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History of Tybee Island, Georgia

An overview of the history of Tybee Island, the Tybee Island Light Station, Fort Pulaski, Fort Screven, Savannah, Georgia and the Old RR Trail.

Tybee Island's history is rich and storied as an integral part of American history itself, having played a part in the Revolutionary War, American Civil War, and War of 1812. Tybee would play a significant role throughout Georgia and U.S. history. Popular attractions on the island are historic and cultural artifacts from these eras, including Fort Pulaski National Monument, Fort Screven, Battery Brumby, Battery Garland, and the Tybee Island Light Station, which is an island landmark and beacon that has been guiding mariners safe entrance into the Savannah River for over 270 years. Vistors to Tybee will want to take in all of the vibrant history that is indeed a part of island life and very much still active with continued use and enjoyment today.
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Tybee Island History

History of Tybee Island, Georgia

The name "Tybee," like the history of the Island itself, has many interpretations. Most historians believe "Tybee" is derived from the Native American Euchee word for "salt" – one of many local, natural resources that played important roles in the Island's history.

Spanish explorers were searching for riches in the New World, and in 1520, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon laid claim to Tybee as part of Spain's "La Florida" –- an area that extended from the Bahamas to Nova Scotia.

In 1605, the French were drawn to Tybee in search of Sassafras roots, considered to be a miracle cure at that time. The Spanish would fight the French in a naval battle just off shore to Tybee to regain control over the area.

For many decades pirates visited the Island in search of a safe haven and hiding place for treasure. Tybee and other remote islands were also a source of fresh water and game.

Superior French and British settlements eventually forced Spain to relinquish their claim on Tybee and other islands. In 1733 General James Oglethorpe led the settlement of this area, which was called Savannah because of the vast marshlands and tall grass. The new colony of Georgia was named in honor of King George of England.

Tybee was extremely important because of its location at the mouth of the Savannah River. In 1736, Oglethorpe had a lighthouse and a small fort constructed here to insure control of river access. Also in 1736, John Wesley, the "Father of Methodism," said his first prayer on the American Continent at Tybee. Tybee would play a significant role throughout Georgia and U.S. history.

During the Revolutionary War, Tybee was the staging area for French Admiral D'Estaing's ill-fated 1779 "Siege of Savannah," when combined multinational forces attempted to defeat the British held Savannah. During the War of 1812, the Tybee Island Lighthouse was used to signal Savannah of possible attack by the British. Though no such attack took place, a "Martello Tower" was constructed on Tybee to provide protection in guarding the Savannah River. On the western end of the island, an area known as a "Lazaretto", a variation of an Italian word meaning 'hospital for the contagious', was established to quarantine slaves and other passengers who might be carrying diseases. Tybee would be the final port of call for many of those quarantined there.

Fort Pulaski also played an important military role at the outbreak of the American Civil War. First, Confederates occupied the Island. In December of 1861, the Rebel forces, under orders from Robert E. Lee, withdrew to Fort Pulaski to defend Savannah and the Savannah River. Union forces commanded by Quincy Adams Gilmore took control of Tybee and constructed cannon batteries on the west side of Tybee, facing Fort Pulaski about one mile away. On April 11th, 1862, those cannon batteries fired a new weapon called "Rifled Cannon" at Fort Pulaski and changed forever the way the world protected coastal areas. Within 30 hours, the rifled guns had such a devastating effect on the brick fort, that it was surrendered. All forts like Pulaski suddenly became obsolete.

After the Civil War, Tybee became popular with Savannah residents who escaped the city heat, seeking the cool ocean breezes on the Island. There were very few year-around residents before the 1870s, but by the 1890s, there were more than 400 beach cottages and other buildings for summer residents.

In 1855, Fort Screven was built on the north end of Tybee to provide more modern coastal defense. Six poured-concrete, low-profile gun batteries and a minefield, along with hundreds of other military buildings, were constructed. Gun batteries were named to honor America's war heroes. From 1897 to 1947, Fort Screven was an integral part of America's Coastal Defense system. In 1947, the Fort was closed and sold to the Town of Tybee and tourism returned as a major part of Tybee's history.

