Savannah National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1927 as a sanctuary for migratory birds, most notably wintering waterfowl. The refuge lies in both Georgia and South Carolina, divided by the Savannah River, and encompasses over 30,000 acres of vital wildlife habitat, including tidal freswater marsh and bottomland hardwood forest.
Savannah 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. . .“as a refuge and breeding ground for birds and wild animals subject to future use in navigation if necessary and to valid existing rights if any” (Executive Order 5748, April 6, 1927); for lands acquired under the Migratory Bird Conservation Act “for use as an inviolate sanctuary, or for any other management purpose, for migratory birds” (16 U.S.C. 715d); for lands acquired under the Refuge Recreation Act for “(1) incidental fish and wildlife-oriented recreational development, (2) the protection of natural resources, (3) the conservation of endangered species or threatened species” (16 U.S.C. 460k); 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 migratory bird treaties and conventions” (16 U.S.C. 3901(b), 100 Stat. 3583, Emergency Wetlands Resources Act of 1968); “for the development, advancement, management, conservation, and protection of fish and wildlife resources” (16 U.S.C. 742f(a)(4)); and, “for the benefit of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, in performing its activities and services. Such acceptance may be subject to the terms of any restrictive or affirmative covenant, or condition of servitude” (16 U.S.C. 742f(b)(1), Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956).
The First Inhabitants
Indigenous peoples have occupied the area that we now call Savannah National Wildlife Refuge for over five thousand years. These people relied heavily on freshwater mussels, fish, deer, birds, and occasionally oysters. The first English settlers encountered the Yamacraw, a Muskogean-speaking people in the Savannah area led by Tomochichi and later his nephew, Toonahowi. Mary Musgrove, known as Coosaponakeesa among her Creek kin, operated her first trading post in the early 18th century on the Savannah River near the refuge.
Englishman James Oglethorpe founded the Georgia Colony in 1773. Oglethorpe and a small group of colonists built a settlement on the present site of the City of Savannah, 18 miles upstream from the ocean. Vast river swamps, now part of the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge, provided a natural barrier against enemies.
Two short-lived communities of escaped slaves, commonly referred to as maroon communities, existed on Belleisle [Abercorn Island] in the late 18th century. They emerged shortly after the American Revolution and were led by Captains Cudjoe and Lewis. Militia forces commanded by James Jackson burned the Belleisle community in 1787, at which time the scattered maroons built a second settlement on Bear Creek. To garner needed resources and provisions, Cudjoe and Lewis led parties raiding nearby plantations. Colonel Gunn, with a small force of South Carolina and Catawba militia, attacked the Bear Island community in May 1787. Many of the maroons, including Captain Cudjoe and his wife Nancy, escaped. Captain Lewis was captured and taken to Savannah where he was tried and convicted of murder and robbery.
Rice Culture and the Civil War
During the rice culture era in Georgia and South Carolina (1830-1861), at least 30 plantations were located on the present-day refuge. Enslaved Africans/African Americans and immigrant Irish laborers established rice fields by clearing swamplands and constructing miles of canals and levees around fields near the Savannah River. White owners considered this area too dangerous and “unhealthy” for their families to reside, therefore larger, main houses, like those seen on other plantations, were not built. The plantation landscape was occupied primarily by African and African-American slaves; the only whites being the overseers and occasional artisan hired to maintain rice mill machinery. The Civil War brought an end to slavery, and Savannah River plantation owners struggled to repair the rice fields damaged by the war and lack of attention. This damaged infrastructure, coupled with the loss of an enslaved labor force and increasing market competition, resulted in the demise of rice culture in the Low Country. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed the Cross Tides Dam between 1876 and 1888 to improve Savannah’s harbor. When completed, the dam flooded the upstream, low-lying rice fields on Red Knoll, Vernezobre, Redeem, Lucknow, and Recess Plantations, forcing their abandonment. These plantations became the initial core of the Refuge.
President Calvin Coolidge established the 2,352-acre Savannah River Bird Refuge in 1927 by Executive Order. Early refuge managers realized the potential for establishing high-quality habitat by restoring the former rice fields, but that would be no small task. As part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal during the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created. This program was an attempt to tackle two problems, unemployment and land degradation, by paying young men $30/month to complete conservation work on state and federal lands. African American Company 4432, housed at CCC Camp BF-1 near Hardeeville, SC, was responsible for much of the rehabilitation of the refuge’s impoundment system. Their hard work resulted in the repurposing of the water control system that was once used for growing rice to instead provide habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. By 1940, the refuge grew and was renamed twice. Several more large acquisitions since then have expanded the refuge to more than ten times its original size.
Other Facilities in this Complex
Savannah 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.