Book Review: Cumberland, A History

by Mary Bullard, University of Georgia Press, 432 p. 2003.

Cover of Cumberland, A History by Mary BullardThis book is a unique combination of scholarly research with associated speculation, and intimate personal involvement with resulting subjective views. Mary Bullard is a Carnegie descendent and heir to property on Cumberland Island so it is not surprising that about a third of the book’s 289 pages of text deal with the Carnegie era and construct the history of the Carnegie families’ tenure on the island.

The cultural history of the island, in chronological order beginning with Timucua Indians, covering the Spanish and British periods including early island land grants, and finally the plantation period and the Civil War, is presented in more detail than has been generally available before. Bullard’s talent for meticulous research allows a different view of most historic events. From descriptions of Spanish missions to General Oglethorpe’s encounter with mutineers, the cultural history of the island is brought to life. Certainly the chapters dealing with the Carnegie period reveal more detail than an impersonal historian would have included and in some cases perhaps more than the average reader might wish. Those interested in a unique perspective of the Carnegie island tenure will find it here.

The few errors and misconceptions presented primarily involve aspects of natural history. For example, the geologic history of the island is confused, many descriptions of creeks and freshwater sources are in error, and descriptions of some present island features are inaccurate. One reference by Froeschauer (1989) attributed to the University of Georgia Press does not exist, but Froeschauer’s Master’s thesis with the same date and title was printed as CPSU NPS Technical Report No. 59. Those errors are, for the most part, minor since the focus of the book is cultural history, however in some instances they are used in support of speculation, such as in commercial rice production on the island. Although Bullard admitted there were, “…almost no records regarding rice planting on Cumberland Island…,” elsewhere she pronounced rice was “…probably Cumberland’s first large scale agricultural pursuit…” albeit after 1770. Speculation on large scale rice production on the island is interjected throughout the book so the reader is left with the feeling that rice production was an important aspect of Cumberland’s history. Barrier islands are not suitable for rice production, other than for local use, due to the unreliable and limited amount of freshwater available, so such persistent speculation is curious.

Bullard is a cultural historian, thus her anthropocentric views on “wilderness” are not surprising. Her subjective belief that the island ” has been underpopulated for more than seventy years, that “returning to nature” threatens the visual quality of island resources, and that the island “…needs humans…” partially explains her misconception of the purpose of Wilderness (with a capital W). Physical appearance is by far one of the least important aspects of the value of Wilderness, but apparently the only one she considered. The Wilderness Act, of course, was passed in 1964, while the Cumberland Island Wilderness was established by Congress in 1982.

The most problematic aspect of the book and one which limits its usefulness to researchers is the obfuscation of referenced material. If references are not lacking, they are bunched at the end of a paragraph so that the reader has no idea which reference refers to which statement. Other historical books published by the University of Georgia Press do not follow that practice. It is also unfortunate that none of the modern photographs have dates.

Overall, the book is well researched and provides the best historical account specifically of Cumberland Island yet presented. My personal regret is that Bullard did not break the tome into two separate volumes, one a detailed historical account of the island up to the arrival of the Carnegies, and the other an even more detailed story of the Carnegie tenure.
– CR

The book is available from the University of Georgia Press. ISBN 0-8203-2267-9 (d.), 432 p. $39.95.