In 1961, Battery Garland, the former gun battery and magazine storehouse for a 12-inch long-range gun, became the Tybee Island Museum. Rooms which once stored six hundred pound projectiles and two hundred pound bags of gun powder now hold the collections and exhibits of over four hundred years of Tybee Island history.

Tybee Island Light Station : The Lighthouse History

30 Meddin Dr, Tybee Island, GA 31328
Phone: 912.786.5801

Ordered by General James Oglethorpe, Governor of the 13th colony, in 1732, the Tybee Island Light Station has been guiding mariners safe entrance into the Savannah River for over 270 years. The Tybee Island Light Station is one of America's most intact having all of its historic support buildings on its five-acre site. Rebuilt several times the current lightstation displays its 1916 day mark with 178 stairs and a First Order Fresnel lens (nine feet tall).

Visiting the Tybee Lighthouse

The Lightstation and Museum are surely a stop you do not want to miss. We welcome individuals, families, and groups here. While you are here for an extended stay, look into volunteering at the Light Station. The information gained while on your duty will give you an appreciation of the Light Station you will not be able to obtain elsewhere. We encourage you to visit our Gift Shops to support our efforts. We also look forward to seeing you after your journey up our 178 steps to the top.

Tours are self guided. At the Lighthouse and Head Keepers Cottage there are volunteers on hand to answer questions.

Fort Screven, Tybee Island, GA

In 1786, the Georgia Legislature approved the creation of a fort on Cockspur or Tybee Island to be named in honor of General James Screven, a Revolutionary War hero. The fort was never built by the state, but in 1808, the property fell under the jurisdiction of the Federal government as Fort Screven Reservation.

Fort Pulaski National Monument

US-80, Savannah, GA 31410
Hours: 9am - 5pm

Fort Pulaski National Monument is a Civil War landmark with ranger tours, musket and canon firings plus riverfront hiking and biking trails. Visitors can experience many interesting and exciting activities year-round. Fort Pulaski itself is a large-scale outdoor exhibit. The main structure, together with outlying works including demilune, drawbridges, ditches, and dikes, is a fine example of historic military architecture.

Indoor exhibits highlight the history of Fort Pulaski from the fort's construction, to its eventual fall due to advancing military technology.

Battery Backus

Fort Screven, Pulaski St, Tybee Island, GA 31328

Battery Brumby

Fort Screven, Meddin Dr, Tybee Island, GA 31328

Battery Garland

Fort Screven, Meddin Dr, Tybee Island, GA 31328

Old gun battery at coastal fort now a museum with exhibits and artifacts on local history.

Battery Gantt

Fort Screven, Pearwood Ave, Tybee Island, GA 31328

Historic Savannah, Georgia

Conveniently located just 15 minutes away from Tybee, Savannah is a delightful Southern city that has maintained all of its character and local charm that have made it such a breath of fresh air and unique destination. Here you'll find offbeat side streets, world-class cuisine, nightlife, bars and festivals, art galleries and historic architecture and a lively downtown.

Old RR Trail

Alongside U.S. Highway 80, this crushed-stone path follows the old railroad path. Until 1933, this was Tybee's only land route to the mainland. Today, it's a popular spot for biking, hiking and watching wetland wildlife.

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Tybee Island and Savannah Golf Courses and Online Tee Times

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Tybee Island Beaches

Tybee Island Beaches

Tybee Island has miles of expansive beaches that can stretch for as far as the eye can see at low tide. Tybee high tide has ample beach for body surfing and our low tide expands the beach to hundreds of yards wide to allow for bicycling and paddle sports. The five miles of beach are wide and clean, with gentle waves and warm water, and granite sand that is perfect for making sandcastles. There are five major beaches on Tybee, including South Beach, Mid Beach, North Beach, Savannah River Beach, and Back River Beach. Be sure to check out our local tides chart and weather forecast before heading out.
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Map of Tybee Historical Attractions