St. Catherines Island (SCI) is situated about 35 miles south of Savannah. It is one of Georgia’s barrier islands and is made up of 22,000 acres including salt marsh, barrier beaches, maritime forests of different compositions depending on elevation, and old-field successional forests. The area between the Intracoastal Waterway and the ocean is about 14,000 acres with the remaining acreage lying between the Waterway and the North and South Newport rivers. SCI occupies 10 percent of Georgia’s 110-mile coast. A third of the United States Atlantic seaboard salt marsh is along the Georgia coast, and St. Catherines sits in the middle of the most pristine of those marshes.<
Native Americans occupied the island from at least 5000 years ago to the mid-18th century. A number of burial mounds, two Late Archaic shell rings, and numerous village sites still remain as evidence of their occupation. Georgia’s first church, a Spanish mission to the Guale people, was located on St. Catherines’ west side.
The island’s first owner under English rule was Mary Musgrove, the only Native American to receive a king’s grant in Georgia history. After Musgrove’s death, Button Gwinnett purchased the island. Gwinnett was one of three Georgia signers of the Declaration of Independence, his signature being the rarest with only 51 known examples—likely as a result of his death in a duel with Lachlan McIntosh over a political dispute less than a year later.
Before the end of the Civil War, but after Georgia fell to Sherman’s troops, Tunis Campbell, the head of the local Freedmen’s Bureau, resided on St Catherines. Campbell departed shortly after the end of the war. A Cuban gun smuggler, known as Captain Rodriguez then purchased the island from the Waldburgs and used it as a base of operation for about a decade. Captain Rodriguez’ widow, Anna, sold the island to the Rauers family, who in 1943 sold the island to Mr. Edward John Noble (1882-1958). St. Catherines Island as it exists today owes a great deal to the wisdom and beneficence of this man.
Ed Noble lived a full and useful life: founder of Life Savers, Chairman of Beech Nut, founder of American Broadcasting Company, first Chairman of the Civil Aeronautics Board under President Franklin Roosevelt, and advisor to President Eisenhower on the St. Lawrence Seaway Project.
Noble purchased St. Catherines Island in 1943, made some structural improvements to aging buildings, and opened some pastureland for cattle, but otherwise largely left the island in its natural state. He deeply loved St. Catherines and regularly visited the rest of his life.
After his death, the island was transferred to the Edward John Noble Foundation. In 1981, as research, education, and conservation programs expanded, ownership of the island was transferred to the Georgia-based St. Catherines Island Foundation.
The St. Catherine’s Island Foundation is committed to sustaining the natural environment of St. Catherines Island and to promoting research, education, and conservation programs that benefit from its unique ecological character.Its board is comprised of prominent scientists, publishers, attorneys, and environmentalists—and, continuing Noble’s legacy, three generations of his family also currently serve. It is the board’s responsibility to oversee all programs, and confirm they support the Foundation’s mission and strategic vision for the island.
The island is also served by its small, but extraordinarily dedicated, full-time staff—a number of whom also share a multigenerational relationship to the island. The staff maintains the island’s boats and vehicles, the physical plant and all buildings, and dozens of miles of track roads. They also perform carefully prescribed annual burns, knock down wildfires, provide daily assistance to all visiting research teams, and are regularly called upon to deal with unanticipated problems as they arise.