomas. 

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. In 1921, a Rosenwald school replaced the original Harris Neck Schoolhouse. The onset of the Great Depression, coupled with the Jim Crow South, saw the migration of African Americans, including man from Harris Neck, to places where jobs were readily available. Enclaves of Harris Neck descendants can be found in Springfield, MA, the Jamiaca neighborhood of New York City, and Washington D.C.

The U.S. Government filed condemnation proceedings for tracts on the north end of Harris Neck to establish an Army Airfield.  The airfield's construction destroyed much of the ​original Harris Neck Gullah community. Some displaced residents purchased land nearby, believing verbal assurances that their land would be returned. ​Many others had to relocate. 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.

Members of the People Organized for Equal Rights [POER] camped on the refuge to claim ownership of the land where the Harris Neck Community once existed.  The protest drew national media attention, including a segment on "60 Minutes", and articles in "Jet" and "Black Enterprise".  Four individuals who defied a court order for removal were arrested, ​and served 15 1/2 days in jail.  

1980– 2001 
With the help of The Nature Conservancy, additional lands were acquired, bringing the refuge to its current size of 2,824 acres.

The Harris Neck Land Trust LLC (HNLT) formed in 2006 to help the descendants of former Harris Neck land owners reclaim their original land.

In October 2020, the Direct Descendants of Harris Neck Community (DDHNC) and the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service signed a Memorandum of Understanding to solidify their commitment to collaborate on mutually beneficial projects and land use.

Other Facilities in this Complex

Harris Neck NWR is one of seven refuges administered by the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex which is headquartered at the Savannah NWR Visitor Center located in Hardeeville, South Carolina.