On Ossabaw Island’s North End sit three modest cabins, used as worker housing from the 1830s through the 1980s. These three cabins are all that remain of what are estimated to be at least nine such structures built on North End Plantation during the 1820’s to 1840’s, as housing for enslaved people who worked cotton fields and tended livestock, and whose descendents tended the gardens, cooked, and cleaned for the island’s owners. It’s believed that similar structures existed on the other three plantations on Ossabaw Island, but their ruins remain unexamined.
The State of Georgia and the Ossabaw Island Foundation (TOIF) recognized that these three remaining cabins are perhaps the most intact examples in the coastal area of early 19th century slave housing, considered especially important and rare because of their tabby construction, a building material and method unique to coastal Georgia, South Carolina, and northern Florida. Tabby is an indigenous, West African-derived form of building cement using shells, sand, lime and water. The main factor that made tabby construction a practical choice for the southern Atlantic coast was the large number of shell middens (oyster shell waste) left by generations of Native American habitation. Shell was readily obtainable for the production of lime and for the tabby aggregate from prehistoric deposits nearby that visitors can still see.
The three tabby cabins, an 1820s tabby smoke house, a road or allee, road markers, an associated yard and field system, and rich archaeological deposits relating to African American life dating to the pre-Revolutionary era are all that remain from the North End Plantation (1760-1860).
“These architectural gems were recognized as important cultural features by [the state and TOIF] who sought grant funds to preserve these architectural specimens. Archeology was included as part of this historic preservation effort in order to understand not only the buildings, but about those who lived in them, used them, and owned them.”
In 2005 and 2006, TOIF and the State of Georgia sponsored archeological excavations of the tabby cabins, revealing a rich and largely undisturbed legacy of personal items such as beads, pipes, and jewelry; household items such as pottery and glassware sherds; and animal bones that were remnants of household meals. The excavations also revealed details of building materials and construction methods of the early 19th century. The archeological work introduced a new understanding of the lives of the enslaved African Americans who lived in the cabins, and revealed evidence that other structures once stood on the same location prior to the construction of the tabbies.
Built between the 1820s and 1840s, the tabbies are saddlebag houses, with two separate living spaces that share a central chimney. Surviving examples of this type of structure are rare in Georgia. In 2004 The Ossabaw Island Foundation was awarded a Save America’s Treasures grant to preserve and conserve the tabby structures, which were occupied until the 1980s. The preservation effort restored two of the tabbies to their original condition, and stabilized the third in partially restored condition, in order to reveal for future study the inner workings of some of the 19th century building materials and construction practices. Additions to the tabbies from the mid 20th century, including modern kitchens and bathrooms, were removed as part of the historic preservation effort.
Ossabaw Island Foundation Received “Interpreting America’s Historic Places” Grant
“Continuity and Change” in Ossabaw Island’s African American community is the focus of a $40,000 grant awarded to The Ossabaw Island Foundation by the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Awarded in early 2010, the one-year-long planning grant brings together a team of nationally renowned experts in American history, Gullah history and culture, historic and natural site interpretation, archeology, oral history research, archival research and museum studies.
The team members are conducting original research and reviewing existing research on African American families that lived and worked on Ossabaw Island from the 1700’s through 1900, as enslaved people and freedmen. From this effort, the Ossabaw Island Foundation is developing a plan to share with the public the untold stories of these people, through on site information, expanded interpretation with existing and new groups of visitors, and via the internet.
“This is an opportunity to share with the public concrete examples of African Americans as agents in the dynamic creation and perpetuation of their culture,” writes Dr. Deborah Mack, a nationally acclaimed anthropologist and expert on museum studies and African American history, who is co-chairing the grant project with Dr. Paul Pressly of the Ossabaw Island Education Alliance. “Their legacy lives on today, in contemporary families, communities, churches and civic institutions that originated, in whole or in part, on Ossabaw Island.”
Project team members include two recipients of the Bancroft Prize, the highest award for writing on American History (Jaqueline Jones for Labor of Love, Labor of Sorrow, and Erskine Clarke for Dwelling Place: A Plantation Epic.) Team members hail from across the region and the nation (University of Texas, The Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, Drayton Hall in Charleston, Penn Center at St. Helena Island) as well as from coastal Georgia (Pin Point Community, the Owens Thomas House and the Coastal Heritage Society).
Footnote: (1) Archeological Investigations at Tabbies 1 and 2, North End Plantation, Ossabaw Island, Georgia. LAMAR Institute Publication Series Report Number 108. by Dan Elliott. 2007
North End Tabby Cabins: Archaeology & Restoration