Brief History of Lazaretto Creek
Tybee Island is the most northerly of Georgia’s “Golden Isles.” Twenty miles east of Savannah, it has a small strip of land that extends westward, out into a vast area of coastal marshlands. This strip, with immediate access to the shipping channel, became the location for two consecutive quarantines that operated in the late 1700’s into the 1800’s. The first, located on the island’s western side on the tidal creek that now bears its name, was simply called a ‘lazaretto.’
Towards the end of the eighteenth century, it housed unfortunate European immigrants who contracted contagious diseases such as yellow fever or worse on board ship during the transatlantic voyage to America. It was also the “welcoming station” for a host of infected African slaves who emerged from the cargo holds of the treacherous middle passage.
Like all seaports, Savannah could ill afford contamination of the mainland, so incoming vessels experiencing outbreaks had to unload the sick and cleanse the decks before continuing up river to port. Sometimes they were forced to remain at the mouth of the Savannah River for months on end before given clearance to proceed.
The present-day Italian term “lazaretto, or lazaret” simply translated means hospital, but in the Middle Ages it literally meant “pest house” – a place for those dying from the plague or leprosy. Derived from the Hebrew word “lazar” or “leper,” it also refers to the biblical figure, “Lazarus,” the one that Christ raised from the dead. Research also indicates that remote portions of the first quarantine on Tybee, a 104-acre tract purchased in 1767 from patriot, Josiah Tattnall probably served as a leper’s colony.
After continuous use throughout the Revolution, the Grand Jury reported it in “ruinous condition” in 1785. It was abandoned, and a new site opened across the way on nearby Cockspur Island. In 1958 the Georgia Historical Society placed the small historic marker (pictured above), in the original site’s general vicinity along Highway 80 East. It stands today on the western tip of the island near the bridge that now crosses the Lazaretto – a reminder of what was once the site of untold suffering and countless unmarked graves.